Published 9:42 PM EDT Oct 18, 2018
WASHINGTON – Hours before his disappearance, Jamal Khashoggi publicly lamented vanishing freedoms across the Arab world and said he worried Saudi Arabia’s leaders were going to give his home country “a bad name" with some of their foreign policy decisions.
Little did Khashoggi know just how tarnished the Saudi royal family’s reputation would become. Or that he would, in absentia, be at the center of an international diplomatic standoff that has highlighted the alleged brutal tactics he had so firmly condemned.
On Oct. 2, the Saudi journalist entered his home country’s consulate in Istanbul, seeking routine paperwork he needed to marry his fiancee. He has not been seen since, and Turkish officials say he was killed inside the Saudi consulate – an assertion the Saudi government strenuously denies. On Thursday, President Donald Trump told reporters it appears Khashoggi is dead, basing his belief on intelligence reports.
Before that day, Khashoggi was hardly a high-profile figure in the U.S. or much of the world. His position as a columnist for the Washington Post made him well-known in foreign policy circles from Washington to London to Riyadh, but not outside that elite set.
Now, Khashoggi’s name is a near-constant presence on cable news and major newspapers, and details of the 60-year-old’s life are coming into view.
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Friends describe him as an affable policy wonk who was equally at ease talking about Middle Eastern affairs with top U.S. government officials and curious American graduate students.
“He took time to meet with anyone who was interested in his insights,” said Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East analyst who befriended Khashoggi when he moved to the Washington suburbs last year in self-imposed exile. “He enjoyed life and was at the pinnacle of his career.”
Khashoggi studied at Indiana State University, earning a business degree in 1983. Even then, he was eager to debate Middle East politics, according to an Oct. 8 story in a local Indiana newspaper. A fellow student, Terre Haute resident Omar Sarooq, told the paper Khashoggi was "an open-minded kind of guy" who traveled the world.
Before abandoning his life in Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi was part of the very establishment he came to fear. He had been a reporter, commentator and editor for several pro-Saudi government media outlets. He made a splash on the international stage in the late 1980s after he interviewed Osama bin Laden when bin Laden was a guerrilla fighter in Afghanistan.
Khashoggi became friendly with the al-Qaeda leader, a fellow Saudi, and later tweeted that he “collapsed in tears” when he heard of bin Laden’s death in 2011, saying the architect of the 9/11 attacks had been “brave and beautiful in Afghanistan” before he “succumbed to anger” at the West years later.
As a journalist in Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi grew close to key members of the royal family, namely Prince Turki al Faisal. The prince eventually hired Khashoggi to serve as his media attache in London when the prince was appointed ambassador there; Khashoggi later served in the same role at the Saudi embassy in the U.S.
“He was very close to the (Saudi) government,” Wadeh Khanfar, another Khashoggi friend and former Al-Jazeera news director, told the BBC on Thursday. “He was not an opposition figure.”
Indeed, those close to him said he may have cringed at the “dissident” label that has regularly been used to describe him since his disappearance.
David Hearst, editor-in-chief of news website Middle East Eye, said Khashoggi was a "loyal Saudi.”
"He did not consider himself a dissident," Hearst told Al Jazeera, describing Khashoggi as "very moderate, mild" with "sensible things to say.”
Neubauer said even in exile, Khashoggi continued to meet regularly with supporters of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS.
“He knew he couldn’t go back (to Saudi Arabia) but he didn’t think he’d be killed … precisely because he was in touch with people close to MBS here in Washington,” Neubauer said.
Khashoggi "wasn’t negative about Saudi Arabia," Neubauer said. "He would often say he was supportive of what MBS was trying to accomplish, but disagreed with the tactics, which he thought were repressive."
But he grew more critical of the Saudi regime after he was attacked on Twitter by Saudi officials close to Salman, he added. He left his home country in September 2017 and became a U.S. resident, purchasing a condominium in Virginia.
In his work for the Washington Post, Khashoggi chronicled Salman's growing influence inside Saudi Arabia and castigated the prince for targeting his opponents and possible competitors.
In his final column for the Post, he wrote about how freedom of the press has been under attack in the Arab world and feared that many Arabs were living in a state of misnformation.
"Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate," Khashoggi wrote.
In an Oct. 1 interview with the BBC, Khashoggi criticized the Saudi regime's efforts to develop closer ties Israel predicted that would end up giving the Saudis "a bad name.”
Friends said such comments, and Khashoggi's increasingly visible platform in the United States, made him seem dangerous to the prince and others in the Saudi government.
Khanfar said that if Khashoggi’s audience had been limited to the Arab world, they might not have cared.
"Jamal was presenting for the Saudi’s a major threat to their presence and legitimacy in the United States and in the Western mind," Khanfar told the BCC.
But, he added, "Jamal was a voice of reason."
Contributing: Christal Hayes and Kim Hjelmgaard
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