In October of 2018 the world reacted in horror at the news that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The story of his demise changed hourly. But thanks to the Turkish government’s bugging of the consulate, we now know exactly what happened. It was the Saudi government and in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) who ordered a group of assassins to kill and dismember a journalist whose opinions were in opposition to the story they wanted to be told. Most of what I read around that time spoke of Khashoggi as a brave dissident whose goal was to tell the truth about the Saudi government. And while that was true towards the end of his career, Kingdom of Silence looks at his very close relationship with the royal family over decades as a window into the power and influence they exerted in the region and internationally. And it is a fascinating and frightening story.
Khashoggi’s journalism career began in the 80s when he headed to Afghanistan with a group of Saudis to fight the Russians alongside the Mujahideen. He was immediately impressed by the young, charismatic Osama bin Laden and the two became friends. And they remained so even after the Russians were defeated. He did express disappointment and bewilderment though in his friend following 9/11. But when he returned to Saudi Arabia, he was able as a journalist to become an intimate within the royal family and had access to the highest levels of government and the relationships they cultivated with heads of state around the world. For decades America in particular gave them everything they’ve wanted (mostly arms) in exchange for oil through administrations left and right. The only time someone stood up to them (as least according to the movie) was when Obama in the midst of the Arab Spring suggested they move towards democratic elections. He was treated to an unprecedented lecture by MBS. Even today, they are treated as strategically important allies. MBS and Jared Kushner are reported to be besties. There is a disgusting moment in the film where an ex-diplomat says that preserving the relationship is worth ignoring Khashoggi’s death.
Up until his murder Khashoggi was fiercely patriotic towards Saudi Arabia. It was only when MBS became the leader of the country and his safety was in doubt that he moved to Washington. Initially MBS was viewed internationally as a reformer. And he did some good things, like letting women drive and opening movie theaters. But at the same time he was curtailing press freedoms and locking up or killing people who said the wrong things. So after Khashoggi moved to the states, he wrote about what was going on, particular about human rights. And since he was at a major newspaper, the Washington Post, MBS was not happy. And the reach of Saudi intelligence appears to be very wide. They knew he was in Istanbul and that he was going to the consulate and they set up a kill room, replete with bone saws, and disappeared him.
What Kingdom of Silence does more than tell the evolution of a journalist’s allegiances is to tell the story of Saudi Arabia’s enduring geopolitical power and the complicity of the US in their crimes against humanity. It’s a scary and eye-opening documentary.
On Showtime and VOD.