The Khashoggi execution should forever extinguish the myth of this 'progressive' Saudi prince

Khashoggi was not a dissident, but a moderate reformer who was equally willing to praise as to criticize that government's policies. Which raises the question: if the Saudi government could not work with him on liberal reform, who could it work with?

I spoke with Jamal Khashoggi days before he disappeared. His remarks were eerily prescient

Khashoggi was not a dissident, but a moderate reformer who was equally willing to praise as to criticize that government's policies. Which raises the question: if the Saudi government could not work with him on liberal reform, who could it work with? (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

It's a rare occurrence to meet a high-profile Saudi journalist who is willing to speak critically of his or her government. I had that opportunity, two days before he disappeared: Jamal Khashoggi, presciently, spoke of the impetuousness of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and about the young leader's fundamental intolerance of criticism. 

Two weeks have passed since Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he went to complete paperwork for his marriage the next day. Tragically, he never emerged.

Disturbing reports have been levelled about Khashoggi's fate. Turkish sources say he was tortured and killed by a 15-man Saudi hit team that arrived – carrying a bone-saw – and left by private jet the same day. Four of that alleged team were identified by Turkish media as members of the Saudi Crown Prince's personal security detail. Among the most gruesome stories to leak are accounts that Khashoggi was dismembered while still alive.

The Saudis' story

The Saudi government has struggled, meanwhile, to come up with a working counter-narrative.

First, they suggested that Khashoggi had somehow left the consulate without anyone noticing, evading security cameras. Later, an idea was floated that a rogue element of the Saudi deep-state may have killed Khashoggi, even though no such deep-state exists under the absolute monarchy. Then, Saudi-owned media claimed that their regional rival Qatar was somehow to blame. And finally, reports emerged on CNN and other new outlets that the Saudi government was preparing to admit to Khashoggi's death and peg it as the result of an interrogation gone wrong.

This image taken from CCTV video obtained by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet claims to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Tuesday, Oct. 2. (Hurriyet via AP)

Just before he disappeared, Khashoggi spoke of his government's image-control efforts at a conference in London about the Middle East peace process — an event for which we were both speakers. It was there that we met and spoke about Saudi government policy, and about the summer diplomatic row with Canada.

Khashoggi offered insight into the politics of the Saudi court under the rule of its "reformist" Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). When a colleague and I asked to what extent liberal reform was taking place in Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi's message was that any reforms mentioned in the press were, in reality, just cosmetic offerings made to avoid any real change. They were a distraction, he said, while MBS consolidated his power.

In fact, Khashoggi had publicly criticised Saudi Arabia's response to Canada over the summer, arguing that it was a symptom of this type of macho hyper-nationalism fostered by MBS as a way to divert attention away from his country's own problems.

When we asked more about MBS's qualities as a leader, Khashoggi offered a mild-mannered but pointed assessment that MBS was overconfident — "street smart" but bereft of strategic perspective. And with now-haunting prescience, he spoke of the regime's volatility, its demand for total obsequiousness and of MBS's ability to engage in reckless actions without restraint.

The dangers of speaking out against the regime are well known. Despite whatever early plaudits MBS received for his reformist agenda, there were already many concerning signs that Saudi Arabia was becoming less free under his rule, not more. 

This has included a crackdown on the Saudi feminist movement (including the detainment of activists such as Eman al-Nafjan), of liberals (like Raif Badawi) and of free speech advocates (like Jamal Khashoggi, of course). In fact, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of people arrested since MBS ascended to power, with thousands held arbitrarily without trial, including potential rivals detained in an "anti-corruption" purge.

Jamal Khashoggi's family calls for impartial investigation as Turkey uncovers fresh evidence

5 years ago
Duration 4:23
Turkey says it has uncovered fresh evidence journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It's an allegation Saudi Arabia initially denied, however reports now suggest the Kingdom is on the verge of a major reversal.

This is why, Khashoggi told us, he was living in self-exile and had no plan to return to Saudi Arabia under its current leadership. So, he planned to continue to speak freely through the Washington Post, and to live free from the threat of arrest in Washington D.C. Sadly, that will not happen.

It seems impossible now Khashoggi is still alive. The only consistent story has, from the beginning, been of his torture and death. Further, were Khashoggi still alive and "only" brazenly abducted by Saudi authorities abroad, he would likely have been returned by now after such international pressure, much like when MBS kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon last year.

By most accounts Khashoggi is – or was – a humble man of marked accomplishments. Though an advocate of free speech and responsible government, he was also a loyalist who appeared to believe that change could take place from within Saudi Arabia's existing structures of government. He was not a dissident, but a moderate reformer who was equally willing to praise as to criticize that government's policies.

Which raises the question, if the Saudi government could not work with him on liberal reform, who could it work with?

Any announcement by the Saudi government about what, exactly, happened to Khashoggi appears to have been put on hold while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits both the capitals of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in an attempt to defuse this international crisis. Perhaps to settle on a common narrative that works for both governments.

Whatever that narrative ends up being, the apparent cartel-style killing of Jamal Khashoggi should extinguish the image of the crown prince as a modernizing force for progressive change. That story can never be resurrected.

Meanwhile, the people of Saudi Arabia still want change, and that cannot be resisted forever. The only question is how quickly change will come, and how that change will occur when the more mild-mannered voices like Khashoggi's are brokered no quarter. Rather than his request for the bare minimum — freedom of speech — this may turn into a deafening roar for democratic change, hearkening back to the 2011 uprisings the Saudi government has been resisting with ferocity. Khashoggi's fate may be a catalyst for that change coming to Saudi Arabia. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Jeremy Wildeman, PhD, is a research associate at the University of Bath, where he carries out analysis in international relations, the politics of the Middle East, and humanitarian and development aid in conflict and post-conflict situations. He has also spent nearly two decades supporting youth and community development in the Balkans and Middle East.