A year on from the death of Jamal Khashoggi, there are still only limited explanations for his murder. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and dissident, was killed inside the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, with his only “crime” being the criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Having once been close to the Saudi royal family, Khashoggi fell out with the Crown due to the government’s repressive nature. Khashoggi was also one of the first to speak out against Mohammed bin Salman, during a time when he was being heralded in the West as the leader to reform Saudi Arabia into a moderate, contemporary country. Emboldened by the Arab Spring protests, Khashoggi criticized the Saudi regime for being repressive and autocratic. These criticisms continued in spite of bin Salman’s reforms to modernize the Kingdom, which included restricting the authority of the religious police, and promoting the rights of women through loosening the Saudi laws on guardianship. At the same time these reforms were going into effect, the Saudi government was imprisoning dissidents and cracking down on anyone who spoke against the royals. In continuing his criticism, Khashoggi was banned from writing, tweeting, and appearing on television, and took it upon himself to live in self-imposed exile in the United States.
During his time in the United States, Khashoggi wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post. This worried Mohammed bin Salman, as he was afraid that Khashoggi would be able to influence American politicians with his criticism. Khashoggi’s refusal to abide by the Kingdom’s censorship rules regarding criticism of the royal family likely made him a target. However, Khashoggi was not solely a detractor of the Kingdom, as he was a supporter of bin Salman’s “Vision 2030,” a road map which seeks to reform and modernize the Saudi economy. Khashoggi was apologetically dedicated to the truth, which endeared him to many, and antagonized an equal amount.
Taking inspiration from the Arab Spring protests, Khashoggi believed strongly in implementing democracy throughout the Middle East. He did not want to be viewed as advocating for regime change, but rather as someone who pushed strongly for freedom of expression in the region. In the months preceding his murder, Khashoggi was working to launch an organization called “DAWN,” or Democracy for the Arab World Now, which aimed to advocate for democratic reform across the Middle East. His goal with this organization was to embolden and moralize Middle Eastern ex-pats who had been forced into exile as a result of the Arab Spring. The ambition of DAWN would be to bring about free and fair elections throughout the Middle East, even if the results of those elections ran contrary to American interests.
To mark the one-year anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder, bin Salman conducted his first on-camera interviews regarding the subject, with PBS Frontline, and CBS’ 60 Minutes. In these interviews, he called the killing “heinous” and a “mistake” while taking corporate responsibility as a leader of Saudi Arabia. However, he denied having any direct responsibility for the murder, saying that he could not be expected to know the actions of all three-million government employees on a daily basis. However, two members of bin Salman’s inner circle have been accused of orchestrating the killing, and the United Nations and the Central Intelligence Agency have both announced they believe bin Salman had knowledge of the plot.
One year on from the murder, Khashoggi’s body has yet to be recovered, and there has not been a single conviction in relation to his death. Saud al-Qahtani, Mohammed bin Salman’s former communications aide, and the person believed by the West to be responsible for orchestrating the plot, has not been charged with any wrongdoing by the Saudi authorities.