Jamal Khashoggi will not be forgotten
It has been more than three weeks since the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and I am still in disbelief over his senseless murder.
On October 20, the Saudi government has finally admitted that he was murdered in their consulate in Istanbul, which he was seen entering on October 2, after initially denying they had any information about his whereabouts. Yet there are still many unanswered questions left, which makes finding closure for Jamal's friends and family very difficult. His body, for example, which Turkish intelligence allege was dismembered by a hit squad involving 15 Saudi men close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's (MBS) inner circle, has still not been found.
I remember my first interaction with Jamal, which later grew into a sincere, professional relationship based on mutual respect and understanding.
In the summer of 2014 I received an email from him. Back then, he was the general director of the not yet launched al-Arab News Channel and the email was a job offer. A week later, I was in Bahrain, where the channel was based, to see him. Once in the building, I asked where Jamal's office was. I was directed to an office that looked more like it belonged to an editor-in-chief than a general director. His desk was overflowing with books and newspapers. His door was ajar and there was no secretary or assistant to announce in visitors.
Our meeting that day was warm and friendly. I asked Jamal: "Will this channel be a Saudi one with an Arab agenda or an Arab channel with a Saudi agenda?"
My question surprised him. "We are a Saudi channel," he replied, "but we will cover the Arab news agenda with a focus on the economy."
He went on to tell me about his recently published book, Occupation of the Saudi Market, and his plan to turn its contents into a televised programme. At the end of the meeting, I asked JK, as we used to affectionately call him, if I could borrow the al-Hayat newspaper on his desk. “You can come to my office every day to take whichever newspaper you want,” he said with a smile.
Over the next three months, the television channel began to take shape.
From Riyadh, a programme devoted to Saudi affairs that would be broadcast from the Saudi capital, was selected to be the flagship output of the new channel. Jamal chose me to lead this programme and sent me to Riyadh to supervise everything related to it from studio design, content and training of journalists to the preparation of the pilot episodes. During this period, Jamal visited us at the company's headquarters in Riyadh and listened to my views on everything related to the programme. He also assured us of the imminent launch of the channel.
Five weeks after his visit, I received the devastating news of my wife's death in the West Bank city of Ramallah. During that dark, disconsolate day, Jamal was on the other end of the phone expressing his condolences. He assured me that he had personally made sure that the channel's services were available to me if I needed anything. His sympathies extended to an open-ended compassionate leave and plane tickets to Jordan. When I returned to work a few weeks later, he was waiting by the door and embraced me as he repeated his condolences.
Al-Arab News channel finally launched in February 2015, but was shut down on its first day.
Shortly after the closure of the channel, fundamental changes started to take place inSaudi Arabia, as King Salman became the new monarch following the death of King Abdullah. Under King Salman's leadership, the country strengthened its relations with Abu Dhabi and Cairo. The dynamics within the royal family also changed after King Salman acceded to the throne, with his son MBS becoming more and more influential.
This period of change also marked the start of the political and media campaign against Qatar, which culminated in its ongoing blockade. The media arena in Saudi Arabia, reflecting the political environment, became more turbulent. Saudi newspapers filled with opinion articles attacking Qatar and glorifying MBS. Commentators also praised the opening of a path for normalised relations with Israel and described the Arab Spring revolutions across the region as acts of sabotage aimed at destabilising Arab countries.
This was not a media environment that Jamal could live with, or indeed in. He was consequently prevented from talking to the media and even from using social media in his home country. Jamal sensed that the noose was tightening around journalists and they were no longer allowed to even remain neutral. So he decided to leave his country and settle in the United States in self-imposed exile. Media outlets that published alternative opinions in the region and beyond were looking for a Saudi voice that would shed light on the other side of political and domestic issues in the kingdom. Their obvious choice was Jamal Khashoggi.
Once in the US, he started to write about what was happening in Saudi Arabia in the Washington Post, as an op-ed contributor. He also became an active speaker, participating in many workshops and conferences that were organised by various research centres.
During this period, he strongly refused to be described as a dissident or labelled an opposition member. He was keen not to directly offend the new rulers of Saudi Arabia, yet he maintained his criticism of the behaviours and actions of the new crown prince because he believed that his policies were harming the kingdom, its status and role in the region and the world.
I met Jamal in Washington, DC, last April for lunch along with a mutual journalist friend. We had a quick discussion during which Jamal talked about advising Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the owner of the now-defunct al-Arab News Channel, to re-launch the channel from Qatar. He said he attributed Alwaleed's lack of response to Saudi internal politics.
We also talked about the status quo. Jamal reiterated that the situation inside Saudi Arabia didn't even allow a journalist to remain silent. Instead, he said, the regime wanted all journalists to lie and forge facts and offend neighbours and regional allies, as well as to promote the foolish policies carried out by MBS.
Jamal said this in a pained voice, for despite his suffering at the hands of Saudi Arabia's new rulers, he still cared deeply about his country.
I asked him about the tendency of leading Saudi journalists to heavily criticize Islamists in the region, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Tunisian Ennahdha party and the Turkish AK Party. These journalists, who work in privately funded Saudi media outlets, consider themselves to be secular and have expressed their support for normalized relations with Israel.
"The Saudi regime has worked over decades to provide a distorted, offensive and disrespectful model of religion that does not conform to human nature or to the conditions of the times," he replied.
"The citizens grew up against this backdrop but formed their own world view thanks to the information revolution. Thus, they regard the Saudi model of religion as an obstacle, which to them, must be destroyed as the only way in order to free themselves from the shackles of their society."
Our meeting ended, and later Jamal sent me a message on WhatsApp:
"I'm pleased to have met you," he wrote. "Please give my regards to our colleagues if you see them."
Since the day of his disappearance, I have read this message countless times.
The legacy of Jamal Khashoggi will live on and he will always be remembered as a model journalist who paid the ultimate price for exercising his freedom of expression. The world will not forget the grisly, gruesome death he suffered at the hands of a tyrant hellbent on "reforming" Saudi Arabia into a dictatorship with no breathing space for any difference of opinion let alone an oppositional stance.