Bryan Fogel’s new documentary, The Dissident –which began airing on Amazon Prime Video earlier today – tells the gripping and horrifying story of the murder in October 2018 of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government agents in the employ of the Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS).
Khashoggi was an insider who had worked in the Kingdom’s media industry for around thirty years. However, he was also committed to increasing freedoms in the country and holding those in power accountable: something we would consider quite normal in the West but is unthinkable to most “journalists” who are on the Kingdom’s payroll. Early on we are informed that “In Saudi Arabia, journalists are tools of the regime who are only supposed to write magnificent things about the government and how wise their decisions are.” We are told that the Arab Spring had a powerful impact on Khashoggi who saw how Saudi money had bankrolled the counter revolution that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mursi and restored a tyrannical army-led regime to power in Egypt.
There was no room in Saudi Arabia for anyone critical of the regime and following a number of thinly veiled warnings from Saudi authorities, Jamal Khashoggi left his homeland and moved to the USA where he began to write more freely in the pages of the Washington Post.
Concerned about the extent of power being amassed in the hands of the Crown Prince MBS, Khashoggi got into contact with young Saudi activists living in the West and encouraged them to take on the Saudi Kingdom’s propaganda army on Twitter. Unfortunately, Khashoggi did not know that his phone had been infected with a hacking tool called Pegasus and his words and movements were now being monitored by the Saudi regime. Created by the Israeli company The NSO Group, Pegasus was able to turn a person’s phone into a bugging device that could read all the emails and messages a person sent and could activate the phone’s camera and microphone remotely so it could see and hear what the victim was doing at any point in time. Pegasus had been approved for sale to the Saudi regime by the Israeli Defence Ministry itself. The Israelis have since been shown to have sold the same spying software to a number of repressive Arab regimes to help spy on their populations. It is worth repeating this: the Israelis are directly helping to repress Arab populations and strengthen authoritarian regimes.
During a conference in Turkey in 2018 just months before his murder, Khashoggi met a researcher called Hatice Cengiz who would go on to become his fiancé. Hatice’s participation in the documentary and the story of their relationship provides the documentary with an emotional centre and is very moving. When asked how she responded to Jamal’s proposal of marriage given that she was much younger than him, Hatice says:
“I thought Jamal would do something good for humanity. And if I’m going to spend my life with someone, it can only be with someone like Jamal. I wanted to help him on his journey, to be by his side. Otherwise we all just live life. We’re born, we grow up, eat, sleep, travel. But who we do these things with is what gives life its meaning.”
I won’t give away the ending – though most of you will know what happens next. Still, Fogel’s documentary surprises us by showing us actual transcripts of the recordings made inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by the Turkish intelligence services which conclusively show that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was a not a rogue operation or a mistake or the result of a “fistfight” as the Saudis laughably claimed as they kept changing their narrative, but that it was a meticulously planned operation from the beginning and had MBS’s fingerprints all over it. The Turkish transcripts are genuinely shocking and they enabled the Turkish government to refute the Saudi regime’s lies as it initially denied any knowledge or responsibility for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi.
It is worth remembering that the last article Jamal Khashoggi ever wrote for the Washington Post was headlined “What the Arab World most needs is freedom of expression”. Within days of writing that article, Jamal would become a martyr for the cause of freedom in the Arab world.
The viewer – if you live in the West – is left feeling angry but also relieved that s/he lives in the West. We do not expect our governments to break our doors down and arrest and torture our relatives if we criticise their policies. Though it is nauseating to watch the US President Trump trying to muddy the waters and raise doubts about the Saudi regime’s murderous behaviour.
The sheer terror of living under a totalitarian regime is made clear. How tragic (and perhaps symbolic of the current state of the Muslim world) that Islam’s most holy places in Makka and Madina are under the control of a criminal gangster regime. A regime that has to resort to buying the loyalty of its so-called journalists – including many in the UK.