In final months, Khashoggi repeatedly hit nerves as persistent critic of Saudi Arabia

Prior to his death, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi had hit an assertive stride as a persistent critic of Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Only after journalist’s death was Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ‘cornered’ for first time

Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London on Sept. 29, 2018, three days before he was last seen alive, entering Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul. (Middle East Monitor/Reuters)

It had been a prolific final summer for Jamal Khashoggi.

The Washington Post columnist was churning out column after column: on Saudi Arabia's "reckless" Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Syria's woes, even Saudi Arabia's spat with Canada  —  often in English and in Arabic.

He was constantly speaking his mind to more than 1.6 million Twitter followers — on the Syrian uprising and the violence in Yemen. He did the same at conferences and in interviews with key Western media, on and off the record.

He was also often on the move: Oslo, Brussels, New Haven, Istanbul, London. He planned to come to Ottawa this month. Everywhere he went, his message had a potent, underlying uniformity.

Freed of constraints on freedom of expression at home by moving to Washington last year, the former Saudi insider had hit an assertive stride as a persistent critic of Saudi Arabia.

In a still image from surveillance camera footage taken Oct. 2, 2018, a man previously seen with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's entourage during an April trip to the U.S. walks toward the Saudi consulate in Istanbul just before Khashoggi disappeared there. (Sabah via Associated Press)

He was also hitting a nerve, striking at the crown prince's reputation and image and pushing buttons on extremism, women's rights and freedom of expression — his commentary reaching into the Saudi kingdom where social media use is among the highest in the world. In return, he was treated to what appeared to be an organized onslaught of online abuse from trolls loyal to bin Salman.

Few others had the platform Khashoggi had to counteract the image that the crown prince, also known as MBS, tried to hone abroad.

Khashoggi's nuanced inside knowledge was key. So was his vast network of powerful contacts within the kingdom and beyond — at all levels of business, intelligence, media and political spheres.

His was a one-man broadcast that abruptly ended after his final trip to Istanbul, where Saudi Arabia now admits he was brutally killed inside its consulate in what officials say was an attempt to bring him back to Saudi Arabia gone wrong.

Given the enormous backlash around the world — the eruption of criticism of the crown prince from major allies — it seems Khashoggi's killing has managed to shine a bigger light on MBS's shortcomings than the journalist's vigorous efforts did in life.

Here is a glimpse at those final months of Khashoggi's life — and the sustained messaging he sent the crown prince.

June 25.  Khashoggi's Washington Post column on women finally getting the right to drive in Saudi Arabia is published. In it, he called on the crown prince to release women who agitated for that right. "I hope he will not forget the brave actions of each and every Saudi who individually worked hard for freedom and modernization." 

Khashoggi was often critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

Early July. Khashoggi was in London, at the Wolseley café having breakfast with his friend and historian Robert Lacey, who once lived in Saudi Arabia and has written about it for decades. The two had written a column together advising MBS to listen to his people as he embarked on reform.

The two men met nearly 40 years ago, shortly before Khashoggi, as a young journalist, went to interview a young Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

But Lacey and Khashoggi bonded in 2003 when Khashoggi was working in London for Prince Turki al Faisal, a former intelligence chief and then-Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom. It was the high point then in a career that steadily elevated Khashoggi in a country where even journalism is a state-controlled affair.

"Jamal was an insider…. He was more than just a spokesman. He was called an aide to the ambassador. He was clearly a trusted adviser," Lacey said in a telephone interview.

Lacey believes the "power" of Khashoggi's "critique as an informed insider likely contributed to his fate."

"It was definitely a factor in the sense of betrayal" felt by the Saudi leadership, Lacey said.

"The fact that someone so close to the centre of things, someone so close to the establishment, had walked away, that rankled with this young man, the crown prince."

Khashoggi speaks during a news conference in Manama, Bahrain, on Feb. 1, 2015. (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

Aug. 7. In an Instagram post on Khashoggi's feed, he is photographed jogging in Belgrad garden in Istanbul. That garden's name would come up again.

Khashoggi's family originally hails from Turkey. He had hoped to divide his time between Washington and Istanbul. His fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, is a Turkish PhD student and lives in Istanbul.

A new column was published in the Washington Post titled "Saudi Arabia cannot afford to pick fights with Canada."

Khashoggi tackled Saudi's severe allergy to Canada's criticism over the arrest of women activists. "Of course, there is a better way for the kingdom to avoid Western criticism: Simply free human rights activists, and stop the unnecessary arrests that have diminished the Saudi image," he wrote.

"Doing so will salvage what is left of the reputation that the crown prince worked so hard to build during his multiweek tour of Europe and the United States earlier this year."

Even as a member of the Saudi elite, the U.S.-educated Khashoggi had a knack for stirring the pot. In several roles as a reporter, and later as newspaper editor, he crossed enough lines to lose his job not once but twice.

But MBS as crown prince was a turning point for Khashoggi. When it was clear the prince had shut down what little room was left for dissent, Khashoggi decided to leave.

"He could have moderated what he said, stayed on the right side of the government," said Lacey. But "Jamal was honest and straightforward and a journalist through and through." 

People hold posters of Khashoggi during a protest organized by members of the Turkish-Arabic Media Association at the entrance to Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 8, 2018. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Aug. 28. Khashoggi wrote a new column, this one about the Muslim Brotherhood, in which as a young man, Khashoggi had once been a member. He wrote that political Islam is an inevitable part of any democratizing in the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood is considered a terrorist organization in Saudi Arabia. Detractors later used all this in a smear campaign against Khashoggi, painting him as an extremist.

Sept. 11. Another Washington Post column, this one dedicated to the disastrous war on Yemen launched and directed by MBS. "The crown prince must bring an end to the violence," Khoshoggi wrote.

Khashoggi was an unabashed supporter of the Arab Spring — of the need for change. But even a year after exile to Washington, Khashoggi never described himself as a dissident. He said he was simply "a writer. I want a free environment to write and speak my mind."

Without a backer, Khashoggi likely fell between the cracks as a major change of the Saudi guard unfolded, said Madawi al Rasheed, a Saudi activist and academic who was stripped of citizenship for criticizing the country's rulers.

His sudden appearance in Washington in particular would have likely also riled up MBS, who reportedly has spent millions on lobbyists in the U.S. capital.

Madawi al Rasheed, a Saudi activist and academic who was stripped of citizenship for criticizing the country's rulers, says Khashoggi had 'respectability as an insider who had defected.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Khashoggi was writing in English, directly influencing Western public opinion.   

"That was incredibly difficult for Mohammed bin Salman to swallow," al-Rasheed said in an interview with CBC News. "A critical voice in D.C. was extremely threatening for Mohammed bin Salman."

Khashoggi had "the respectability as an insider who had defected. And therefore he was important and credible," al-Rasheed said.

A Turkish forensic police officer shoots video in a room of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 15, 2018. (Emrah Gurel/Associated Press)

Sept. 21. Khashoggi recorded an interview with Turkey-based Syria TV. He said Saudi Arabia has no more cards to play in Syria.

The perceived danger in what he wrote was in the fact that he never called for regime change in Saudi Arabia — and sometimes agreed with some Saudi decisions while pointing out his problem with others.

"What he was seeking are things that are feasible by Saudi standards," said Yasmine Farouk, a visiting scholar on Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"This is why what he said seemed acceptable and not farfetched and not easily dismissed."

Sept. 28. Khashoggi visited the Istanbul consulate for the first time, according to his fiancée, "despite being somewhat concerned that he could be in danger. Yet he noted that there was no warrant for his arrest in his native country." He visited to inquire about documents he needs to allow them to marry.

Sept. 29. Khashoggi was back in London to attend a conference on the 25th anniversary of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accord. He mentioned long-rumoured secret meetings between MBS and Israeli officials — a sensitive point for Saudi Arabia. He said his reading was that Saudi Arabia wanted to work with Israel to "drive the Iranians out of Syria."

He also said: "We are retreating back from freedom in most of the Arab countries."

Khashoggi also gave an interview to BBC's Newshour. Before the interview started, he was asked whether he would ever return to Saudi Arabia.

"I don't think I will be able to go," he said in an off-air part of the conversation that the show later made public "in light of the current circumstances."

He cited the case of Essam al Zamel, a Saudi columnist and economist close to the royal court who'd been arrested. "That scared many people…. The people who are arrested are not even being dissidents. They just have an independent mind."

Turkish police cordon off an area close to an underground car park where authorities earlier found a vehicle belonging to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 22, 2018. (Mehmet Guzel/Associated Press)

Sept. 30. Canadian academic Jeremy Wildeman, who is a research associate at the University of Bath and also spoke at the same conference in London, met Khashoggi the following morning.

"Just hearing him speak at the conference was enough to realize he was in peril with the Saudi government," Wildeman said in an interview.

"He was very critical of the prince," said Wildeman, calling him "reckless."

Khashoggi spoke about his government's "image control efforts," said Wildeman, and described MBS's reforms as "just cosmetic" and a distraction "while MBS consolidated his power."  

It was the day before Khashoggi left for Istanbul, with the intent of visiting the consulate again.

"I wish we would have known," said Wildeman. "I'd have strongly warned against it."

A demonstrator holds a picture of Khashoggi during a protest in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 5, 2018. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

Oct. 1. Khashoggi travelled to Istanbul. He tweeted about Essam Al Zamel, the Saudi economist who had been arrested. "He doesn't deserve this treatment. Such allegations won't convince anyone," he wrote.

Another Twitter user replied to his tweet. "You're the only one left. When do they drag you by the ears?"

Khashoggi retweeted a former Yemeni press secretary who lamented the silence over Yemen's collapse and used a hashtag that roughly translates to: Save Yemen from starvation.

A vehicle drives through the Belgrad Forest in Istanbul on Oct. 20, 2018. Khashoggi went jogging there in early August and Turkish officials have said his body might have been dumped there. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

Oct. 2: Khashoggi headed to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was after papers proving his divorce so that he could marry Cengiz, his Turkish fiancée. The plan afterwards, she later wrote, was to "buy appliances for our new home and set a date."

He left her outside with his two mobile phones and asked her to call for help if he failed to return. He never came out.

What followed was a series of leaks to the Turkish press that culminated with a report that Khashoggi had been interrogated and then hacked to death inside the consulate by a group of 15 Saudi security operatives. Reports in U.S. papers indicated — with visual proof — that one of the men photographed entering Turkey was also often photographed with MBS.

Also unfolding was a sustained campaign of denial from the Saudi side — which began with insistence that Khashoggi had left the consulate. Several explanations were rolled out — all focusing on rogue killers acting independently and warning against retaliation.

Saudi Arabia's erratic reaction has everything to do with concerns over the domestic situation, said Farouk, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"This is a situation where the regime and the royal family is under threat and under pressure that hasn't been seen since September 11, 2001," she said in an interview. Such external forces tempt dissidents inside Saudi Arabia to "double down" on exerting pressure from within, she said. Its rulers immediately try to counteract that.

Even more crucially, it is the first time, she said, since MBS became crown prince that he is "cornered" or threatened.

Khashoggi's death has ultimately made things far more uncomfortable for Saudi rulers than what they feared he could do in life. As the Washington Post put it: "In death, Saudi writer's mild calls for reform grew into a defiant shout."

Oct. 17. The Washington Post published Khashoggi's final, prescient column. He said the Arab world needs more freedom of expression. "The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power." Though he didn't name him, Khashoggi's message was unmistakably intended for MBS.

Security personnel guard Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 22, 2018. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Oct. 19 (and into early Oct. 20): Saudi television said a preliminary investigation has concluded that Khashoggi is dead. The Saudi public prosecutor said Khashoggi died in a "fist fight" inside the consulate. The country's intelligence chief was sacked and 18 people had been detained, state TV said.

Oct. 21. Reuters quoted an unnamed official saying Khashoggi was killed in a chokehold while a team of men acting on royal orders attempted to bring him home. In this version, one of the 15 men involved wore his clothing and left to make it look as though Khashoggi had left the consulate. The official said Khashoggi's body was rolled into a rug and given to a local operative to dispose of.

Turkish officials told Reuters that Khashoggi's body might have been dumped in the Belgrad Forest. He had been photographed jogging there just a few weeks earlier.

Oct. 23. In a speech, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan directly contradicted the Saudi version, calling Khashoggi's killing a premeditated "savage murder." He demanded an independent investigation and proposed a trial on Turkish soil. "Why has the body of someone who was officially said to be killed not been found yet?" 

Since his disappearance, Khashoggi has had a long list of character witnesses speaking on his behalf — U.S. Congress members, veteran journalists, activists, human rights organizations and old friends.

Among them is Lacey, who wrote a column about their final breakfast together for Time and appeared on major networks to speak about his friend.

"All his life he was a reporter. A superb observer," said Lacey. "The idea of my friend being cut up alive…" He was unable to finish the sentence through tears.

Khashoggi leaves behind four children from a previous marriage. He died 11 days before his 60th birthday.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.