It is exactly one year since Jamal Khashoggi walked into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul where he was met by a team of Saudi assassins, hand-picked presumably by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia himself, determined to follow the instructions of their superiors who demanded nothing less than the “head of the dog”. Dehumanised and vilified by the royals he once served, 60-year-old Khashoggi, described by friends and colleagues as “a gentle giant”, endured a fate beyond anyone’s comprehension. His gruesome murder not only shook the Saudi Kingdom it sent tremors all over the world. The shockwave threatened to bring the royals in Riyadh to their knees.
One year on the world is still waiting for answers. Where is Khashoggi’s body? How could the crown prince, known as MBS, not have known? He is, after all, the preeminent political power in the kingdom, the kind known to micromanage state affairs, which leads many to doubt the claim that he would have allowed such a sensitive operation to be executed without his personal approval. There are other questions: Will there be a full international investigation into the killing? Will MBS continue to target his enemies? Above all, with the rise of right-wing authoritarian leaders, the killing came to represent the ominous contraction of freedom across the world.
The first anniversary of Khashoggi’s death presented a moment for remembrance and reflection over the death of the Washington Post journalist. Coming as it did, as Saudi Arabia is embroiled in a war in Yemen, a war described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, escalation of tension in the region and ongoing human rights abuse in Saudi Arabia. MEMO’s event “Remembering Jamal”, who came to symbolise a free society’s battle against the rise of authoritarianism, was a moment of clarity over where the world is heading.
Speaking at Remembering Jamal One Year On, Sarah Leah Whitson, an American lawyer and the director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, spoke at length about Khashoggi and what he came to symbolise.
Whitson, speaking as a friend of Khashoggi and a champion of human rights, outlined the concerns she had over Khashoggi’s safety. His outspoken criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, especially the war in Yemen, the repression at home and hawkish foreign policy, she said, made him a target for the crown prince. Khashoggi’s position on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also set him apart. He was critical of Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, saying that they should be welcomed into the democratic process.
Whitson described Khashoggi’s writing and work outside the kingdom. She reflected on the optimistic vision Khashoggi had of promoting democracy in the Middle East; an aspiration she believes had made the journalist a thorn in the kingdom, an “existential threat” even that unelected leaders in the kingdom felt needed to be silenced.
Offering suggestions on how to honour the memory of Khashoggi, Whitson said that “despite the tragedy of the murder and the injustice that followed, what we can look forward to is the legacy that Khashoggi left behind, including an organisation and committee for democracy in the Arab world.” Whitson revealed that she belonged to this organisation.
Khashoggi was by no means a “hell raiser”. He welcomed reforms in Saudi Arabia. What then is it about Khashoggi that scared MBS, asked Sue Turton former Al Jazeera correspondent who has covered Afghanistan, Libya, Syria. Speaking during the memorial, she insisted that the crown prince was afraid of the kind of free society Khashoggi was calling for, a trait, Turton explained, that he shared with US President Donald Trump. Jamal welcomed the reforms, but not the crackdown, Turton explained. “He wanted a breathing space, he wanted people to evolve. His truth scared the authority. Saudi wasn’t always this oppressive, now it’s unbearable.”
Reflections on Khashoggi’s killing heightened a sense of paralysis within the international community. Human rights defenders have described a “glaring gap” in the world’s ability to investigate targeted state killings of journalists and activists deemed a threat. The lack of will to hold state leaders to account was highlighted by UN special rapporteur Agnès Callamard, who undertook the UN’s investigation into Khashoggi’s murder. Callamard admitted that her task was undermined and that there was a lack of resource to carry out her investigation. She used the anniversary of the Khashoggi’s killing to urge world leaders to speak out about media freedoms, saying that too many leaders were “instrumentalising” attacks on the press. She said she wanted to stage a UN session on media freedom at the G20 summit in Riyadh next year.