Jamal Khashoggi never intended to be a dissident. For many years, he wrote for and edited newspapers in Saudi Arabia, and he served as an aide in Saudi embassies in Washington and London. What prompted him to leave the kingdom, and to begin writing columns for The Washington Post, was the sharp increase in domestic repression under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the “fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds,” as Khashoggi put it in his first Post op-ed, in September 2017.

For the next year, the then-58-year-old journalist jousted with the then-32-year-old Saudi ruler in the pages of The Post and on the internet, where Khashoggi was assailed by the troll army controlled by Mohammed bin Salman’s top aide. Khashoggi challenged the crown prince not just on his persecution of critics, which he described as bound to undermine the new regime’s ambitions to modernize and revitalize the country. His columns also argued against Mohammed bin Salman’s reckless regional agenda – especially the war in Yemen, which the crown prince had launched while serving as defense minister. Khashoggi denounced the attempt to suppress democracy and free expression throughout the Middle East and to exclude Islamist parties from politics – a drive that was largely sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Khashoggi’s ability to wage this debate ended Oct. 2, 2018. On that day, our columnist walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he was quickly suffocated and his body dismembered by a team of 15 dispatched from Riyadh for that purpose. According to the CIA, Mohammed bin Salman almost certainly ordered the murder; a U.N. investigation also held him responsible. In one sense, he succeeded: Khashoggi’s trenchant columns no longer appear in The Post, while the crown prince and his closest aide, Saud al-Qahtani, who oversaw the operation, have escaped justice. President Trump, who embraced the young dictator as a close ally, quickly excused the crime, and Trump and his allies have blocked attempts in Congress to hold the regime accountable. During two interviews broadcast this week, Mohammed bin Salman disingenuously said he accepted full “responsibility” for the killing while denying any personal involvement in it – a lie that only those wishing to excuse him will accept.

And yet, the story of Khashoggi and Mohammed bin Salman is not over. The warnings the journalist sounded – often cast almost as friendly advice to the crown prince – have proved prescient. A year later, the Saudi regime continues to suffer the consequences of its persecution of opponents – especially women seeking greater rights – and its ill-conceived intervention in Yemen. Khashoggi warned that the persecution of activists would backfire, and it has; the regime is universally vilified by human rights groups, and Mohammed bin Salman has become a pariah in Western capitals.

Khashoggi asserted that the Yemen war not only was unwinnable but also would make the kingdom less secure. It has “increased the likelihood of domestic casualties and damage,” he wrote in a September 2018 column, which hinted that U.S.-made Patriot missile systems might not be enough to defend critical targets. A year later, he was proved tragically right when drones and cruise missiles, probably launched by Iran but claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, evaded those defenses and devastated the largest Saudi oil production complex.

One likely consequence of that attack is a further delay in the centerpiece of Mohammed bin Salman’s economic program, the international sale of shares in the state oil company, Aramco. At the same time, support in Washington for defending the Saudi regime against further strikes is at one of its weakest points. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., cited Khashoggi when she said she would “absolutely not” support U.S. military action on behalf of the kingdom. “Please,” Pelosi said, adding that the United States was dealing with “the person who chopped up a reporter and dissolved his remains in chemicals. . . . I don’t see any responsibility for us to protect and defend Saudi Arabia.”

Mohammed bin Salman also is losing ground in his campaign to stifle free expression and democracy in the Middle East. The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates gave billions to prop up Sudan’s military regime in the hope it would withstand a mass protest movement, only to see the generals strike a deal for a three-year transition to democracy. Algeria, too, has seen the rise of a powerful democracy movement, and Tunisia is holding a robustly competitive presidential election. Recently, protests erupted in Egypt, where another military regime has received billions in Saudi subsidies, after a dissident businessman’s message went viral.

Mohammed bin Salman’s policies are carrying him toward a dead end – maybe even a precipitous crash. Trump, mired in scandal and preoccupied with his reelection campaign, is unlikely to do much to help him. The crown prince might still rescue himself, but only if he finally heeds the advice Khashoggi offered him: Release female activists and other political prisoners and punish those who tortured them; end the war in Yemen; allow peaceful critics like Khashoggi to come home and speak freely. Last but not least, the crown prince should stop offering half-truths and accept full responsibility for ordering the murder.

We don’t expect that to happen any time soon. But we believe history will show that our lost friend and colleague Jamal Khashoggi was on the right side of the debate that Mohammed bin Salman thought, mistakenly, he could win with a bone saw.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.