The story of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible murder has riveted the world’s attention with its macabre, and mysterious, details. The soft-spoken but sharply critical Saudi journalist vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2. Theories about his fate include the horrifying possibility that Khashoggi was murdered — and perhaps even tortured and dismembered — at the hands of the Saudi state. (The Saudi government continues to vehemently deny these charges.) Should these allegations prove true, Khashoggi’s fate could have vast ramifications for the reputation of Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, who has until now sought to establish himself as a figure of modernization and reform. Already, Khashoggi’s case has elicited an unusually strong response from Western media and parts of the American government alike, casting Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical future in doubt.
“The case of Jamal Khashoggi, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg.”
For some, the prospect that the Saudi government would order the assassination of one of its own citizens abroad seems unthinkable. Yet Khashoggi’s case would not be without precedent. Saudi Arabia’s government has long sought to exert control of its people beyond the kingdom’s borders — a practice that has only intensified in recent years. “The case of Jamal Khashoggi, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Rami Khouri, a senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut. “If it’s proven that the Saudi government is behind his disappearance, it would only be the most dramatic example of a trend that has been ongoing for at least 30 to 40 years, but which has escalated under MBS.”
The crackdown has become so intense that many Saudis living abroad — even those who are not exiled activists — fear they could be targeted. Khashoggi’s story, and others like it, have left Saudi nationals questioning whether there is any distance sufficient to protect them from their government. “We constantly fear that we’re being watched,” one Saudi national living in self-imposed exile told The Intercept in June. “Even though many of us are not activists, we still worry that maybe something we say or do or post online will somehow endanger our families back home.”
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has employed a wide spectrum of tactics in dealing with dissidents abroad. Often, the Saudi government will begin with an attempt to persuade dissidents to cease their criticism or request that they return to the kingdom to sort out the issue on Saudi soil. Should these efforts fail, the government may move into a more coercive mode. Saudi activists abroad report receiving phone calls from their local embassies and consulates, urging them to come in for undefined reasons. “None of us would ever actually go to these meetings,” one Saudi activist, currently living in the United States, told The Intercept several weeks before Khashoggi’s disappearance. “We know inside there, anything could happen.”
Saudi Arabia’s attempts to silence exiled activists and others abroad goes back decades. One such early example is the still-unresolved case of Naser al-Sa’id, an activist who became one of the earliest opposition figures against the crown in the 1950s. In 1979, he praised a fringe Muslim group that stormed and took over the grand mosque in Mecca. Later that year, Sa’id disappeared while in Lebanon — and the Saudi state is widely believed to be behind it.
Since then, the government has continued to exert its control on dissenting voices beyond its borders — including those from within the ranks of the royal family. Since 2015, three princes have vanished while abroad after publicizing views critical of the Saudi government. In March 2017, prominent human rights activist Loujan al-Hathloul was arrested in the United Arab Emirates, where she was studying for her master’s degree. She was forced onto a private plane, flown back to Saudi Arabia, and jailed briefly, then placed under a travel ban. (Her husband, Fahad al-Butairi, was also removed from Jordan and flown back to the kingdom.) Later, in May 2018, Saudi security again arrested al-Hathloul at her home amid a wider crackdown on activists. She has not been heard from since.
The audacious, and outsized, nature of Saudi’s more recent crackdowns on its citizens abroad reflect MBS’s intense desire to control the narrative — in any and every form — about his rule. The crown prince has spent millions to project an image of himself as a reformer and visionary for a burgeoning Saudi renaissance, but his rule has been marked by increasingly autocratic tactics both domestically and abroad. This shift has lead to an uptick in Saudi asylum-seekers in Western countries, as well as thousands more who, like Khashoggi, have sought homes abroad through other means.
Khouri said bin Salman’s brutal tactics, now underscored by Khashoggi’s mysterious case, have sent chills through the Saudi diaspora, which could have grave ramifications for the region. “It’s gotten to the point that many ordinary people — non-activists, non-journalists — feel afraid to use their minds, to speak about opinions of any kind. There’s a sense that the government will not tolerate anything but outright pro-government propaganda,” he said.
The disappeared journalist at the center of today’s furor said as much earlier this summer. Khashoggi, then living in the Washington, D.C. area (he left Saudi Arabia in 2017 in response to the government’s escalating repression of the press), spoke to me for a separate Intercept story about the kingdom’s crackdown on activists and dissidents. “With MBS,” he said, “there is a growing authoritarianism, and it’s only going to get worse. He is seeking to crush opposition before it can even begin, just silencing and jailing people, good, respectable people, that he thinks might one day oppose him. We’ve seen everything become a question of loyalty to Mohammed bin Salman. I couldn’t take it.”
Khashoggi went on, “The government was sending a message that if you’re not with us, you’re against us. MBS wants to lead alone.”