One of the most influential Saudi journalists, Khashoggi went missing after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday. His family is suspicious of Riyadh.
Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, was last seen going inside his country’s consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday for routine paperwork, and he did not come out.
His family and friends fear he might have been detained by the Saudi authorities and whisked away to the kingdom.
His critical writings on Riyadh’s crackdown on press freedom had put him at odds with the Saud monarchy.
Accompanied by his Turkish fiance, Kashoggi visited the consulate to sort out some paperwork so that the couple could get married.
Speaking to TRT World, the fiance, who did not want to be named, said she was stopped at the front door of the consulate building and was asked to wait outside.
Kashoggi had arrived in Istanbul a couple of weeks ago. He's been living in the US since 2017.
In recent months, the Saudi monarchy has taken a much harsher stance against journalists and intellectuals who criticise its government by even minuscule margins.
Khashoggi is a veteran journalist, columnist and author who started his career in the 1980s as a reporter for an English language Saudi Gazette. He covered the Afghan war when the conflict was at its peak.
Known as the first journalist from a major Arab publication to cover the Afghan war, Khashoggi embedded with Arab fighters and even interviewed figures like Osama bin Laden, who at that time had the reputation of a war hero.
International news organisations often interview him for his deep understanding of political Islam. Though he had known Osama bin Laden for a long time, he cut off contact with him years before the 9/11 attacks.
Besides war reporting, he has worked for major Arabic language newspapers before switching to Jeddah-based English daily Arab News, where he covered the first Gulf war, and also reported from Algeria, Kuwait and Sudan.
He ultimately become the editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based newspaper Al-Watan and later the short-lived Al-Arab news channel.
His steadfastness as a journalist often landed him in hot water with authorities. In 2003, he was fired as the editor-in-chief of progressive Al-Watan as the newspaper ran opinions and editorials questioning whether clerics should be allowed to make calls for holy war.
Between 2007 and 2009, Khashoggi served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Riyadh’s ambassador to the United States and the UK.
Since he left Saudi Arabia in 2017, he has been writing regular columns for The Washington Post.
In his last column for The Post, he expressed remorse for not standing up to the Saudi government when other journalists were being arrested and facing state repression.
“It was painful for me several years ago when several friends were arrested. I said nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job or my freedom . I worried about my family,” he said.
“I have made different choice now.”
He is a graduate of Indiana State University in the US.
Unlike what some news outlets say, Khashoggi can’t be labeled as a “fierce critic” of the Saudi government.
In his columns for The Post, he has regularly expressed support for Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms, which seek to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependency on oil and give more freedoms to women.
Instead, he wants Riyadh to implement those reforms in true spirit.
"He never wrote an article calling for removal of Al Saud family," says Khaled Saffouri, a close friend who has known Khashoggi for 25 years.
"He was more of a light opposition than a fierce critic. He disagreed with the government on certain strategies."
Khashoggi has been a strong critic of Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran. He has opposed the Iranian interference in Syria and Iraq and for long was considered close to the royal family.
Some reports suggest that the breaking point might have come in November 2016 when during a discussion of Washington Institute for Near East Policy he warned that Riyadh should be ready for surprises from the Trump administration.
Soon after, the Saudi authorities banned him from writing in Al-Watan, and he wasn’t allowed to even tweet.
The stifling environment pushed Khashoggi out of the country. He moved to the US.
His friend Saffouri says the differences between Khashoggi and the Saudi government emerged soon after the kingdom backed the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamamd Morsi in Egypt.
"I think that was the major disagreement."
His connections in Washington helped him get temporary political asylum, Saffouri says.
That came at a cost, however, his Saudi wife, who works for the royal palace, divorced him.
"He has two sons in Saudi Arabia, and he is very concerned about them. That's also a reason he's been very careful in his criticism of the government."
Since moving out of Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi used his writings to highlight the negative fallout of the curtailment of media freedoms in his country, especially calling out Salman for not fulfilling his promises.
“MBS has full control over the broadcast and digital content that is produced in the kingdom,” he wrote in a column in February, months after Saudi Arabia arrested top businessmen including media tycoons in what authorities insisted was a purge against corruption.
Khashoggi has also taken a starkly different position from the Saudi authorities when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood and the question of political reforms in the Middle East.
In one of his recent The Post columns, he criticised the US for not doing anything when the pan-Arab Brotherhood government in Egypt was removed in a 2013 military coup.
“The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes.”
In one of his last columns, he warned Riyadh that its ongoing war in Yemen was piling burden on the kingdom’s economy.
His family and friends suspect that he is still being kept in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His fiance says she’s unsure if Khashoggi could be moved to Saudi Arabia.
“The Turkish authorities are in touch with us, and they say an investigation is underway,” she told TRT World.
“There is no update since yesterday.”
Under MBS, who was expected to bring in progressive reforms, the Saudi government has become even more authoritarian and has ignored diplomatic norms in the past.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was reportedly detained last year when he was in the kingdom for a visit.