For decades, Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most powerful voices in Middle East journalism. Born to a prominent Saudi family, he spent much of his career straddling a line between the media world and the kingdom’s establishment, with unrivalled access to princes and western diplomats.
But increasingly he became a thorn in the side of the new ruling elite surrounding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he wrote of his mounting concerns about the direction the world’s top oil exporter was taking under the young heir apparent.
It would cost him his life.
After two weeks of denials, Riyadh on Saturday finally acknowledged that the journalist had died in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul after Khashoggi had entered the diplomatic mission on October 2.
The attorney-general said he was killed in a fight with Saudi officials, claims treated with widespread scepticism. Turkish officials have said Khashoggi was killed by a 15-man Saudi hit team that flew into Istanbul and dismembered the journalist’s body.
“He was worried about being targeted, big time,” said a friend who met him three weeks before his disappearance. The friend, who described the writer as a father figure, said being away from the kingdom hit Khashoggi hard and he struggled with loneliness and homesickness.
Born in 1958, Khashoggi grew up in the holy city of Medina and studied at Indiana State University before returning to the kingdom to work as a journalist until the end of the 1990s. His grandfather was doctor to ibn Saud, the founder and first king of Saudi Arabia.
He gained recognition for his coverage of the Afghan War — including an interview with Osama bin Laden the al Qaeda leader — and the first Gulf war before he was named deputy editor in chief for the English-language daily Arab News.
He become one of the region’s highest profile journalists, and while in exile he wrote a regular column for the Washington Post, often lamenting the direction Saudi Arabia was taking under the autocratic crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Khashoggi was seen as someone familiar with the thinking of Saudi leaders, but his ties to power in the kingdom fluctuated, and his career as one of the country’s top journalists was punctuated with a series of controversies.
Most media organisations in the country are controlled by members of the royal family or people closely connected to them. Senior editorial appointments must be approved by the information ministry.
In 2003 Khashoggi was sacked less than two months after being appointed editor-in-chief of al-Watan daily, following critical coverage of the kingdom’s then-feared religious police.
He then worked as an adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, when he served as the kingdom’s ambassador to the UK and the US before returning as editor of al-Watan in 2007.
Khashoggi’s second stint lasted three years, until he resigned under pressure after the newspaper published an op-ed that criticised Salafism — a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam. He was soon named managing director for a news television channel by tycoon Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, but the channel was shut down on its first day on air after hosting a Bahraini opposition figure.
Abu Salah, as many of his friends affectionally called him, was a frequent commentator who appeared on international and regional television channels.
And he was a mentor to many young Saudi and Arab journalists who, even though they may have disagreed with his opinions, always respected his experience and sought his advice about their work and careers.
His death has made many in the Saudi media disillusioned about the trajectory of the country under the crown prince, who has led an economic reform and social liberalisation programme that was accompanied by what activists describe as an escalating campaign on even the mildest forms of dissent.
“It’s a sad turn of events,” said another Saudi friend of Khashoggi’s. “We were almost nailing it geopolitically and economically . . . I hope this whole nightmare ends very soon.”
As a series of popular uprisings shook the Arab world in 2011, Khashoggi was criticised in the kingdom for expressing sympathy with Islamist groups that reached power such as the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group he had flirted with in his youth when communism was the enemy. That link became increasingly problematic after the Saudi government classified the group as a terrorist organisation.
Nevertheless, he continued to argue his case. “There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it,” he wrote in the Post in August.
Then in November 2016 when Saudi leaders were seeking to cement ties with Donald Trump, officials banned Khashoggi from writing and tweeting after he criticised the then president-elect during a discussion panel organised by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
He was allowed to resume writing his weekly column in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat in August 2017 but that return proved shortlived. Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the newspaper owner, suspended him after he defended the Muslim Brotherhood in a series of tweets.
Since he left the country, pro-government writers and commentators has often labelled him a traitor for criticising the crown prince and his policies.
“In the current environment of hyped-up nationalism, any dissent is seen as traitorous. I fear the campaign to punish Saudi Arabia for the death of Khashoggi will only feed that,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institutes in Washington.
Khashoggi met Hatice Cengiz, a 36-year-old Turkish researcher with a focus on the Gulf, at a conference last May. The two kept in touch, fell in love and decided to marry.
On October 2, Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istambul to get the marriage paperwork done. He did this knowing it was a risk.
“Love and women, they make you do crazy things,” a friend said “He needed someone. He loved Hatice. He wanted to get out of the consulate to celebrate with her.”
David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington said Khashoggi’s death marked a turning point for the very worst in how far the Saudi government was willing to go to suppress even moderate critics who support the crown prince’s reforms.
“Even more seriously, it represents a major crisis in the Trump administration’s Middle East policy which depends heavily on Saudi Arabia to fight Islamic extremism and contain Iran.”
In recent months he had used his Washington Post column to comment on Saudi reform efforts and foreign policy, calling on the crown prince to release detained activists and end the war in Yemen.
Khashoggi’s death has triggered Saudi Arabia’s biggest diplomatic rift with the west since the September 11 attacks. Western politicians have expressed alarm at the gruesome details leaked by Turkish officials.
In his final article for the Washington Post, which he filed the day before he went missing, Khashoggi lamented the lack of a free press in the region and how the authorities had crushed hope that the internet would liberate information from their censorship and control.
“Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate,” he wrote.
When he went into exile most of his family remained in Saudi Arabia, including his adult children who were reportedly banned from leaving the country.