This was not a straightforward snatch and grab attempt. The officers sent to Istanbul to deal with Jamal Khashoggi were given clear instructions; return with Khashoggi alive or kill him there. That order did not come from any senior general or bureaucrat, but straight from the de-facto head of the largest Royal family in the world that controls the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
It came from the last remaining bastion of medieval court politics, ironically supported by the seemingly unstoppable tide of global populism.
A giant of a man yet with an approachable demeanour, Jamal Khashoggi had an intimidating contact list that included leaders, politicians, businessmen and, what would help lead to his tragic death, the numbers of some of the most senior members of the House of Saud.
Khashoggi was the go-to man for almost every Western journalist looking for a quick soundbite from a reliable source on Saudi Arabia and think-tankers and academics curious about popular Saudi reactions to Western policies.
When he decided to move into self-exile, Khashoggi told his closest friends he wasn’t a person who could stand jail or torture. As the list of friends and acquiantances in jail grew, the more relieved Khashoggi was of his escape.
During his exile, he became increasingly lonely. Early on his wife at the time, under pressure from the unabated traditional and new media onslaught against him (directed by the sinister royal advisor Saud al-Qahtani), requested a divorce and a broken-hearted Jamal acquiesced. He later described it as one of the worst moments he ever experienced.
Having forced a rupture in Jamal’s life, the powers in Riyadh assumed that they had neutralised one of the key public figures who had threatened them, simply by being independent.
Yet neither the divorce nor his exile prevented Jamal from continuing to seek new ways to deliver his message.
Indeed, in his work with The Washington Post, he pursued writing with a new vigour, often smiling wryly as he read the online threats and insults from Saudi government trolls and their systematic campaigns. In one answer to them, Jamal talked about how sad he was at their existence. History will vindicate those jailed and tortured while it would ignore these trolls entirely, he tweeted.
Read more: MbS: Getting away with murder?
The wrathful princeling
The inner peace that Jamal found infuriated and enraged the rash and impulsive Mohammed bin Salman. Surrounded by a coterie of aggressive, eager to please loyalists with little experience, his anger reached untold limits.
With an almost chronic addiction to social media, the crown prince would scour the virtual newsfeeds daily on his iPad, to examine first-hand the impact of the campaigns engineered by his adviser.
With all the resources that eight million barrels of oil a day bring, being unable to stop Khashoggi’s influence was a constant reminder of the limits of authoritarianism against unrestricted freedom.
Greater anger still was channeled against the Saudi people; ludicrous TV shows made outlandish claims about any independent figure on social media and spent hours devoted to playing up MbS’ genius, vision and appeal. He was at once a prince, a visionary, a conservative defender of the faith, a liberal, a westernised prince who was pro-Israel and an anti-Israeli pro-Palestinian defender of human rights. Daring to question this biography was simply a fatal thing to do.
Having publicly humiliated and demoted the strongest royal in the kingdom to become crown prince, MbS had effectively wiped out all opposition within the family. And with a list of disgruntled Saudi royals courtesy of Jared Kushner, he was able to target every one of them, removing them from public posts, scaring them into fleeing or imprisoning them in what was the greatest protection racket in history.
No transparency or oversight was given to what happened, resulting in an environment of fear that prompted hundreds of businessmen untouched by the Ritz affair to make voluntary transfers of tens of millions of dollars to stay out of his way.
Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, brother of King Salman, issued unprecedented criticism of the war in Yemen led by MbS
Yet some royals escaped. Chief among them was Ahmed bin Abdulaziz. The last of the Sudairi Seven, he was a long serving deputy minister of interior tasked with dealing with the intricate workings of the tribal system and appeasing the tribes. In late August 2018, Ahmad made an unplanned interaction on the steps of a hotel in London to an unsuspecting Bahraini activist.
Implicitly criticising the crown prince and his bloody foray in Yemen, the video went viral in seconds when it was released. A shocked royal court took over a day to release a weakly worded statement on behalf of Prince Ahmed affirming his unrelenting loyalty to the king and the crown prince.
This didn’t help dissuade millions of Saudis who had previously heard about Ahmed’s angry insistence months back on removing MbS’ picture at a domestic airline lounge he was flying from. There was no way, Ahmed was reported to have said, that I’m leaving this lounge until that boy’s picture is removed.
Despite being known for his calm temperament like many of his generation’s royals, Ahmed was appalled at the destructive nature of MbS’ policies and his recklessness. Now in London, he was going against the very characteristics he has been known for all his life and thinking of how to try and effect a change in the power structure.
Read more: Saudi king’s brother condemns war in Yemen, blames crown prince for devastating conflict
Jamal Khashoggi knew this. He had also heard similar messages from other discontent and frustrated members of the Royal family too. While it spoke volumes about his agreeable nature, it also sometimes was a curse that senior royals liked to sound off to him.
As Khashoggi gained influence in the US press, the phone calls from royals started pouring in
A mortal threat and a gruesome murder
Khashoggi was someone who straddled many of the social contradictions of Saudi Arabia. He was a middle-class, educated Hijazi who had good relations with Najdis.
He was entirely moderate and pluralistic in his outlook yet understood extremist narratives and managed to engage with them. Jamal was just at ease sitting on the floor of a tent or a mosque as he would be in a Louis Xiii armchair in a grand mansion. He was never judgemental and always had a great story to tell over a cigar and above all was as trustworthy as they come. And so the phone calls began. As his profile in America increased, more and more princes reached out to him.
There are other Saudi royals out there, less in seniority to Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, yet also sons and nephews of kings. It is their reaching out to Jamal, relayed to MbS by fawning apparatchiks, that created an incendiary environment which led to that death warrant.
Members of MbS’ personal elite squad – Al-Ajrab Sword Brigade – began working with colleagues from the General Intelligence service and forensic experts to plan their move.
As soon as reports came from the consulate in Turkey that he had come in to ask for divorce papers, Riyadh set things in motion. He was told to come back after a week in which all logistics were planned out and overseen by MbS and his advisers. Alive or dead, finishing within an hour was imperative.
Alive or dead, finishing within an hour was imperative
On the fateful day in which Jamal entered the Saudi consulate, an unsuspecting consul, more at home stamping visas and chain smoking into the night in Istanbul’s cafes, was given a rude awakening as a team of officials entered the consulate with a royal authorisation to access all areas.
Not imagining what would happen next, the confused bureaucrat spent minutes making small talk with Jamal until MbS’ operatives officers came into the office and asked Jamal to come with them.
Khashoggi saw his worst fears materialise.
Recordings point to a near hysterical man trying to flee while shouting for help, but to no avail. While his drugging could have killed him immediately, this came after a struggle and he died as the shell-shocked consul general looked on.
With a 6 foot 2 body weighing 105 kilos on the floor needing shifting, the team moved to another gruesome part of their plan – and it is here that the brutally sadistic nature of MbS comes into the world’s view – the dismembering of Jamal’s body.
As his fiancee suffered a public, online breakdown and hundreds of his western friends sought answers, a belligerent and manic royal court directed its online armies and media anchors to create and then fight a Turkish-Qatari-Islamist conspiracy against Saudi Arabia.
No mention was made of the murder. No attempt was made at answering legitimate questions about Jamal’s whereabouts. A vicious mccarthyist campaign hunted down everyone who asked questions, everyone who spoke highly of Jamal and, in what was a despicable low for MbS Saudi Arabia, anyone who didn’t speak up against Jamal or this fictitious conspiracy. Fellow journalists in Saudi Arabia whether out of hate or fear never even asked where he was, preferring to promote this obsessive regime propaganda agenda.
Privately, the crown prince and his henchmen huddled tight desperately trying to work their way out of the tangled mess they wove. Not for a minute did they dream of the level of global outcry against their crime.
So large and sustained, the outcry managed to infiltrate their tight barriers to reach the king himself. The foreign and information ministries had nothing to give the growing calls for answers from the world’s media and politicians. They doubled down on their ‘defence’ of the kingdom narrative bombarding a nervous and worried Saudi public with rabid anti-Turkish and anti-Qatari content, constantly ramming the idea that ‘the kingdom is at war’.
Now, with Trump yielding slightly to pressure on the hill and Pompeo’s visit, it might well lead to a grudging acceptance of Jamal’s fate in the embassy.
But this admittance will be the conclusion of much trilateral bargaining primarily over contracts and financial support. The Saudis will have created another almighty mess which only their thick black oil can cover.
*Said al-Arabi is a pseudonym. The author, who has close links to many of the people named in this article, resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.