WASHINGTON – This turbulent year bred as many fraying of international relations as it did renewed bonds of partnership. October 2nd, 2018 marked a day that would test several nations in their pursuit of global peace. The complexity, mystery, and tragedy surrounding the death of Washington Post journalist and Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi has played out over the last two months with fingers pointing in every direction and overwhelming pressure to uncover the truth.
Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, that October afternoon to retrieve paperwork for his upcoming marriage. He was never seen alive again by anyone outside of the consulate.
Jamal Khashoggi: Danger-Present
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Donald Trump © TRT WORLD BBC
Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi has been connected to the royal family of Saudi Arabia since before he was born. His grandfather was a Turkish physician who married a Saudi Arabian woman and was personal physician to the founding king of the Saudi Royal Family, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. Born in Medina, Saudi Arabia in 1958, he received his primary education at home before attending university in the United States (Indiana State). Other notable family members include being the nephew of the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, famous for his role in the Iran-Contra deal and cousin, Dodi Fayed, who was famously killed in a car crash with his partner, Diana, Princess of Wales.
Khashoggi worked several roles in journalism starting in bookstore management, then to the Saudi Gazette, an english-language paper, before becoming a foreign correspondent in the late 1990’s and before his big break was a deputy editor-in-chief of Arab News. Khashoggi, a columnist by preference, would later contribute to the Washington Post in which he was outspokenly critical of the royal family and called for a modernization of the culture, pulling it back from it’s Wahhabi fundamentalism, as well as criticizing geo-political decisions made by the Crown and effectively the Saudi government. Yet Khashoggi was also critical of Israel on matters relating to their conflict with Palestinian. This, coupled with his relationship and support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas led many pro-Israel leaders to identify him as an anti-semite. He was also directly critical of the heir to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, a.k.a. “MBS”, and in August 2018 wrote in the Washington Post, “[MBS] is signaling that any open opposition to Saudi domestic policies, even ones as egregious as the punitive arrests of reform-seeking Saudi women, is intolerable.” Thus casting a disparaging light on MBS, who until recently was openly championed in the media as the “progressive” next leader of the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabian View © Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Among these critiques there were those who were not so trusting of Khashoggi. Many cast him as a terrorist sympathizer drawing from his history with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Lara Marlowe of the Irish Times wrote of Khashoggi’s views on the subject, “‘…if Christian democracy was possible in Europe, why could Arabs not be ruled by Muslim democracy,’ Jamal asked. [Which to me may explain] his friendship with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan…‘Erdogan constituted the greatest hope of Muslim democracy, until he too turned into a despot.’ [Khashoggi said.]” His employers and peers defended his past, evidencing his more liberal and secular views as he aged. But some still felt he was not as pro-West as he proclaimed to be and even the President of the United States alluded to Khashoggi being a “jihadist.”
Khashoggi was also known for his ability to interview Osama bin Laden, the chief organizer of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center who was reportedly killed in May 2011 under Operation Neptune Spear during President Obama’s first term. Even before 9/11 Khashoggi openly condemned bin Laden’s radicalization and seemed angered by the attack. In the Washington Post he wrote, “[t]he most pressing issue now is to ensure that our children can never be influenced by extremist ideas like those 15 Saudis who were misled into hijacking four planes that fine September day, piloting them, and us, straight into the jaws of hell.” His open acceptance of the Saudi involvement was also a thorn in the side of the royal family.
Brewing Bad Blood
The ties between Khashoggi and the Saudi government began to sour in 2003 when he was dismissed by the order of Saudi Arabian Ministry of Information from his newly established editor-in-chief position at Al Watan, a Saudi daily newspaper, for allowing criticism of the Wahhabism. He fled to London on voluntary exile but fell back in favor with the Saudi elites after becoming an advisor to the U.S. Saudi Arabian Ambassador, Turki Al Faisal, and 2007 regained his status as editor-in-chief of Al Watan for the second and final time.
Tolga Bozoglu/EPA, © Shutterstock
In 2010 Khashoggi was axed from the newspaper again “to focus on his personal projects” after permitting the release of a column critical of the Salafi movement, a Sunni revivalist sect of Islam similar to Wahhabism, which was also supported by the Crown. Further infighting in the Kingdom – much of which centered around MBS’s push for power – allowed Khashoggi to maintain ties with elites in Saudi Arabia and, after being backed by a dissenting billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and American billionaire Michael Bloomberg, made a private news channel in Bahrain, which against Saudi law. It survived just 11 hours on air.
Khashoggi maintained his published and live political commentary in Saudi Arabia through Saudi owned Al Arabiya but in December 2016 he was banned by the government from appearing or publishing due to comments deemed critical of President Trump. As 2017 came to a close Khashoggi was living in the United States and had begun working for the Washington Post. In 2018 as a keynote speaker for the Center for the Middle East Studies conference at the University of Denver he announced his establishment of a new political party, the Democracy for the Arab World Now party. This was viewed as a direct threat to the succession of MBS.
Khashoggi entering Saudi Consulate for the last time © TRT WORLD BBC
On October 2nd, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul never to be seen again. Media speculation was at a fevered pitch and as expected accusations of foul play began to surface. Primarily that the Saudi government had ordered the killing. The Turkish authorities – who had no particular axe to grind with the Saudis – were the first official body to declare the Saudis as the culprits. Furthermore claiming that they had audio evidence of the killing and that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the hit. The Saudi government, King Salman and MBS initially denied the claims of any Saudi involvement.
But just under two weeks later CNN broke that the Saudi Arabian government was going to announce, which they subsequently did, that a “rogue” operation did occur at the hands of Saudi security forces leading to the death of the journalist and will order an investigation. Evidence available before such investigation showed much more organization and intention than the world was ready to believe. However, seemingly waiting on the U.S. to make a move, the world’s nations were mute to point a finger. President Trump defended the words of both King Salman and the Crown Prince who vehemently denied the allegations of their involvement.
As November began media reports indicated that several international intelligence agencies had received a copy of the “kill tape” alleged by the Turkish security forces. When asked by Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday the President of the United States confirmed its existence. “We have the tape, I don’t want to hear the tape, no reason for me to hear the tape,…it’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape. I’ve been fully briefed on it. There’s no reason for me to hear it,” said the President.
The real details of his death are fuzzy. At least at this time the public doesn’t have access to any of the official documents or audio clips. The CIA released a report concluding that in fact the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did in fact order the killing of Khashoggi. It’s reported by the New York Times that he was “beheaded, dismembered, his fingers severed, and within two hours the killers were gone, according to details from audio recordings described by a senior Turkish official on Wednesday.” It’s also reported that his remains were dissolved in acid.
The Fiance of Jamal Khashoggi © Lefteris Pitarakis,AP
While the details are gruesome the response of the U.S. government was not clear, particularly so after the CIA report was released. But on Tuesday November 20th, President Trump did clarified the US position with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “We may never know all of the facts surrounding [Khashoggi’s death] …[But] our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The President Seeks Precedent
The strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States is longstanding and colored with rough patches – not the least of which was their government’s involvement in the September 11th terrorist attacks – among other accusations and confirmations of funding terrorism across the Middle East. Forgive and forget is a black and white description for a vast network of geopolitical interest that help stabilize the region but it’s the simplest way to describe it and it ensures the survival of millions.
Saudi Arabia is the best ally of the Western nations to bringing peace and well-being to a region of people who have suffered under the death and destruction of unstable governments and religious extremism. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia, for their own reasons, have taken a mutual interest in curbing the extremism and territorial aggressions in the Middle East. Post 9/11, the Kingdom, while publicly critical of the U.S. response, worked with us to eliminate the influence of al-Qaeda during the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. The Saudis and the US worked together to curb Soviet expansion through the cold war, participated in arms deals to protect the region as recently as 2015, and today we are working to end the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and Syria, among other warzones.
File photo of Jamal Khashoggi and his former wife Dr. Alaa Nassif. (Screengrab)
As one of the largest contributor to OPEC Saudi Arabia is highly impactful to our economy. President Trump has taken steps recently to increase US energy production but we still imported an average of 10.4 million barrels a day in 2017. Protecting at least the economic alliance between the U.S. and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems to be the priority of this administration. Whether or not the Kingdom or its royals were involved in the death of Jamal Khashoggi may be forever unknown, or at best a “gut feeling,” but President Trump is sticking with his “America First” agenda and the trade relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has improved since 2016. However, in a notable exchange in late 2017 the U.S. President did not bow to King Salman, marking a break from tradition.
Lost in Precedent
Abdullah Khashoggi (left) beside his brother, Salah Khashoggi (right) during an interview with CNN on Sunday.
Jamal Khashoggi’s death was always destined to be an international incident but it was special in that this Pandora’s Box was opened in a globally politically supercharged time. Brexit, the U.S./China trade negotiations, North Korean Nuclear armament, Russian aggression, and some of the greatest instability we’ve seen in the Middle East are factors that have likely destined Jamal Khashoggi’s memory to a faded and forgotten existence except by those close to him and his loved ones. The precedent set for how the United States and Saudi Arabia conduct business is a behemoth seemingly larger than the assassination of a journalist. To ask whether this choice is a moral or inhumane one is oxymoronic. And waiting on the Saudi government to admit they killed a national is moot. The best we can do is try to remember Khashoggi, the international incident. Not necessarily for who he was or for what he advocated, but for the idea that the United States is a land of freedom and accountability whereas, and thusly whereby, we cannot expect the same from others. Even our allies.