Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi knew he was playing with fire when he went to the Saudi consulate in Turkey to get the documentation he needed to marry his fiance. Fifteen members of a Saudi hit squad were waiting for him.
British journalist Jonathan Rugman details what happened to the Washington Post columnist and what it reveals about the regime of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. His book is The Killing in the Consulate: The Life and Death of Jamal Khashoggi.
Rugman tells Jesse Mulligan he was sent to Turkey a week after Khashoggi was murdered and stayed in a hotel near the consulate. While there, he found himself unable to sleep - the incident playing over in his mind - it was when he got back to the UK someone told him he should write a book about it.
“Weirdly enough, the thoughts that had been playing on my mind had essentially formed the structure of the book, which was that there were connections between so many problems in the Middle East ranging from the rise of Osama Bin Laden to the current war in Yemen - and Donald Trump’s response to it, his difficulty in dealing with Saudi Arabia. He wanted to keep the oil price low and build an alliance against Iran and, essentially, not find the Saudi state guilty of murder.
“And, of course, Khashoggi’s own role in the Middle East, having been the one of the Arab world’s most prominent journalists with an amazing life story of his own.”
Khashoggi’s past, Rugman says, was chequered. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood when he was a young man and was friends with Osama Bin Laden. One of his first journalist assignments was to go to the mountains in Afghanistan and watch Osama Bin Laden build camps for Jihadist fighters who were fighting the Russians in the 1980s.
He moved on to become a spokesperson for the Saudi government, working at the embassy in Washington, and was often used to interpret Saudi government policy.
“In other words, he was very close to the royal court,” Rugman says.
It was when Khashoggi went back to journalism that he began to get flak from the Saudi government for not towing the line quite enough.
“Essentially, he was killed when his opinions got the better of him and he had lost favour with the royal court, he had run out of royal princes who could defend him. It was a change of monarch in Saudi Arabia in 2015 when King Salman took to the throne with his headstrong son [Mohammad Bin Salman] who very quickly became the crown prince.
“Khashoggi failed to survive that transition when the Saudi monarchy fell out with the crown prince, and he fled to Washington DC where his opinions were expressed very strongly in the pages of the Washington Post newspaper.”
Rugman says the turning point was when Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman launched the war in Yemen. At this point, the Crown Prince began looking around for dissidents and people who had publicly demanded more rights. Khashoggi, Rugam says, feared he would be next, particularly after one of his friends - an economist - had been arrested for querying the value of a state oil company.
“Khashoggi thought the writing was on the wall. He had already been silenced by the [royal] court from broadcasting because he had spoken at a conference about Donald Trump. He hadn’t actually said anything very controversial, but the Saudis felt this was a man they couldn’t control and needed to be silenced.”
Khashoggi fled to Washington DC in 2017 carrying only two suitcases. His departure meant a travel ban was imposed on his wife and children who were still in Saudi Arabia. Rugman says Khasoggi felt terribly guilty about it.
“He was having a mid-life crisis if you like; he was broadcasting his opinions from far and wide about a whole range of issues - being very critical of the Saudi state. His family were taking the flak for that, and his wife told him she was divorcing him. That marriage failed to survive.
“It was not long after that he met a young Turkish woman - 24 years younger than he was - at a conference in Istanbul and he resolved to marry her… he went to the Saudi consulate to get the paperwork he needed in order to marry this Turkish woman. It was at that point the hit squad jumped on him and killed him.”
So why did Khashoggi step foot in the Saudi consulate if he knew it could mean death for him?
“I think he was very bad at following his own advice. He had advised a Canadian dissident not to go to the Saudi embassy in Canada on the same grounds, that it would be dangerous and he might be kidnapped and taken by force on a private jet back to Saudi Arabia.
“But, he had a met a woman he loved. He needed the paperwork from the Saudi authorities. Her father-in-law insisted that he prove he was single as he claimed before he married the Turkish woman. He had been to the Saudi consulate a few days earlier, and it had all gone fine. He had chatted with Saudi officials, he had drunk tea, and reminisced about Saudi Arabia.”
Khashoggi, therefore, thought there was no danger in going back a few days later. But in the meantime, the consulate had informed the Saudi government that he was coming back and a plan was hatched to capture him.
“Amazingly, Turkish intelligence was recording the conversations between Istanbul and Riyadh so we know what was said as they began to lay this plot for Khashoggi. A couple of private planes with diplomatic clearance flew in from Saudi Arabia, just ahead of Khashoggi himself, carrying members of a hit squad.”
Rugman says the Saudi government has admitted that this hit squad did indeed kill Khashoggi, but they haven’t helped the Turkish police with their investigations.
Six months before the killing, the Crown Prince had been on a charm offensive and military purchasing spree - visiting Donald Trump in the United States and 10 Downing Street in the UK.
“This was a man that the West very much wanted and, indeed, very much wants to do business with. And it is true he is a reformer, he’s opened cinemas, he’s given women the right to drive, he’s issuing visas to tourists, the atmosphere of oppression has lifted from much of Saudi society since the Crown Prince effectively took over.
“But there’s a flip side to that which is, this is a man who cannot tolerate dissent and who sees everything in Saudi Arabia as a privilege granted by him rather than rights which are inherent and to which everybody is entitled. I think he had a difficulty in dealing with Khashoggi, and I think he was in an atmosphere where he felt he could get away with it.”
Rugman says it’s important to remember Russia had only two months earlier effectively got away with killing a supposed double agent in Salisbury in the UK.
“Who was most pleased to see the Crown Prince at the G20 Summit following the Khashoggi murder than Vladimir Putin who high-fived him? There was a sense that the so-called rules based order is breaking down and individual states could try to take action against those who disagree with them.”
He says Trump decided to side with the Crown Prince because there weren’t any effective rivals he could endorse in Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince having put them all under house arrest.
Rugman says the plan with Khashoggi had been to kidnap him and bring him back to Saudi Arabia. Plan B was to kill him if he didn’t cooperate.
“You can hear in the audio tapes that the Turks recorded that there are scuffles, there’s struggling, they’ve told him that they’ve come to take him back to Riyadh and he tells them he’s not going… there’s an extraordinary amount of detail there.”
Despite all the evidence, and the Crown Prince's own admission that it was a state-ordered killing, Saudi Arabia has faced virtually no repercussions. While the Crown Prince was shunned at the G20 summit that year, he was centre stage this year and the next G20 summit will be hosted in Saudi Arabia.