The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has had a history of tension with its intellectuals and dissidents since its inception. The modern kingdom, referred to by some as the Third Saudi State, is the result of a national unification project that took place between the years of 1902 and 1932 under the leadership of the country’s founding father, Abdul-Aziz bin Abdul-Rahman Al-Saud.
In effect, the unification of the majority of the Arabian Peninsula’s provinces was borne out of a military and political mission, in which the Saud family exerted its control over the numerous tribes and sheikhdoms in the region. These tribes had previously functioned as their own independent micro-sovereignties that were defined by concepts of nasab (tribal belonging and community), which could be traced back through bloodline lineages and a pastoral way of life in tune with the surrounding environment.
The Bedouins that were prominent in this area of the Arab world were resistant to the concept of national borders, as their sustenance and survival were tied to the land. Thus, the establishment of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as one could imagine, was not achieved without some resistance, contrary to the official foundation narrative that prevails in the Kingdom’s history books.
Among the first to counter this foundation narrative was one of the most formative intellectuals and writers of the 20th century – Saudi-Iraqi novelist Abdulrahman Munif (1933-2004). Munif, who was born to an Iraqi mother and a Najdi father in Amman, Jordan, lived all his life in exile. His adolescence was spent in Jordan, where he was greatly impacted by the loss of Palestine in 1948 and the pan-Arabist agenda, before going on to pursue studies in Iraq and a PhD in petro-economics from Belgrade, Serbia.
Munif lived in a number of countries across the Arab world and Europe, working simultaneously as an editor and political advisor, before finally settling in Damascus, Syria, for the latter part of his life. What is important to note about Munif’s career and his position in the intellectual circles of the Arab world is that he was unique in his treatment of the Arab causes. Munif, who made the transition from political advisor in the Ba’ath party to a writer in 1970, became disillusioned with political activism as a method of mobilising the popular strata of society. Thus, he chose instead to focus primarily on writing novels, using a linguistic register that was somewhere between informal dialectal and formal Modern Standard Arabic. The goal was to appeal to every member of society, every citizen from the labourer to the intellectual elite.
At the time of his intellectual ascent, he was perhaps the only writer in the Arab literary canon to span a breadth of topics – from Palestine and the Levant to the Gulf – in his literary corpus. In fact, it was the serial publication of his epic quintet, The Cities of Salt (published serially between 1984-1989) that sparked outrage among the Saudi royal family and banished him indefinitely, his Saudi citizenship revoked.
The Cities of Salt is a series of books that take place in an un-named Arab desert kingdom. The series mocks members of the Arab political elite, simultaneously warning against the dangers of commissioning the help of European colonial powers in the kingdom’s modernisation process. The characters of this legendary quintet bear a striking resemblance to the Al-Saud family, while the oil drilling company established with the help of Western powers is a direct reference to none other than ARAMCO. The novel’s hero, a Bedouin prophet named Mit’eb Al-Hathal, warns against the destruction of the country’s beautiful oases in favour of oil extraction and calls the emerging city as one composed of salt, likely to dissolve due to its lack of sustainability.
Modernity, Munif urges, should be achieved in a way that is organic to the Arab way of life. The cost of his commitment to social change and to the commoner was his citizenship. He was rendered alien to every country and society he lived in ever since. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia only acknowledged the importance of his literary and intellectual contributions after his death in 2004 and offered his wife, Mrs Suad Kawadri Munif, a posthumous restoration of his citizenship, which she refused.
Munif’s experience can serve as a pre-cursor that facilitates our understanding of the Jamal Khashoggi affair. As the world looks on in disbelief over the disappearance and subsequent murder and dismemberment of the Saudi journalist, one need not look far into the depths of Saudi history and its relationship with its intellectuals in order to understand how such a drastic price had to be paid. In an age where we are learning to understand that kingdoms are nothing more than oligarchical dictatorships disguised under another name, we must also acknowledge the undeniable reality that the written word is the biggest threat to maintaining a political farce.
Khashoggi, though considered a “new dissident”, expressed concern over the maltreatment of Saudi progressives such as women’s rights activist Lujain Al-Hathloul. He stood in support of several movements such as the call for the end of male guardianship as a contingency on female travel, as well as right to drive. While Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Khashoggi did see eye to eye on a few key issues, the concern remained that Khashoggi was an advocate for what could be perceived as an extreme form of progressiveness, one that was ultimately deemed dangerous by the ruling circle.
because it called for the emancipation of Saudi thought and more broadly, the Arab press. By contrast, Bin Salman is merely interested in the issues that give Saudi Arabia a cosmetic face lift such as opening the country’s first cinema in thirty-five years and (though highly important) allowing women the right to drive.
The nuance herein lies in the question of narrative. The Kingdom’s new crown prince is far more concerned with elevating the global perception of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing modernity project on the world stage. The reforms that have been pushed forward on the rogue royal’s agenda are ones that give prevalence to basic human experiences that Saudi Arabians should have enjoyed long ago like the rest of mankind. The screening of Black Panther as the first film to be shown in the new Saudi cinema and the excitement of young women behind the wheels of luxury vehicles are small victories that should be celebrated, however, they also distract from the concern that there remains a complete dearth of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia, and this is exactly what Khashoggi tried to tell us.
In his final opinion piece, “What the Arab world needs most is freedom of expression”, written and translated for the Washington Post and published on 17 October after it was clear that Khashoggi had been killed, the Saudi journalist quoted the 2018 Freedom in the World Report which declared Tunisia as the only free country in the Arab world. Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait were listed as “partly free”. Khashoggi continued: “The rest of the countries in the Arab world are classified as ‘not free’. As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.” Like Munif before him, Khashoggi offers us an urgent call to liberate the written word from state run narratives and urges that many of us Arab citizens do not believe but dare not publicly decry.
Little has changed in the decades that separate these two enlightened Saudi writers. When Munif turned to writing, it was just after the rise of the Arab world’s most prolific dictators: Assad, Gaddafi, Hussein et al. Writers of all kinds, journalists to playwrights to novelists, were threatened with indefinite sentences and torture in the dark cells of the political prison. Khashoggi’s death comes a mere seven years after the Arab Spring and its subsequent descent. The Arab citizen is all too aware that the press is still beholden to the formation and state-run narratives of the region’s oligarchies, yet there is little that can be done to liberate it when freedom of expression warrants a death sentence.
When Jamal Al-Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 for a seemingly simple document, he paid the price for his ideas with his life, the very one he tried to save by going into self-imposed exile. Khashoggi cared for the people he wrote for. His newspaper columns were platforms for dialogue and thought-provoking progression and mental emancipation. He now also serves an example to any of his compatriots who seek to continue his mission. Munif was appreciated for his ideas only after his death. Will Khashoggi’s memory ever be appreciated with the same nostalgia?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.