What the Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi Portends

The Saudi journalist urged his kingdom toward reform—and may have paid a terrible price for his dissent.

Osman Orsal / Reuters

On Tuesday, a Saudi citizen named Jamal Khashoggi entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul, attempting to get a routine document relating to his impending marriage to a Turkish woman. His fiancée waited for him to emerge. He did not—at least not in a form she could see—and for the past several days, the Middle East has speculated about his fate. On Saturday, Reuters and others reported that Khashoggi had been murdered inside, and some reports added that his dismembered corpse had been smuggled out in multiple parcels. The Saudis say he left the consulate freely.

Two months ago, I saw Khashoggi, intact and eating a salmon benedict for breakfast in London. Among Saudi exiles, Khashoggi was famous enough to have to take precautions about where he appeared publicly—not, he said, because he feared assassination but because in some places frequented by Arabs, he might be seen, and have his breakfast interrupted. He wore a pastel suit without a tie, and when he stood up, I noted that he was tall, with a big head that sat on his shoulders like a pale white pumpkin. He was 59.

Khashoggi was a dissident. But dissent from the Saudi monarchy takes forms that might surprise Western liberals. A handful of Saudi dissidents have called for the abolition of the Saudi monarchy, or for the secularization of Saudi Arabia so it resembles Western states. Khashoggi moved in Western circles—he wrote a column for The Washington Post and was well connected in both London and D.C., but he did not dream of transforming Riyadh into either. He dissented from his rulers only modestly, and in our conversation, he affirmed his allegiance to the king and acknowledged that the House of Saud should rule the kingdom in perpetuity. He contested certain policies that the crown prince had implemented or was preparing to implement, in his view, unwisely.

“[Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman has tried to govern like an entrepreneur,” he said. “This is a problem.” Khashoggi doubted that MbS, or anyone, could pick economic winners and plan an economy with enough foresight to justify megaprojects on the scale currently underway. He singled out for criticism financial centers and universities that Saudi Arabia has built without, he said, first finding out whether businesses or students exist to occupy and use them. Better, Khashoggi said, to pursue true liberalization, which would mean allowing ordinary small-scale entrepreneurs, and the market, to make investments of their own.

He called Saudi Arabia in its present form “a social-engineering experiment” guaranteed to cause “social disruption.” Much of this disruption he favored. A state based on oil, and a downhill flow of oil-backed welfare money toward Saudis, could not sustain the country forever, and most change would be good. But it would also be traumatic. “Right now, there are Saudis living on fixed incomes, in six-bedroom houses they can afford only because they are used to cheap electricity and water,” Khashoggi said. As subsidies have fallen, Saudis have slowly realized that much of their wealth is imaginary, and that they will have to work to maintain their present levels of comfort. This realization will hit his countrymen hard, like a handful of sand thrown in the face.

“The opposition to MbS is small if you measure by the number of people who are explicitly in opposition,” he said. He did not count himself as an opposition figure, and rejected the notion that any critic was by definition an opponent of the House of Saud. But he thought that as a loyal Saudi he needed to offer gentle but persistent, and highly public, criticism of Saudi Arabia’s economic policies, repression of dissent, and war in Yemen.

One response to this enfilade of critique is to say that loyalty to an absolute monarch comes in only one form, which is total obedience. And Khashoggi disobeyed. He had once served the royal court as an adviser to the Saudi spymaster Prince Turki al-Faisal, during Turki’s stint as the ambassador to the United States. But in 2017, when Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince, Khashoggi refused a government demand to stop speaking publicly, and fled into exile rather than risk jail. In London, Istanbul, and other world capitals, other Saudis who have fled—sometimes with substantial fortunes—are now having to weigh whether their self-imposed exile might also count as treasonous, and whether the Saudi state, if it killed Khashoggi, will eventually get around to them, too. None is as famous as Khashoggi, but many will reconsider eating their breakfast in public.

The reports of Khashoggi’s death strike me as suspiciously lurid. I grant that there is no non-lurid way to describe the dismantling of a fresh corpse, if that is indeed what occurred. But Turkey has not yet presented evidence—not a spatter of blood, not a blurry video of a black car with a heavy, limp object being loaded into its trunk. (Turkey and Saudi Arabia have quarreled recently, most bitterly over Turkey’s support for Saudi Arabia’s enemy Qatar and for Islamists opposed to the Saudi monarchy.) So the specificity of the lurid reports feels odd, given that few non-lurid details are available yet. Another possibility, at this point the one most optimistically hoped for by Khashoggi’s friends, is that he was kidnapped and is now captive but alive, perhaps in Riyadh.

I asked Khashoggi whether he considered life in Washington comfortable, and we spent a few minutes trading names of favorite D.C. restaurants and parks. But he was just humoring me. “I miss home,” he said, finally. “My family”—still in Saudi Arabia—“cannot travel. I am lonely.” He wanted to go back, and he gave no hint that he feared that when he did so, he would be drugged and stuffed in a box, or chopped up into bits. He may yet reappear alive and healthy. But the likelihood that the life of Jamal Khashoggi will have a happy ending is diminishing quickly.