Jamal Khashoggi -- a Saudi Patriot and an Indomitable Journalist

Jamal Khashoggi -- a Saudi Patriot and an Indomitable Journalist
AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File
Jamal Khashoggi -- a Saudi Patriot and an Indomitable Journalist
AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File
Story Stream
recent articles

WASHINGTON -- The long road that took Jamal Khashoggi to the front door of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the horror that lay inside began in the 1980s in Afghanistan, when he was a passionate young journalist who supported the Saudi establishment -- but couldn't resist criticizing the royal family when he thought they were wrong.

Khashoggi's path took him through risky territory. He was friendly with Osama bin Laden in his militant youth; his patron in mid-career was Prince Turki al-Faisal, the longtime Saudi intelligence chief; he travelled sometimes to Qatar in the past decade, as a poisonous feud grew between Riyadh and Doha. But his public writings and private messages show that, in his head and heart, he was always a Saudi patriot.

Conversations with some of Khashoggi's close friends, who shared texts they exchanged with him over the years, reveal a man whose greatest passion became journalism itself -- which he expressed in a fearless, unblinking commitment to the cleansing power of the truth, regardless of the personal cost.

A portrait of the young Khashoggi comes from Barnett Rubin, one of America's top experts on Afghanistan. They met in 1989 at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, when Rubin was on a speaking tour. Khashoggi, then 31, shared a two-part series he had written the year before about his travels with the Arab mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

Khashoggi couldn't have traveled with the mujahedeen that way without tacit support from Saudi intelligence. But Rubin remembers that during the conversation, Khashoggi criticized Prince Salman, then governor of Riyadh and head of the Saudi committee to support the Afghan mujahedeen, for unwisely funding Salafist extremists.

"It was typical Jamal," remembers Rubin. "We had just met for the first time and he began complaining" to a near-stranger about mistakes by the royal family.

There's a fatal symmetry to that 1989 conversation with Rubin: Salman is now king of Saudi Arabia, and his son Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is crown prince.

What happened after Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is a macabre mystery. Turkish officials say he was interrogated, killed and hacked into pieces by a 15-man hit squad sent from Riyadh. What's certain is that Khashoggi's disappearance was a flagrant attack on a courageous journalist.

Maggie Mitchell Salem, one of Khashoggi's closest friends, first met him in 2002 when she was working for the Middle East Institute. (She now heads the Qatar Foundation International, a cross-cultural organization partially funded by Qatar.) Khashoggi was in Washington to attend a conference sponsored by a group supported by members of Saudi Arabia's Faisal family, who were his friends and patrons.

Khashoggi was close to these royals, but he was prepared to criticize the monarchy's clerical establishment, too. In 2003, he became editor of Al-Watan, owned by the Faisal family. But he was fired after less than two months for criticizing the Saudi religious leadership. He returned to the publication in 2007 and got sacked again three years later for challenging Salafist extremists.

He launched a satellite TV channel in Bahrain in 2015, with money from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, but it lasted only a day -- after Khashoggi ran an interview with a dissident Bahraini Shiite.

The Bahrain episode defined a quality of optimism described by several of Khashoggi's close friends. Salem explains it this way: "He had an eternal belief that things were good, and that right would win."

Khashoggi's world darkened with the rise of MBS, whose father became king in January 2015. MBS introduced some reforms that Khashoggi supported, like allowing women to drive, opening movie theaters and other entertainment, and suppressing religious extremism. But MBS toppled Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince in June 2017, and in November ordered sweeping arrests of more than 200 Saudis, including many princes, who were held at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.

Khashoggi feared for his safety. In the summer of 2017, he moved to America and in September, he began writing columns for The Washington Post.

As always, Khashoggi wondered if he could step back and reduce the danger. When he visited Salem for the last time two months ago at her office, he told her: "I'm thinking that for two years, I want to go to a faraway island." He wondered aloud: "Can I just give this up? Can I just not do this anymore?" The answer was always the same: No, he couldn't give up.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Show comments Hide Comments