It would be impossible to say for certain the words Jamal Khashoggi would have conveyed to the world if, by some miracle, he became aware that they were going to be his last. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the final article by the slain Washington Post journalist encapsulates what may have been intended to be his life-defining piece, revealing the thoughts of a person with knowledge of his own mortality.
Having fled the country he loved and served for so long to seek the freedom to be able to speak his mind, Khashoggi’s final act was to tell the world that “what the Arab world needs most is free expression”. He lamented the lack of freedom in the Middle East by pointing to the 2018 “Freedom in the World” report – published by Freedom House – and came to the realisation that only one country in the Arab world was classified as “free”. At the root of discontent in the Middle East was the absence of space to speak freely about problems in the region which, Khashoggi ventured, led to Arabs being deeply “uninformed or misinformed” about the world, thus severely undermining their ability to make decisions on the basis of facts and truth.
The column was noted by Khashoggi’s editor at the Washington Post for “perfectly capturing his commitment and passion for freedom in the Arab world. A freedom he apparently gave his life for”.
Khashoggi’s journey to the US following his self-exile is a powerful illustration of the authoritarian direction of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman – also known as MBS. For over three decades, Khashoggi had held influential positions within the Saudi media and worked closely with the Saudi monarchy. Khashoggi was well suited for success in Saudi, a country where patronage is necessary to reach the top echelons of any industry, let alone an independent-minded journalist requiring a degree of freedom expression unavailable to the rest of the country.
He was born in Medina on 22 January 1958, to a well-known family of Turkish origin that had migrated to the western Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula in Ottoman times. The Khashoggis were a rich and influential family. Ahmad Khashoggi, Jamal’s father, was the owner of a fabric shop. His uncle Adnan Khashoggi was a prominent businessman and arms dealer who gained notoriety for being implicated in the Iran–Contra affair as a key middleman in the arms-for-hostages exchange. Adnan was later thrust into the limelight once again for selling his super-yacht to Donald Trump, years before he became the President of the USA.
Khashoggi went to school in the Kingdom before leaving for the US where, in 1982, he gained a BA in business administration at Indiana State University. His journalistic life, however, did not begin until 1986 when he began working for the English-language Arab News and Okaz. He also wrote for influential London-based Arabic dailies Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat.
It was in the late 80s and early 90s that Khashoggi came to prominence for his coverage of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the rise of Osama Bin Laden – then leader of Al-Qaeda. Following the war in Afghanistan, Khashoggi interviewed Bin Laden in Sudan, where he had taken residence in 1991 after falling out with the royal family over their support for the US in the Gulf War against Iraq.
There were early signs that Khashoggi’s desire to speak freely would bring him into conflict with members of the Saudi establishment. When he served as the managing editor of Arab News and editor of the Riyadh-based daily Al-Watan, he was sacked following his criticism of the religious establishment. His fame and royal connections, however, enabled him to get a job as media adviser to Prince Turki Al-Faisal (2003-07), the veteran head of the Saudi general intelligence service and, at that time, the Kingdom’s ambassador to London and later Washington. Though he was reinstated as editor of Al-Watan in 2007, he resigned again in 2010 after a row over another controversial opinion piece.
Khashoggi’s fortunes turned once again in 2015, when Bin Salman became the defacto ruler of Saudi Arabia. He was named head of a new television station in neighbouring Bahrain, called Al-Arab and owned by the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, to compete with the influential Qatari-run Al Jazeera. It is reported that the station closed within six hours of being launched, after it aired an interview with a prominent government critic.
Bin Talal was one of dozens from members of the royal family who was detained by the Crown Prince last year in an apparent anti-corruption clampdown. This was one of many policies pursued by MBS that would drive a wedge between him and Khashoggi, who quickly came to the conclusion that the young prince was more rogue than reformer and could not succeed in delivering both modernity and freedom, which he aspired to see take root in the Kingdom.
Khashoggi had become a fixture in the Saudi media, but it was his disagreement with the reform programme of MBS that marked the beginning of his biggest fall out with the Kingdom. Despite his 1.6 million Twitter followers, the columnist’s frustration at not being able to speak freely to the Saudi public about his views continued to grow. He called Bin Salman a “brash and abrasive young innovator” and compared him to Vladimir Putin. However, he always insisted that he did not see himself as a dissident, but rather as a Saudi patriot.
The final chapter of Khashoggi’s life began just over a year before his death – in 2017 – when he relocated to the US and took a job as a columnist for the Washington Post. With every article, each of which was being translated into Arabic, the gap between him and MBS grew ever wider. Some feared that he had gone too far in criticising the royal family.
MBS had carefully crafted an image of himself as a reformer and moderniser. Millions of dollars were exhausted to soften his image in the eyes of global corporations and politicians. However Khashoggi, writing from afar for an influential newspaper, threatened to undermine this effort. For US and Western journalists, policy-makers and politicians who wanted to understand what was happening behind the beaming smile of MBS, Khashoggi became a go-to person.
In his last article he wrote that “the Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain”. He stressed the need for Arabs to be able to read freely in their own language and to be able to understand and discuss their problems, while comparing their society to the rest of the world, free from propaganda. Khashoggi believed that knowing the truth was the only way for the Arab world to free itself from authoritarianism: a belief that may have cost him his life.