Jamal Khashoggi is pictured on President Barack Obama's left during an interview in Cairo, Egypt, 2009 . (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
I sat down on a Friday afternoon to type out my first piece for the Michigan Journal of International Affairs. In that piece I would be staunchly critical of the Saudi education system that I grew up with, offering about as intimate of a window into the lives of young people in Saudi Arabia as I can offer to my Michigander audience. What seems like an extremely frustrated critique on the surface is really a love letter to the world that brought me up, a distant yet affectionate call for change and reform that I never got to see before I moved away.
So it should be no surprise that news of the alleged murder of Saudi dissenting journalist Jamal Khashoggi shocked me to my core.
Growing up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia meant that Jamal’s name is one that I have always been familiar with. Khashoggi was a Saudi regime insider who often appeared on public television as a thinking mind. He was mostly known for his stints as editor-in-chief of Al-Watan newspaper, which was among the most widely distributed Saudi newspapers alongside Okaz and the Saudi Gazette. Though I was never particularly fond of Khashoggi, his name read to me as a Saudi untouchable alongside the many Saudi untouchables I was familiar with as a child.
Fast forward to 2018: I have now been residing in Michigan for three years since I left Jeddah, and Khashoggi has been in self-imposed exile in Washington for about a year since the rise of crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Khashoggi became one of the most widely-read columnists on the Washington Post about Saudi Arabia, offering strong criticism of what many journalists have dubbed Saudi Arabian “modernization” policies. Khashoggi’s voice rang contrary to much of the positive press that Saudi Arabia began receiving, instead focusing on heinous war crimes in Yemen and strengthened repression of dissent. Khashoggi even goes as far as to compare Mohammed Bin Salman’s foreign policy to Putin-esque aggression. It was refreshing to my ears to hear a more cynical, and more accurate, understanding of where Saudi Arabia was headed.
On October 2nd, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to receive required papers to complete his second marriage after a recent divorce. Soon after, the world would grieve with Khashoggi’s fiancé as Khashoggi simply vanishes. Turkish officials would later accuse Saudi Arabia of sending a 15 man team into the embassy to murder Khashoggi and dismember his body. The implications are massive here: this is premeditated, coldly calculated, grimly executed murder of an internationally-renowned journalist.
The media frenzy was met with an obtusely denialist Saudi response. Offering no explanation for his disappearance, they refute any involvement in any premeditated murder plans. Even as President Trump recently stood up to his historic allies and demanded an explanation, their response was surprisingly aggressive. Even after proof of a failed plan to abduct Khashoggi surfaces, Saudi Arabia continues to claim no involvement. We are expected to believe that one of the most compelling critics of Saudi Arabia simply disappeared into thin air.
It can be easy to overlook how extreme of a measure this is for Saudi Arabia to take, but let me put this into more perspective. Khashoggi can hardly even be described as that much of an anti-Saudi rebel to begin with. In many ways Khashoggi is far more of a Saudi regime loyalist than most Saudi critics. He has taken no shortage of morally dubious stances in support of the Saudi regime in the past, and he has worked closely with many members of the royal family. One thing is absolutely certain: Khashoggi loved his hometown very deeply.
I believe Khashoggi was murdered simply because of the location he chose for his self-imposed exile. Khashoggi could have been writing anywhere, but no, he chose to write in Washington at a time where Saudi Arabia seems to appear far more often on American headlines. This is, after all, the time where women can finally drive in Saudi Arabia. More importantly though, this is also a time where Saudi Arabia is responsible for one of the world’s biggest contemporary atrocities. Entire generations are brutally murdered and starved by Saudi Arabia in Yemen under the pretext of fighting a proxy war with Iran-backed Houthi rebels. These atrocities are also committed with the full support of the United States government, which can and should be equally implicated for its participation in this horrific “war.” Khashoggi’s efforts to mobilize American public opinion against its Saudi ally could easily be overestimated as a compromise to the Saudi war effort in Yemen.
Even so, however, this murder remains a shocking overreaction. It is particularly frightening to me. I am not Jamal Khashoggi; I am a humble college student in America struggling to get my work done. I also am not and never was a Saudi national, even after having spent 11 long years of my childhood there. And I certainly am not nearly as important of a character to the Saudi regime. What Jamal and I do have in common though is a strenuous love-hate relationship with the world that brought us up, albeit in two very different ways distinct to both of our backgrounds. I write harshly about Saudi Arabia because I love every moment I spent fooling around in Jeddah schools, because I owe a responsibility to tell the stories of those whose stories disappear in public narratives and diplomatic histories, and because I am disgusted by all the actions historically taken by the ruling elites of Saudi Arabia. I dream of an alternative reality where the dignity of those whom I have such fond memories with is respected by those ruling elites, where the disenfranchised and underprivileged are emancipated from the shackles of injustice forced upon them.
Most importantly however, I write critically about Saudi Arabia today for their horrific crimes in Yemen. It is a sad world we live in, where thousands and thousands of bodies in Yemen cause not even half the uproar that a solitary body of a renowned journalist does. I hope that I am not being too optimistic in desiring an awakened American conscience to the actions of our government in supporting this “war.”