What Joe Biden Should Know About Jamal Khashoggi

Hanan Elatr Khashoggi describes her husband not as a happy warrior against MBS, but as a homesick patriot looking for ways to come in from the cold.

Square, black-and-white picture of the dead journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his widow, Hanan Elatr Khashoggi, over a green background and under a stylized white sword (like the one in the Saudi Arabian flag)
The Atlantic

“I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia,” President Joe Biden wrote last week in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Among those disagreeing is the publisher of The Washington Post, who denounced Biden for “going … on bended knee” (surely he meant “meeting on bended knee,” unless Biden is flying to Jeddah from Tel Aviv on a magic carpet) to “shake the bloody hand” of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to U.S. intelligence, MBS probably ordered the murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi—a crime for which Khashoggi’s former colleagues understandably decline to forgive him.

What would Khashoggi himself think about MBS? “He would forgive” him, Khashoggi’s widow, Hanan Elatr Khashoggi, told me last month. I asked her to say that again. Forgive his own murderer—the guy whose goons chopped him up into little pieces? She thought it over and continued, sobbing: “Forgiveness in our religion is something great.” She said she was not sure she could forgive MBS, and in any case no Saudi official has asked her to do so. But she said her husband was merciful, and would not want his legacy to be permanent isolation for his country. “If he wanted revenge against the crown prince, that would cause problems for the entire Saudi Kingdom. And he wouldn’t want this.”

Since Khashoggi’s murder, perhaps his most prominent champion has been his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish activist who has written for The Washington Post and worked with overseas critics of MBS. Khashoggi went to the consulate in Istanbul, never to emerge, because he needed paperwork from the Saudi government that would let him marry Cengiz.

But Khashoggi, like many Saudis, practiced polygamy, and he left a widow in the Virginia suburbs. Hanan does not recognize her husband’s views in the words of some of the activists who knew him. And she has politics of her own. When I asked MBS about Khashoggi, he told me that he had never even read an article by Khashoggi, that Khashoggi was a nobody, not even in the “top 1,000” dissidents he would kill—and he’d have done a better job, if he had. His widow said that strange denial sounded plausible. “Believe me, I am from the Middle East,” she said. “The leaders do not read.” For the murder itself, she blames “people around the crown prince,” who acted on his behalf and remain unpunished.

The killing of Khashoggi has overshadowed every other issue in Biden’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. But Hanan’s story, and the version of her husband she insists is right, has disappeared from his legacy. An Egyptian by birth, Hanan trained as a journalist but worked for 23 years as an Emirates flight attendant. She knew Jamal socially in Dubai in the 2010s, then married him in Northern Virginia months before his death in 2018. Her apparent willingness to forgive MBS would seem implausible or suspicious—maybe even evidence of her having been paid off or threatened—except that she constantly defends, in her husband’s name, Islamists imprisoned by MBS and identified by his supporters as the most dangerous men in the country.

Earlier this week, Hanan said in a statement, she met with senior Biden officials to “thank” Biden for going to Saudi Arabia and “express what Jamal wanted most in this world: the release of all political prisoners being held in Saudi Arabia.” In our conversations, she mentioned two prisoners in particular: the economist and blogger Essam al-Zamil and the preacher Salman al-Awda, both of whom are charged with membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. (Saudi Arabia considers the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, and membership in it is a capital offense.)

Hanan’s disappearance from Khashoggi’s story has frustrated and embittered her. “There is a lot about Jamal that is not being said,” she told me. The Khashoggi of the popular imagination is a sort of gadfly journalist whose politics and inclinations fit conveniently with those of an activist class that have worked against the Saudi monarchy, and sometimes in favor of rapprochement with Iran, for years. “I call it ‘Jamal Inc.,’” she told me, disgusted. Hanan describes her husband not as a happy warrior against MBS, but as a homesick patriot looking for ways to come in from the cold.

Some inconsistencies between the Jamal of legend and the real Jamal are simply a matter of a record. Khashoggi was not a Saudi Seymour Hersh or David Halberstam: Real journalism was always forbidden when he wrote for Saudi papers in the 1980s and ’90s. Even his columns for The Washington Post were marred by reports that he’d drafted them with the help of Qatar, a rival of Saudi Arabia. (Hanan denies that her husband worked for Qatar.) He was never really independent. He worked for the Saudi government at various times—as an intermediary to his childhood friend Osama bin Laden, and later as an aide to Prince Turki Al Faisal, the country’s longtime spymaster.

But Hanan’s deepest displeasure is at her husband’s legacy as a dissident against his country. She insists that although he criticized MBS, he hated to be called a “dissident” or an enemy of the crown prince. (Khashoggi told me the same, weeks before his death.) Toward the end of his life, she said, “he cried every night,” because he was being portrayed as a pest, when his private wish was to reconcile with his king and go home. “He was being pulled by two sides,” she said. “One side bullied him to give up and support a dictator, like any in the region. The other side bullied him to be a dissident.”

The tension led him to contemplate suicide. “When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, Jamal kept talking about it. I told him he was making me scared to leave him [alone],” she said. His physical health deteriorated, too. “He became very weak and started limping.” During his life, she said, he never cashed in on his fame as an opponent of MBS—many groups would have paid him—so the couple lived humbly in Northern Virginia, crammed into a small apartment and hunting for deals at the local Harris Teeter supermarket. She continues to live modestly, waitressing at a Lebanese restaurant and working other hospitality jobs.

Khashoggi’s politics are widely believed to be those of a secular democrat, and therefore inconsistent with the quasi-theocratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia. (The Washington think tank Democracy for the Arab World Now calls Khashoggi its founder.) That too is misleading, Hanan says. The Jamal she remembers was passionate about freedom, and wanted more of it for Saudis, but he supported monarchy and practiced a conservative and traditional Islam. She said she had no idea he intended to take another wife—but she acknowledged that Khashoggi “believed in polygamy” and she told me that as a Muslim, she would “accept this.” She has never met Cengiz and says she does not wish to.

Many government-connected Saudis have alleged to me, without proof, that Jamal was himself a member in good standing of the Muslim Brotherhood. (It was not always clear whether they were suggesting membership as a reason to kill him, or just evidence of seedy behavior.) Hanan denies that he was a member in good standing. Jamal was a Brother years ago, and shared certain Islamist inclinations with bin Laden. During his final years of exile, Jamal sometimes made, on principle, ambiguous statements about his alleged membership in the group. “It is my right to be [a Muslim Brother], or a leftist, or anything,” he told an American audience shortly before his death. “It is within my privilege.”

The Saudis have been betting that someday, eventually, their relationship with the United States will cease to be defined by Khashoggi’s death, and that the legacy of Khashoggi himself will be forgotten entirely in the final triumph of American interests over American values. Right now that bet looks likely to pay out, though it has taken a while to do so. Many in Washington knew Khashoggi. Indeed, everyone who knew anything about Saudi Arabia seems to have known him. Many who knew him well differ about what he would have wanted. (Many who didn’t know him at all, or don’t know anything about Saudi Arabia, have equally strong views.) And it is far from obvious whether Biden’s visit betrays his legacy or, if Biden can persuade MBS to ease up on domestic oppression, makes meaning of his death. We’ll see what he gets for that handshake, bloody or not.