Reports have emerged that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has gone missing after entering the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul on October 2. For those of us who know Khashoggi personally, this is a very worrying sign, especially in the context of the ongoing crackdown on dissent led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known.
I have known Jamal Khashoggi for the better part of sixteen years. I met him in Jeddah in 2002 on my first visit to the kingdom. At the time he was the deputy editor-in-chief of Arab News, the main English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia.
He was also someone who in his youth had known Osama bin Laden and had subsequently interviewed him several times between 1987 and 1995. Although he already had a reputation as a forthright journalist in a country where the media was very much the handmaid of the regime, my interest at the time was to hear from someone who actually knew bin Laden.
I remember him saying, with a twinkle in his eye (and anyone who knows him will recognise the twinkle) that the thing about Osama was that he had “gotten in with the wrong crowd”.
In 2003, Jamal went on to briefly edit leading Saudi newspaper Al Watan, lasting on the job barely two months before being sacked for publishing articles critical of the conservative religious elite. His subsequent career followed the same trajectory. He is a brilliant journalist with a fiercely independent mind but with sufficient pragmatism to know just how close to the red lines he could go.
He returned to Al Watan in 2007 and managed to remain editor for three years. His strategy was to survive in post until an article that was just a tad too critical got him into trouble. Then he would lay low before re-emerging. That takes a great deal of courage, especially in a country like Saudi Arabia.
In 2010, Saudi business magnate Prince al-Waleed bin Talal (one of the businessmen MBS imprisoned in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in his infamous shakedown) asked Khashoggi to head his new media project, al-Arab News Channel.
It was envisioned as an independent, privately-funded Arabic news broadcaster, which was supposed to offer objective, agenda-free coverage of current events in the region. Five years later it was finally launched in Bahrain’s capital Manama, but was almost immediately shut down after airing an interview with a Bahraini opposition leader.
One of the ironies of the Mohammed bin Salman regime – and for those affected it is a cruel one – is that individuals who were supportive of Vision 2030, his programme of economic and social reform, very quickly fell under the suspicious gaze of this impetuous young man.
One of them was Khashoggi. Fearing arrest at any moment, he left Saudi Arabia in September 2017. At the time he lamented his forced departure and that of other friends and colleagues who fled ahead of being seized. In effective exile, he penned opinion pieces for the Washington Post and in his first column, he had this to say:
“My friends and I living abroad feel helpless. We want our country to thrive and to see the 2030 Vision realized. We are not opposed to our government and care deeply about Saudi Arabia. It is the only home we know or want. Yet we are the enemy.”
His most recent column was this past September 11 and in a characteristically balanced article he called on MBS to work toward bringing an end to the war in Yemen: “The longer this cruel war lasts, the more permanent the damage will be…. The crown prince must bring an end to the violence and restore the dignity of the birthplace of Islam.”
The message that MBS strives to impart in the west, at least, is that the kingdom is open for business, it has returned to a moderate Islam, it has allowed movie theatres, it displays progressive thinking by, for example, granting women the right to drive – but arresting the women activists who campaigned for that right.
The disconnect between many of the good economic reforms MBS wants to secure and the way he is ruthlessly using his power to crush any dissent grows ever wider by the day. And it begs the question what is he afraid of?
Was he worried that women campaigners by seeking more rights would undermine his authority? Did he think that moderate cleric Salman Al Awdah, who was jailed last year and is currently facing the possibility of a death sentence, would seek to turn his 14 million Twitter followers against him? Did he fear that a brave journalist writing for an influential Washington publication would weaken his standing in DC?
All of these people have supported MBS’s Vision 2030. They could have been his allies, as he launched this bold and necessary project to transform the country. Instead, as Khashoggi wrote, he treated them as if they were the enemy.
These are the anxieties not of a powerful leader but of a man who is in point of fact displaying grave weakness.
I fear for Jamal Khashoggi who went to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in good faith. He is a good man and a fine journalist. His is a voice of reasoned criticism and wise comment that the Saudi crown prince should listen to. The thought that he might be forcibly repatriated back to the kingdom to face charges that could lead to a long prison sentence, or worse, fills me with dread. I hope that good sense and common decency will prevail and he will be let go.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.