Murder on the Bosporus

Exile was not something that the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had ever contemplated. He had never considered it could be a location, a real place. To him, it was a word, an intangible idea. Even after he left his home in Jeddah with two suitcases and landed in the United States in the summer of 2017, he still pronounced the word with a disbelieving smile. Jamal’s decision to leave the kingdom had been difficult, not only because it was destroying his family life but because he had always thought of himself as a loyal citizen, a subject of the king. Jamal had changed since his days as a student in Indiana in 1979. He had once embraced the idea of Islam as a political system, although he had never fully adhered to a political group like the Muslim Brotherhood. He now fervently believed in democracy and pluralism, the separation of religion and state. He admired Turkey as an example of how Islam and democracy could coexist—though his friend President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was increasingly authoritarian.

Jamal cringed with deep shame when he thought back to how he had contributed to the spread of Surur’s hateful book on Shias, and could not understand how he had once given away his own music LPs. He knew these acts could be partly explained away as the excesses of youth, the naïve embrace of ideals that eventually fail you. He also understood that he was the product of a specific era and a country where he had embraced the culture around him. But he had moved on, where others had not.

He had traveled, moved between countries and continents, and now, in his late fifties, Jamal loved to reminisce about covering the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He still believed the kingdom had been politically and morally correct to support the mujahedeen against the Soviets. Then Saudi Arabia and America had both failed, each in its own way, to contain the consequences. Though he was loath to dull the shine of those heady days, he recognized that the war effort had been corrupted from the start by the arrogance of Salafist jihadists who imposed their puritanism everywhere they went, not to mention the funding that Saudi Arabia channeled only to specific groups. After his days as a reporter in the field, Jamal remained a truth teller as the editor of a newspaper and then as a columnist. He constantly bumped up against the boundaries of what was permissible in the kingdom, criticizing the ultraconservative Saudi clerical establishment, offering a mea culpa after 9/11, or calling for social reforms and openness in a stifling country.

When Jamal had angered the clerics and their ally Prince Nayef, the ultraconservative interior minister, he was fired as editor of Al-Watan newspaper in 2003. Al-Watan answered to a more progressive branch of the family, sons of the late King Faisal, so Jamal moved to London and then Washington, DC, as a media aide to the Saudi ambassador Turki al-Faisal, the former intelligence chief who had overseen the war effort in Afghanistan. There would be rumors that Jamal had ties to the intelligence services. He always denied it, but he also made clear that if he were asked to serve his country he would not hesitate—after all, he was at the service of the monarchy, even as a journalist.

Jamal was increasingly well connected, a non-royal who counted powerful princes among his friends, but he continued to push boundaries. After his time working in Saudi embassies, he returned to the kingdom and to Al-Watan. He was fired again. But he was becoming a towering media figure in the Arab world. He had an avid readership for his column in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, and after he joined Twitter in 2009, he amassed 1.7 million followers. Perhaps most crucially, he was a sought-after commentator for all things Saudi in the Western media. The kingdom remained a difficult place to report from, with all the layers of obfuscation. Jamal was the rare Saudi who was as well informed as he was candid, loyal to his country but never trying to excuse its many faults. He also believed that right and good would prevail. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he had briefly hoped that the removal of Saddam would shake up the ossified Arab political system. In 2011, he grew excited about the uprisings, seeing in them an Arab renaissance that had been building for years and was finally coming to fruition. Saudis tried to protest as well, demanding more freedoms and better job opportunities, and some even called for a constitutional monarchy. King Abdallah distributed $30 billion worth of subsidies to silence the opposition. “We will never have freedom in the Arab world without true democracy,” wrote a depressed Jamal to a friend in a text message in 2014 as conflict raged from Syria to Libya and dictatorship returned to Egypt. He could not have foreseen that things would get even worse with the accession to the throne of King Salman in January 2015 and that this moment would also mark the beginning of his own slow march toward exile. The new king was known as a ruthless enforcer and efficient bureaucrat during his time as governor of Riyadh. He had also allowed the most fundamentalist jihadists to take over the war against the Soviets in the 1980s and continued to help fund fighters in other wars, like Chechnya and Bosnia. Within months, a climate of fear descended on the kingdom.

King Salman had appointed his son Mohammad bin Salman, or MbS, as he became known, as minister of defense and chief of the royal court—a huge amount of power concentrated in the hands of a thirty-year-old. Saudis whispered about the “boy,” spreading stories about his alleged drug use, his recent, inexplicable weight gain, his rumored second wife. Tall and energetic, he was his father’s favorite son. Soon after graduating with a law degree from King Saud University, he became his father’s private adviser, often accompanying him on visits around the kingdom, scribbling notes about everything he saw and heard. He had a reputation for being ruthless in pursuit of what he wanted. In one infamous incident, he sent a bullet in an envelope to an official who refused to help him appropriate a parcel of land. This earned him the street name Abu Rassassa, father of the bullet. He clashed often with King Abdallah, who instructed Salman to keep his son on a “short leash.”

MbS supposedly felt like a second-tier royal, poorer than the sons of King Abdallah and with fewer privileges. He had also come of age in the shadow of the Iraq War, as Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, Saddam Hussein was executed, and Iranian power was on the rise. MbS seemed predisposed to prove his and his country’s worth. But until 2012, his means to do so were confined to sending bullets in envelopes. In 2012, when Prince Salman was suddenly elevated to crown prince, MbS began to see a path to the top though there were still uncles and cousins in line ahead of him. When Salman became king, MbS felt the throne was within reach.

In many ways, except for his immense fortune, MbS was a truer reflection of the kingdom than other royals. While generations of well-to-do Saudis have lived and studied abroad, even more so under King Abdallah, who granted tens of thousands of scholarships to young Saudis, the country remained insular, stuck in a time warp. Unlike many royals, including his own brothers, MbS had never lived abroad, and he spoke English haltingly. With 70 percent of the Saudi population under thirty and almost half the country on Twitter, MbS’s youth and tech savvy made young Saudis feel he was one of them. Half of the youth under thirty were unemployed, and many of them were frustrated by boredom in a country where music, theater, dancing, museums, and cinemas were all officially banned. MbS looked like someone who might understand their need for jobs and fun. But first the thirty-year-old prince wanted to prove himself and he had chosen to do so with the war in Yemen.

Jamal was enthusiastic at first. The somnolent kingdom was being shaken up. Perhaps this was the moment when Saudi Arabia could restore the pride of the Arab world not only by countering Iran but by helping to remove despots like Assad. A month into the war, Jamal tweeted: “Iran’s craziness and insolence is growing, not only in Syria but they’ve reached our Yemen, after taking our Damascus.” But there was no strategy and no exit plan. MbS, though minister of defense, had no military experience. Older Saudis scoffed that he had never read history. In the 1960s, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were on opposite sides during a civil war in Yemen that turned into Nasser’s Vietnam. Egypt lost ten thousand men in the fighting. Saudi Arabia meanwhile was backing the Shia Zaidi tribes, yet more evidence that sectarian belonging did not matter then. The Saudis had even considered the shah of Iran’s offer for assistance. Now the Saudis were fighting the Houthis and Iran in Yemen. And though jingoistic patriotism was swelling inside the kingdom, Jamal slowly began to see the hubris and the folly of the move. Washington was mostly a silent partner to the crime: trying to make up for the betrayal of the nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration assisted Saudi Arabia with refueling missions, intelligence sharing, and further weapons sales.

The ill-planned war had angered many of MbS’s older cousins who headed some of the kingdom’s security services, like the National Guard and the Interior Ministry. But MbS was on the warpath against them too, trampling all over royal traditions as he concentrated more power in his own hands. In April 2015, his father named him deputy crown prince—yet another step closer to the top. Then MbS went to war against the old way of doing things: he slashed subsidies, froze government contracts, reduced civil servants’ pay. With oil prices at a low of $40 per barrel, the old model of the rentier state was no longer sustainable, but MbS was taking away too much too fast. In April 2016, he announced Vision 2030—a grand plan to wean his country off oil and fast forward the economy and the people into the twenty-first century. Past kings had promised sweeping reforms but never managed more than incremental, minute changes.

MbS wanted to give the kingdom shock therapy, but there was something delusional about his Vision 2030, which came complete with a futuristic city in the desert and a Six Flags amusement park in a country where male-female segregation was still strictly enforced and shops were required to close whenever the call to prayer sounded. Glowing headlines were written about the young visionary, just as they had been written in the 1950s about King Saud (ARABIA PREPARING EXTENSIVE REFORM), and in the 1960s about King Faisal (PRINCE’S REFORM SAID TO GIVE REGIME NEW LIFE), and the reign of the cautious King Abdallah (KING TRIES TO GROW MODERN IDEAS IN THE DESERT). MbS was described as the PRINCE WHO WOULD REMAKE THE WORLD and a YOUNG PRINCE IN A HURRY. Topping it all was a story characterizing the prince’s efforts as the kingdom’s top-to-bottom Arab Spring, a cheap dismissal of the sacrifices of millions of Arabs who had tried to rise up against dictatorships across the region. The West was always eager to believe its own orientalist trope: that what Arab countries really needed were enlightened despots to lift up the illiterate masses, an idea the despots entertained gladly to justify their rule, claiming their citizens were not ready for democracy. MbS played the part perfectly. His visits to the United States went well beyond the usual handshake at the Oval Office and visit to Camp David. The prince went to Silicon Valley and Harvard. He wore jeans and a blazer and talked about the future in terms that Americans could understand. He was a millennial, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but with even more power and more cash. He dazzled with promises of billions of dollars in investments.

In Saudi Arabia, MbS had also met with intellectuals and journalists while devising his plans, and had reportedly asked Jamal to join his team. Instead, Jamal wrote a series of thoughtful columns in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat outlining the more basic hopes of Saudi citizens: more jobs, yes, but also green spaces, better sidewalks, better health care. Who needed a new robot city in the desert when suburbs of Riyadh and Jeddah were falling into disrepair? Jamal hoped that MbS, in his youthful enthusiasm, just needed some better advice. The young prince was saying and doing a lot of the right things: the feared religious police had their powers reined in; women were promised they would soon be allowed to drive; there was talk that the kingdom might soon have cinemas. But activists were pushing for more substantive changes.

In September 2016, fourteen thousand women signed a petition asking the king to lift the male guardianship system. With tweets and hashtags, with artwork, bracelets, and videos, the women led an extensive campaign that made a lot of noise. Twitter was the only public forum in which Saudis could talk and meet, albeit virtually. The king never responded. Some of the signatories were veterans of campaigns for women’s rights, like Aziza al-Youssef, an academic and mother of five, who held salons in her living room and remembered the days when the guardianship system was still a loose arrangement. In 1980, when she first enrolled in university, women did not need a male guardian’s permission to sign up. That changed within a year, as the Juhayman effect took hold on the kingdom. Her own father had always empowered her, and he sent her to the United States in her early twenties to finish her studies. Aziza believed it was important to go beyond women’s driving rights or the issue of the guardianship system—all Saudis, men and women, needed to be granted their rights as full citizens. This could happen only in a constitutional monarchy. Another signatory, Loujain al-Hathloul, was barely twenty-seven and already a former convict. In 2014, armed with a driver’s license she had obtained abroad, she had driven from the UAE into Saudi Arabia and was promptly arrested. She spent seventy-three days in jail. Loujain had the support of her father, who had once sat next to her in the car as she drove in Riyadh. They were breaking the law but were not caught. She had the support of the man she had wedded barely a week before being jailed, Fahad al-Butairi, a graduate of the University of Texas. Fahad, a stand-up comic, had earned a reputation as the Seinfeld of Arabia and had produced a video with friends mocking the ban on women driving, “No Woman No Drive,” set to the music of Bob Marley’s classic.

Loujain, Fahad, Aziza, Jamal, and countless others, men and women of different generations, were fearless and relentless in their pursuit of more freedoms, risking the ire of both the clerical establishment and the royal family. None of them stopped to consider why the election of Donald Trump on November 8, 2016, was a turning point not just for America but also for them and their country.

The Saudis had been eager to see the end of the Obama administration, and while they, too, had expected Hillary Clinton to win, they embraced the new man in the White House quickly and warmly. The Emiratis had assiduously courted Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner during the campaign. Within days, Jamal published a column warning that Trump’s positions on Middle East issues were full of contradictions that could work to the detriment of the kingdom. He said so again a week after the US election, as he video-conferenced into a public debate at a think tank in Washington, DC. Within days, he received a call from the royal court telling him to shut up: he was no longer allowed to write his column, speak to other journalists, or even tweet. He bided his time at home in Jeddah and waited for the ban to be lifted. Trump’s first foreign trip was to the kingdom, where he was treated like royalty in May 2017. In Jeddah, still banned from speaking, Jamal observed in silence—a silence that was deafening to those who knew him and increasingly unbearable for Jamal.

On June 21, 2017, the kingdom woke up to the news that it had a new crown prince. The eighty one-year-old king had rewritten all the laws of succession and appointed his son heir to the throne. Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, son of the former minister of the interior and minister of the interior himself, a man Washington trusted on all things counterterrorism, had been unceremoniously pushed aside. Worse, he had apparently been held in a palace against his will until he relented at dawn and agreed to make way for his young cousin. Jamal had begun to sense that beyond the hubris of war and the grandiose plans for Vision 2030, beyond even the Machiavellian intrigue of royal machinations, lay something more trenchant, more sinister.

Within a couple of weeks, Jamal left Jeddah and moved to Washington, DC, to begin his life in self-imposed exile, alone. His wife had divorced him, his children were upset with him—why couldn’t he just fall in line? And yet, in his own way, Jamal remained loyal. Even with the Atlantic Ocean separating him from the kingdom, he still abided by the ban not to speak publicly, still loyal to his ruler, still waiting for permission to write. He messaged back and forth with the information minister and with Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to MbS. On August 17, 2017, Jamal was given permission to write again, and he tweeted his thanks to the young prince: “May no free pen be broken and no Twitter user silenced in the era of the crown prince.”

Within a month, Jamal was silenced again, his column in Al-Hayat canceled as the publisher, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, very publicly announced that the paper was severing its relationship with him. Jamal’s last column, published in early September, was titled “I Am Saudi, but I Am Different.” In it he wrote about the time that King Abdallah had appealed to his citizens to embrace one another in all their diversity of thought and political leanings. Without ever mentioning the young prince in his column, he had shown him up as an authoritarian, simply by comparing him to a beloved old monarch who within the limits of his own worldview had attempted to reform and soften the country. There was always only one narrative acceptable in Saudi Arabia: the one that the House of Saud presented with the acquiescence of the clerical establishment. In the absolute monarchy in which the men wore white and the women wore black, shoots of color were always springing up as Saudis of all generations kept trying to carve out space to express themselves. But MbS was silencing men like Jamal, who had never considered himself a dissident. The prince was jailing men like Jamal’s friend Essam al-Zamel, an economist who had traveled to the United States on an official Saudi delegation, then made the fatal mistake of pointing out flaws in Vision 2030. Liberal clerics who criticized Wahhabism were also jailed. There was still only one narrative allowed: the one offered by a charismatic yet deeply insecure prince who decreed that his vision of the kingdom’s future was perfect and unassailable. “This kid is dangerous,” Jamal texted a friend. “I’m under pressure . . . to be ‘wise’ and stay silent. I think I should speak wisely.” But Jamal could not stay silent anymore. He took another decisive step away from his home country and published a column in the Washington Post about how Saudi Arabia was turning into a police state. “I left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot,” he wrote on September 18, 2017. “I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.”

On November 4, 2017, the five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh was transformed into the most luxurious prison on the planet. A week earlier, the hotel had hosted an international investment conference; in May it had welcomed Donald Trump; before him, in 2014, Obama had been a guest. Now the ostentatious hotel had been commandeered by the government to host reluctant guests: hundreds of princes, businessmen, and current and former ministers had been rounded up overnight. The kingdom declared it was cracking down on corruption. One of the men in custody was the billionaire prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, one of Jamal’s former employers, and one of Citigroup’s and Twitter’s largest single shareholders. Also detained were the head of the National Guard, the minister of economy and planning, the chairman of a pan-Arab satellite broadcast company, and a physician who was a US citizen and the founder of a hospital in Jeddah. There was a common theme: if the men weren’t rich, they were connected to the late King Abdallah or presented an intellectual challenge to MbS. Billions of dollars were seized from bank accounts and other assets confiscated. Saudis cheered the campaign that punished the thieves who had enriched themselves at the expense of the people and the country’s progress.

There was plenty of poverty in the oil-rich country: although the GDP per capita was $20,000, more than half the country could not afford housing and a quarter of the population reportedly lived below the poverty line. Saudi Arabia now had its own Robin Hood—never mind that he had just bought himself a $500 million yacht. On November 6, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, son of the late Rafiq (both also holders of Saudi citizenship), was called to Saudi Arabia, forcibly detained, and made to resign on television in a bizarre performance. In the eyes of Saudi Arabia, years of patronage of the Hariri family and other allies in Lebanon were not paying off, since Hezbollah and Iran still had so much power in the country—it was time to bench Saad.

But Washington had begun to worry about the erratic ways of MbS and signaled its support for Hariri, while the French president traveled to Riyadh to extricate the Lebanese leader. Jamal was now writing a regular column for the Washington Post, and in his next piece he compared MbS to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Jamal kept undermining the crown prince’s narrative as a reformer, criticizing him from the one perch that mattered most to the House of Saud: America.

Excerpted from Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas. Copyright 2020 by Kim Ghattas. Published in January by Henry Holt. All rights reserved.