For years the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked a tightrope—balancing his access to powerful Saudi Royals while pushing for reform in the kingdom—until the tightrope became a noose.
Khashoggi’s murder in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul—where a “kill team” allegedly dispatched by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman suffocated and then dismembered him—brought a gruesome end to a career of remarkable firsts. Among Kashoggi’s journalistic scoops had been reporting on his fellow Saudi Osama bin Laden, long before anyone in the West paid much attention to the radical Islamist.
“He was right there at the beginning when al-Qaeda was being formed, the first journalist to ever take a photograph of Bin Laden,” notes Rick Rowley, director of Kingdom of Silence, the Showtime documentary about Khashoggi. “He was right there in the halls of power in London and in Washington and in Riyadh after September 11th, when the U.S.-Saudi relationship was being re-navigated. He was right there when the Arab Spring erupted.”
Kingdom of Silence, which is contending for Oscar recognition, shows how Khashoggi tried to do the impossible—that is, practice true journalism in a country where the few hold power and there is no such thing as a First Amendment.
“It’s Saudi Arabia, it belongs to the Saudi family,” notes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright, a primary voice in the documentary and one of the film’s executive producers. “The Royals are the only ones that really are allowed to have free expression. And it’s the Royal family and everybody else.”
Khashoggi fell into the “everybody else” category, but skillfully carved out something of an exception for himself by explaining Saudi policies, and even advocating for them, to a Western audience. In other words, he served a purpose for the kingdom’s powerful elite, helping to shape Saudi Arabia’s image abroad and soften criticism of it post-9/11. He also had some friends in high places.
“Jamal enjoyed access to princely protection,” Wright observes in the film, “but that protection depended on the princes themselves having influence.”
Khashoggi began to skate on thin ice (if one can use that expression in connection with a country of boiling hot temperatures) when the Arab Spring erupted a decade ago. Khashoggi strongly supported those democratic uprisings across the Middle East and North African Muslim nations, a position that put him at odds with Saudi leadership, which viewed the movement as an existential threat.
Things got dicier still for Khashoggi after King Salman took power in 2015 and quickly elevated his ambitious son, Mohammed bin Salman, to key posts. MBS, as he is known, wasted no time shoving other Royals aside, including Khashoggi’s protectors.
“That was a coup,” declares Wright.
MBS cracked down on dissent and press freedoms at home, offending Khashoggi, who decided to go into self-exile in the U.S., leaving behind his family in Saudi Arabia. He went to work for the Washington Post, giving him a prominent platform in a country vital to Saudi interests and the Royal family’s survival. That would not have sat well with MBS. Khashoggi also took the bold step of meeting with families of 9/11 victims who were suing the Saudi government for alleged complicity in supporting al-Qaeda.
“Jamal went to talk to their lawyer. He didn’t really say anything, I don’t think, but the question [from the lawyer] was, ‘Would you agree to talk?’ And so he had crossed a boundary,” Wright tells Deadline. “That was, from the Saudi point of view, a terrible development. The man who probably knew more about all of this than anyone, Jamal Khashoggi, was actually in the room talking to the lawyer. That must’ve set off a fire alarm [in Saudi Arabia].”
Khashoggi was supposed to meet the 9/11 families’ lawyer a second time, but never got the chance. He made the fatal error of trusting his safety when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, seeking a document so he could marry his fiancée. He was met by a team of killers, who later left the consulate toting garbage bags sagging with the journalist’s disassembled body.
Kingdom of Silence is one of two Khashoggi-themed documentaries with eyes on the Oscars, the other being The Dissident directed by Academy Award winner Bryan Fogel (Icarus). They are very different films. The Dissident unfolds as a thriller, whereas Kingdom of Silence director Rowley expresses a somewhat different cinematic goal.
“When I began, we imagined a much simpler film, kind of a murder mystery,” Rowley tells Deadline. “But very quickly it became clear that there were much bigger, more important and more interesting questions under the surface. Not just was Saudi Arabia responsible, was Mohammed bin Salman responsible—we now know that’s true—but why? Not just how was this horrific murder committed—we know that now in granular detail—but who was this man who was so important that the king would risk so much to kill and silence him?”
MBS has denied foreknowledge of the plot to kill Khashoggi. And President Trump stood up for him, repelling efforts by Congress to pause U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the killing.
“Trump stands alone in the world’s communities of figures who are protecting MBS in the wake of all this,” charges Rowley. “In Bob Woodward’s recent book, he’s on the record saying, ‘I saved his ass.’ And there’s much truth in that.”
Reports this week claim the outgoing Trump administration has broached the idea of granting the crown prince legal immunity in a lawsuit alleging MBS tried to assassinate a former Saudi intelligence official using the same kill team that rubbed out Khashoggi. If granted, that immunity might also shield MBS from accountability in the journalist’s murder.
To Rowley, this all fits a pattern of U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia. He laments an “environment of impunity…created by just unquestioning U.S. support of Saudi Arabia in whatever insane criminal undertaking it might be involved in, from the war on Yemen, to the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, to the blockade on Qatar. Time and again, when the regime in Saudi Arabia has done these horrific things, we have rallied around them. And that created an environment in which this butchering [of Khashoggi] was even imaginable.”