The story of Jamal Khashoggi’s death is well known. A prominent Saudi journalist, he walked into his nation’s consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 to obtain divorce papers permitting him to marry his fiancée Hatice Cengiz. Eighteen minutes later, he was drugged and then murdered by
a hit squad sent from Riyadh. After another six minutes, a bone saw brought in by a forensic doctor was heard chopping up the body, although the parts were never found. The killers, all senior intelligence figures, returned home in private jets.
This act of savagery, which showed stunning contempt for diplomatic norms, rightly sparked an international storm. Khashoggi, a well-known character in Arab circles, had started writing columns for the Washington Post from his new home in Virginia, and his criticism of the Saudi regime had become more vigorous. The murder team failed to detect cameras monitoring those entering and leaving the consulate, ensuring Riyadh’s claims that Khashoggi had left the building quickly fell apart.
These sordid events make for a decent read in this book by Jonathan Rugman, a foreign affairs specialist with Channel 4 News, which is aided by the incredible amount of intelligence data leaked about the case. Saudi efforts to cover their tracks, which included constantly changing their story and denying Turkish police access to their consulate for a fortnight, were farcical. A senior officer was brought along as a lookalike to put on Khashoggi’s still-warm clothes before strolling around the Blue Mosque grounds as a decoy — yet failed to change his identifiable trainers.
Khashoggi emerges as an emotional figure, weaving his way through the complex politics of the Saudi court before falling out with the ascendant young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Desperately lonely in exile, he walked into a trap, due to pressure to prove he was divorced from his third wife by his new fiancée’s family. His death came just ten weeks after their first date. He ignored danger signs from a brutal regime that routinely rendered critics back into its clutches, yet was aware of the threat and resisted previous attempts to get him home. And he never mentioned a recently acquired fourth wife, an Egyptian air hostess, to his besotted new love.
His life offers a fascinating glimpse into Saudi society. A radical Islamist in his youth, he knew Osama bin Laden from Jeddah and interviewed the jihadist leader several times in Afghanistan. His second cousin was the flamboyant arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi (whose massive yacht ended up being owned by Donald Trump). As a journalist, he offered an inside track on the monarchy’s rule without being overtly critical. Then he fled with two suitcases in July 2017, when space shrank after the rise of MbS, aided by his obsequious sidekick Saud al-Qahtani at the helm of a 3,000-strong team to monitor and intimidate online critics.
The killing itself comes halfway through the book, and while gripping in its hideous detail, it is far from the most absorbing aspect of the narrative, as the details are familiar. Far more compelling is Rugman’s discussion of the rise of the impetuous MbS, the floundering reaction from the new ruler’s friends in the White House and the murky global politics that swirl around the incident like flies around dung. The unravelling of this murder also exposes the deep reach of intelligence agencies in modern societies, with so much of life under surveillance.
There is little doubt that the order to kill Khashoggi came from the top, as suspected by the CIA. The murder was carried out by intelligence officials close to MbS, with calls monitored from them to al-Qahtani. Perhaps the cause was the launch of an effort by Khashoggi and a friend to create an army of ‘cyber bees’, helping Saudis evade social media controls to debunk state propaganda. Certainly it fits the style of an arrogant and inexperienced prince who had already unleashed lethal attacks on Yemen, locked up billionaire rivals in a luxury hotel and launched a boycott of Qatar — all while posing as a reformer.
Yet for all the deaths in Yemen, for all the repression at home, it was the single killing of this portly columnist that sparked global outrage over the grotesque Riyadh regime. The furore was drip-fed by a Turkish president who knew the victim, yet is, ironically, also the world’s greatest jailer of journalists. It left Trump squirming as he struggled to avoid censure of a major United States arms buyer in the face of fierce criticism joined by senior Republicans. His problems were intensified by the close relationship between MbS and Jared Kushner, his adviser and son-in-law.
Yet one year on, has anything changed? Capitol Hill defied Trump over Yemen, the subject of Khashoggi’s last column, which forced the President to veto its demand to desist engagement. The journalist’s four children have been paid blood money. Eleven suspects have gone on trial amid great secrecy, with the forensic doctor among those facing murder charges. Yet reports claim he is not under formal arrest and living in a Jeddah villa.
Meanwhile the Saudis still try to lure back critics, MbS smiles alongside other world leaders on the global stage and the US is sending more troops and missile defence systems to protect them from Iran. This tawdry tale, skilfully woven by Rugman, shows again how money trumps morality.