The silencing of Jamal Khashoggi

Khalid Nadeem remembers his encounters with the late Saudi journalist who was once a stanch supporter of the regime he later censured

I first met the late journalist Jamal Khashoggi when I visited the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London in July 2003 to brief Prince Turki al-Faisal, the then Saudi ambassador to the UK, ona forthcoming forum I was organising on Saudi Arabia at the House of Commons.

When I was shown into the ambassador’s office, his media adviser was with him – Jamal Khashoggi. Both men were very polite and welcoming, and the prince told me that his media adviser would be my main point of contact from the embassy regarding the pending event. At that time, Khashoggi was an insider with close relationships with members of the Saudi royal family. He had been specially brought to London by Prince Turki as his personal aide and followed him to Washington DC when the prince was appointed Saudi ambassador there.

I was therefore shocked when I heard the news of his brutal killing in October. I knew he was a vocal opponent of the current Saudi government, but I never thought in a thousand years that he would be at risk.

Khashoggi subsequently invited me to lunch at the Al Hamra, a quaint Lebanese restaurant close to the embassy. He understood that in the planned forum we would be raising questions about reforms and the role of women in Saudi society. He was polite and attentive, never trying to exert pressure or influence,just interested in the speaker list, and to know and understand the agenda. I found him delightful company, with a great sense of humour and a lovely smile. Looking back, I can see he was quite skilled at putting you at ease and asking pointed questions.

It must be remembered that at the time I knew him, Khashoggi was an avid supporter of the Saudi regime, and was probably the most prominent Saudi journalist of the last 20 years. He was the editor of Al Watan, a well-known and respected Saudi newspaper on which he worked during two different periods, on both occasions leaving due to his reforming zeal, which was clear from the articles he wrote for the paper.

He was one of the first journalists to interview Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and these in-depth interviews made him famous in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East. After leaving Al Watan, he joined a new TV station in Bahrain, which was bankrolled by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the richest man in Saudi Arabia.It was short-lived, however,and was closed down when it criticised some Gulf government.

During his final days Khashoggi was based in Washington DC as a columnist for the Washington Post,which was openly critical of the present Saudi government.He made frequent trips to London and to Istanbul,where he intended to marry his Turkish fiancée, and was frequently seen talking at thinktanks in DC and London.

As well as a sad human loss, Jamal Khashoggi’s death is having political consequences for South Asia.When Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, sought aid for the country’s debt-ridden economy on his first trip to Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince refused.In late October,against the backdrop of the Khashoggi affair, Khan renewed his request and this time the response was more positive.It is believed that the Saudis are seeking Pakistan’s support in the international arena as Western states toughen their stance against Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s killing.Pakistan has received a $3billion loan and a further $3 billion in oil subsidies.Khan has been very diplomatic and tight lipped when questioned about the Jamal Khashoggi affair.

As other South and Southeast Asian nations,from India,Bangladesh and SriLanka to Indonesia and the Philippines, have extensive economic ties with Saudi Arabia, one cannot expect much reaction from them.Also, large numbers of their nationals work in Saudi Arabia, and those workers bring much-needed foreign exchange to their respective economies.Since money talks – in these cases to the tune of billions of dollars – these countries will not want to rock the boat by commenting on this issue.

With the death of Jamal Khashoggi,we have lost a great journalist and a fine man. It is tragic that he died in this way; we live in a cruel world where life is not valued by everyone and too often comes second to political expediency. Indeed, while the US recently imposed economic sanctions against 17 Saudi nationals implicated in the Khashoggi killing, it is interesting to note that no action has being taken against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Khalid Nadeem is the founder and chairman of the South Asia & Middle East Forum 

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