One year on, Khashoggi murder still casts a pall over Saudi Arabia

Vivian Nereim

Waiters roamed the room with foie gras canapes and sparkling lemonade as a snow machine whirred in the background at a recent V.I.P. gala, advertising the beauty of Saudi Arabia’s mountains to guests from around the world as officials unveiled plans to open up to tourists.

A year after government critic Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in Turkey, straining relations with allies and shocking investors, the kingdom is trying to move on.

In this Dec. 15, 2014 file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain.

Officials are pushing forward with social changes, gearing up for a two-month entertainment extravaganza called Riyadh Season, and preparing to host the world’s business elite for an investment conference that last year saw executives cancel as gruesome details of Khashoggi’s final moments emerged. Yet between glamorous events, the legacy of the killing lingers, complicating Saudi Arabia’s oldest relationships and casting a pall that even the world’s top public relations firms haven’t been able to remove.

“Jamal was a friend and colleague,” said Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a senior Saudi royal who was close to Khashoggi. “His heinous murder not only saddened me, but it has left a stain on all of us.”

A prominent Saudi journalist and government insider, Khashoggi never considered himself a dissident. But in 2017, as a crackdown on domestic dissent under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman intensified, Khashoggi fled, fearing he could be detained. He settled in the U.S., penning a series of critical columns for the Washington Post.

“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice,” he wrote.

A Murder at the Embassy

Depressed and homesick, Khashoggi fell in love with a Turkish woman and made plans to wed. On Oct. 2, 2018, while trying to obtain paperwork for their marriage, he was killed by a team that lay in wait for him at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. He was 59.

The CIA reportedly concluded that Prince Mohammed had ordered the murder – something the prince denied in an interview with “60 Minutes” broadcast Sunday.

“When a crime is committed against a Saudi citizen by officials, working for the Saudi government, as a leader I must take responsibility,” he said. “I must take all actions to avoid such a thing in the future.”

But Khashoggi’s body still hasn’t been found. A trial of 11 Saudis whom the kingdom says were involved in the killing is ongoing but closed to media. The fate of Saud al-Qahtani – a top adviser to Prince Mohammed who was removed from his position after the killing – is unclear, though he’s not on trial and has vanished from public life.

“Once charges are proven against someone, regardless of their rank, it will be taken to court, no exception made,” Prince Mohammed said in the same interview.

Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is photographed following an interview Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, in New York.

Business is Back

With so much unresolved, the killing frayed several of Saudi Arabia’s key international relationships, particularly with the United States.

In the business world, the aftershocks have subsided. State oil giant Saudi Aramco’s debut bond sale this year was massively oversubscribed, evidence that many investors have moved on. And while chief executives of the biggest American banks and investment funds were reluctant to be seen in the kingdom immediately after the murder, they quickly restored ties.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. boss Jamie Dimon said his decision to boycott the conference last year “achieved nothing.” A few months later, he took the extraordinary step of personally pitching Aramco’s bonds to investors in the U.S. Those efforts helped position his bank for a lead role on Aramco’s initial public offering plans when they were resumed in August. One of JPMorgan’s most senior bankers is expected to appear at this year’s edition of the investment conference in a few weeks.

Elsewhere, the wounds are still raw. At a vigil in Istanbul to mark the anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, attendees erected a memorial stone in a garden in front of the Saudi consulate. Amazon founder and Washington Post-owner Jeff Bezos hugged Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee, on stage.

“Last year I was standing here,” 37-year-old Cengiz said, recalling how she had waited outside the consulate for Khashoggi to return. “He was supposed to be my guide in life. He was always calling for better conditions in his country.”

Washington Post Chief Executive Fred Ryan called it “a dark moment for those who depend on the works of a free press.”

Enemy of the State

In this Oct. 23, 2018 file photo, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, smiles as he attends the Future Investment Initiative conference, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Back in Riyadh, the initial horror over the murder turned into sadness, and later frustration. Many Saudis say they resent the way the case constantly overshadows the social changes they see, such as the government allowing women to travel without a male relative’s permission. Saudi newspapers frequently reference a foreign media campaign against the country, an allegation echoed by citizens.

In a rare statement Monday, Khashoggi’s son, Salah, said he didn’t want his family’s tragedy being “taken advantage of” to undermine their country.

“There’s no correlation between a murder that’s being investigated and reformations for the sake of an entire country,” said Mishari, 25, who like many Saudis who speak to foreign media, asked for his last name to be withheld. “It’s as if we’re expected to drop our daily lives and not work to improve our future anymore.”

Others are heartbroken, haunted by Khashoggi’s memory. Even in private conversations, some Saudis avoid mentioning his name, referring instead to “the events in October.” Khashoggi was well-known in the kingdom and respected by many, even those who disagreed with his political views such as support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The Jamal I knew wasn’t perfect; who is?” Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief of Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, wrote in an article published Wednesday. “But in no way was the Jamal I knew an enemy of the state."

With assistance from Matthew Martin, Archana Narayanan, Cagan Koc and Ugur Yilmaz.