Jamal Khashoggi will forever be remembered as the journalist/activist who was murdered in grisly fashion by henchmen for the Saudi government, but the invaluable documentary “Kingdom of Silence” reminds us Khashoggi’s life was so much more than the shocking details of his death.
Told in a straightforward, historically and journalistically sound manner, director Rick Rowley’s documentary — now, two years after Khashoggi’s death, on Showtime and also on YouTube — is as much about the complicated, co-dependent and sometimes toxic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia as it about the man himself.
In fact, Khashoggi was often caught in the middle as a proud, Saudi-born, advocate for the people, a onetime friend of Osama bin Laden, a close confidante of the Saudi royal family but eventually a crusading journalist who made the ultimate sacrifice for his bold and brave and dangerous public repudiations of the oppressive, insular and truth-squashing Saudi monarchy.
Rowley relies on archival footage and the expertise of interview subjects such as former American diplomat David Rundell, former CIA director John Brennan and former national security adviser Richard Clarke to lay out the history of the dynamic between the United States and Saudi Arabia, dating to the middle of the 20th century and Chevron entering the country to drill for oil.
Friends and colleagues of Khashoggi provide context and insight into his work as a foreign correspondent, including a period in the 1990s when he worked in Afghanistan and befriended Osama bin Laden at a time America supported radical Islam as long as it was targeted at communism and opposed Russia.
We also hear Khashoggi’s own words, voiced by actor Nasser Faris, as when Khashoggi wrote of bin Laden, “You were beautiful and brave, before you surrendered to hatred and rage …”
Khashoggi’s relationship with his homeland and the monarchy was as complex as U.S.-Saudi ties. He was an adviser to former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki when Turki was ambassador to Britain and the United States. He was close with certain members of the royal family. He was a founding executive of Al-Arab TV, which supposedly was to be an independent voice — but was shut down by the government shortly after the news network went on the air in 2015.
By the late 2010s, Khashoggi had attracted a wide following (with 1.7 million Twitter followers) for his celebration of the Arab Spring, his support of increased freedoms for the Saudi people and his criticism of the Saudi hierarchy, which made him persona non grata in his home country.
In self-imposed exile, he moved to suburban Washington, D..C., and stepped up his pushes for political reform, penning 20 op-ed pieces for The Washington Post. Even as President Donald Trump was cozying up to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS), gushing about MBS being a “trillionaire” and saying, “We’ve become very good friends,” Khashoggi was comparing the Saudi’s authoritarian regime to Putin’s Russia.
The film suggests, though doesn’t conclusively prove, the Saudis wanted to silence Khashoggi for his criticism of the government but also because he could have become a key witness in a lawsuit brought by the families of 9/11 victims accusing Saudi officials of having ties to the attack.
What’s beyond dispute is that, by the time Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents for a marriage license, he was walking into a trap. Fifteen agents had taken the Saudi government’s private plane to Istanbul, and they were waiting for Khashoggi. The Turkish government had bugged the Saudi consulate. Before Khashoggi’s arrival, government hitman Maher Mutreb converses with Salah Mohammed Tubaigy, a forensic doctor:
Maher Mutreb: “Will it be possible to put the torso in a bag?”
Dr. Tubaigy: “No. Too heavy, very tall, too.”
Mutreb: “I have never worked on a warm body. I normally put on my headphones and listen to music while I cut cadavers.”
In the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s gruesome murder, hearings are held in the United States. Outrage is expressed.
But it’s not as if even this horrific assassination of an American-based journalist will change things. President Trump shrugs it off, saying, “It’s America first for me, it’s all about America first. We’re not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars. … It’s all about, for me, very simple, it’s America first.”
The former diplomat Rundell is even more blunt, saying the United States’ lucrative and politically beneficial relationship with the Saudis “outweighs the death of any one man.”
Not for a second, though, should we believe Khashoggi’s death was in vain or that his life and work didn’t make a difference.
As a friend says, “The best justice for him is a young person reading his writings, knowing about him. … Those that want him forgotten … They will not win.”