Last Tuesday, the exiled Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul to get documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée. As a prominent critic of his country’s newly powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Khashoggi was aware that any encounter with Saudi officialdom could be risky, even overseas. Nonetheless, Khashoggi appears not to have been afraid ahead of his appointment. According to The Guardian, he told a friend, “the most they can do is interrogate me.”
Over the weekend, unconfirmed reports suggested something much worse happened. After Khashoggi failed to emerge from the consulate, the voices of friends and press freedom advocates swelled with concern for his well-being. Then, on Saturday, anonymous Turkish officials leaked that Khashoggi had been killed, alleging that a 15-strong gang of regime henchmen traveled from Saudi Arabia to torture and murder him.
So far, no evidence has been provided to back these claims. The Saudi government has strongly denied any wrongdoing, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has thus far stepped on eggshells to avoid deepening a major diplomatic crisis. Nonetheless, the murder reports are plausible and extremely worrying. Khashoggi had become a consistent and high-profile critic of the Saudi regime in recent times. He left the country in June 2017 after officials banned him from writing, and had since mainly covered the kingdom in an opinion column for The Washington Post.
CJR spoke with Khashoggi in March for an article about US media coverage of Saudi Arabia in general, and the contentious “reform” agenda of Mohammed bin Salman in particular. At the time, Khashoggi warned that, despite the longstanding climate of censorship in the kingdom, freedom of the press had substantially deteriorated of late.
To mark Khashoggi’s disappearance, CJR is reproducing that March interview in full. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m a believer in free journalism, despite all the limitations we had. I always pushed the envelope, I always wanted to have more space.
You’re in self-imposed exile, if that’s the right way of putting it. Can you maybe explain what came about that meant you had to leave Saudi Arabia, and your current living situation?
Last June, I decided to leave Saudi Arabia for safety. I felt that whatever space I had was getting narrower and I decided to leave. A few weeks after I left, arrests began to happen, and that made me appreciate [being] out. We never had freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia, it’s true. But also we were never ordered or told to impose certain ideas, and if you do not say those ideas you will be judged. This is new. Many of my colleagues kind of disappeared from the media: They just want to be left alone. So basically, that is the reason I left. It is for my safety… I was under the risk of either being banned from travel, which would be suffocating, or being physically arrested, just like many of my colleagues.
So, you’re saying that while press freedom in Saudi Arabia has never been good, you’ve seen a difference recently in terms of what you’re allowed to say, what ideas you’re allowed to espouse. How do you see the role of Mohammed bin Salman in that turn?
He’s a transformer, and he thinks he should get everybody aligned with ideas and views, and suppress any counter ideas. I don’t know where he got that idea: It’s totally unneeded, totally hurtful, especially because [there] isn’t a strong opposition in Saudi Arabia that he should fear. Basically, he wants to control the whole scene. He’s a transformer, he wants to have a monopoly on the narrative, on the ideas that are being exchanged in Saudi Arabia. Total control. And right now he does have total control of the narratives in Saudi Arabia.
How do you feel his reform program has been covered in Western media, especially in the US? Has the coverage been too lenient?
No, it’s not too lenient. For example, even me—who has friends in jail—I have conflicted feelings, mixed feelings about his reforms. I like [some of] his reforms, and they are needed. I called for them; in fact, I lost my jobs [in Saudi media], twice, because I was pushing for those kind of reforms. But at the same time, I’m worried very much about two things, that some American media aren’t concentrating on. Number one, intimidation. He’s increasing intimidation throughout Saudi Arabia by arrests and threats. And number two, monopoly on power, one-man rule. Those are things to worry about.
And that’s what I think the American media should concentrate on. They should not see the cup half full—see only the reform. Yes, he’s fulfilling a promise to purge radicalism in Saudi Arabia. But at the same time he’s not allowing any form of expression, except expression that supports him. That is not good for the country. America has been complaining, since 9/11, of radicalism coming from Saudi Arabia. [So America] is celebrating his reforms, because he is doing exactly what the Americans have been asking the Saudis to do, to stop supporting radicalism. He’s doing that. This is a plus, it’s reform. But again, it’s a glass half full. There are other things which should be seen.
Do you think there are any particular issues missing from Western coverage of Saudi Arabia that would significantly increase people’s understanding of how it works and the reforms that are going on?
Freedom of expression, the arrest of intellectuals. [But] I don’t have a problem with American media as much as I have a problem with the policymakers. There’s a neglect of what is happening, not only in Saudi Arabia but throughout the Arab world. Arabs are very much under attack. We are killing each other, authoritarian rules are spreading everywhere in the Arab world—including in my country. The Arab Spring is dying. And I don’t see much attention among the policymakers. The media is doing a good job in highlighting those failures in the Arab world. I like what some American media is doing. It is doing a good job. Most of the news about [corruption perpetrated by Mohammed bin Salman] was reported by American newspapers, particularly The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. And Saudis were getting their information from those papers, not from their own local papers.
Can you guide me through your career when you were a journalist and editor in Saudi Arabia?
I was a reporter for a number of newspapers, covering the war in Afghanistan, the Gulf War. I became a specialist in political Islam and I had many exclusive stories. Later, I became editor of Al Watan newspaper. I worked also in diplomatic circles, as an adviser to the ambassador in the UK and the USA. I tried to set up a news channel. I failed. I set it up and it broadcast for 11 hours, and it was ordered to be shut down. I’m a believer in free journalism, despite all the limitations we had. I always pushed the envelope, I always wanted to have more space.
When you were at Al Watan, in particular, what was your relationship with the regime? What pressures did you feel?
I had a good relationship with them. I knew there were ups and downs, I knew my limitations. But there was plenty of room to maneuver. Even though I was under pressure, I was never arrested, I was never banned from writing. Yes, there was a time when I was fired from my job. But I never experienced being banned from writing.
I was banned from writing for six months before I left the country [last year]. I was so insulted when the royal court called me and told me that I am not allowed to write. That was a major reason for me to leave the country. I was so insulted. In America, you take freedom for granted. But, if you can imagine, how would you feel if you were told by somebody that you are not allowed to write? It is so insulting, for a writer.