Martyrdom has given Khashoggi a strange power, too, over the man the CIA believes ordered his death, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. MBS, as he’s known, regarded The Post contributor as a meddlesome troublemaker — a voice that had to be silenced. But Khashoggi’s defiant voice echoes louder than ever, and it confounds MBS’s dealings with Washington and many other Western capitals.
This was a confrontation that Khashoggi dreaded but couldn’t escape. His friend Maggie Mitchell Salem remembers their last conversation in late August 2018. Khashoggi was worried that the Saudis would extend their travel ban on his eldest son, Salah, to his younger son, Abdullah, when Abdullah returned to the kingdom to renew an expired passport. They were squeezing him, and he wanted to escape somehow.
“He said he was thinking he should live on a desert island and go off the grid,” Salem remembers, but she told him he couldn’t hide: “You’re in a war. Think of all the people your voice represents.” Khashoggi knew it was true, and he kept moving forward. Two months later, he was dead.
Two years after this grisly killing, which ended with a forensic doctor dismembering the victim’s body with a bone saw, we can weigh the aspirations Khashoggi had for his country against the reality of life in the kingdom today.
Khashoggi wanted a modern, open, tolerant Saudi Arabia. He initially supported MBS’s reforms and social liberalization. But in his last year, he pressed the crown prince: MBS should learn from Detroit about economic development; from South Korea about fighting corruption without the mass arrests; from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II about dealing respectfully with other royals and the public. He even urged MBS to study the movie “Black Panther” and emulate the young king of Wakanda.
Khashoggi was a complicated man. His personal life was sometimes ragged, and his political beliefs were a mix of his yearning for reform, his Islamic faith and his ties to a royal family that had nurtured him. In his time at The Post, he became increasingly passionate about journalism. The last column he wrote, published on Oct. 17, 2018, after his death, was a plea for free expression and independent media in the Arab world.
What has happened in the real Saudi Arabia since his passing? Some of the liberalizing reforms that Khashoggi favored have gone forward under MBS. Women are freer overall: They can drive, travel without a male guardian, play sports more easily and hold prominent public positions such as ambassador. Life in the kingdom is more open, too, on the surface: Young Saudis can attend movies, or concerts, or wrestling matches.
But there’s a dark underside to MBS’s kingdom — a fear factor deepened by Khashoggi’s death and the imprisonment and torture of many other dissenters. Female activists and other potential critics are held in a network of prisons; children of dissidents are banned from travel; prominent princes are muzzled and jailed.
Saudis tell me they don’t take their phones into traditional gatherings known as dewaniyas, so their conversations can’t be secretly intercepted. They are buying U.S. SIM cards to evade MBS’s surveillance state. “People are scared,” one Saudi told me this week. “There’s a lot of silent dissent.”
MBS’s grip on power seems as strong as ever, partly because of the climate of fear. He has crushed opposition within the royal family and intimidated other princes and wealthy Saudis by seizing their assets. One Saudi describes the crown prince as “strong and paranoid,” but not “strong and confident.”
The crown prince’s popularity in Washington, once glittering, has been irrevocably tarnished by the murder. He allied with President Trump (who boasted “I saved his ass” to journalist Bob Woodward). But the Trump connection meant that MBS and Saudi Arabia were taking sides in a bitterly partisan Washington, and that the kingdom lost whatever bipartisan support it once enjoyed.
The saddest legacy of Khashoggi’s murder is the lack of accountability for the crime. A secret trial was held last year, and eight defendants were sentenced to prison this month, after earlier death sentences for five of them were reversed by a pardon from Khashoggi’s eldest son. U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard called the trial “a parody of justice.” MBS’s close aide Saud al-Qahtani, who analysts believe may have directed the plot on behalf his boss, wasn’t even charged.
“He literally got away with murder,” one Saudi activist said of the crown prince. “The lesson for him is: Next time, make sure you don’t get caught.”
Khashoggi believed in the journalists’ credo that truth will ultimately triumph over lies and cruelty. He gave his life for that ideal. Two years later, his truth still scorches the kingdom’s rulers.