UK markets closed
  • NIKKEI 225

    28,508.55
    -591.83 (-2.03%)
     
  • HANG SENG

    28,621.92
    -513.81 (-1.76%)
     
  • CRUDE OIL

    62.01
    -0.66 (-1.05%)
     
  • GOLD FUTURES

    1,794.20
    +15.80 (+0.89%)
     
  • DOW

    34,038.50
    +217.20 (+0.64%)
     
  • BTC-GBP

    40,288.27
    +535.64 (+1.35%)
     
  • CMC Crypto 200

    1,293.97
    +31.01 (+2.46%)
     
  • ^IXIC

    13,884.31
    +98.04 (+0.71%)
     
  • ^FTAS

    3,935.64
    +15.59 (+0.40%)
     

The Dissident review – inside track on grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi

Peter Bradshaw
·4-min read

It’s not shown in this documentary, but there is a gruesome TV news clip of Vladimir Putin high-fiving Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 summit in November 2018. This was two months after the Saudi author and dissident Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, into whose diplomatically protected precincts he had been lured to get documentation for his planned wedding to the Turkish journalist Hatice Cengiz. Some of the arms-trading western nations duly raised their plaintive and transient objections. Putin himself had no such scruples. The high-five sent a gleeful signal.

Saudi Arabia’s state assassination of Khashoggi is of a piece with the Russian-greenlit attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in the UK in March that year (which resulted in the death of a British national, Dawn Sturgess) and it had something in common with North Korea’s bizarre “prank show” killing of Kim Jong-un’s exiled half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, a year before that. The Khashoggi killing is an example of a grisly new political theatre: a nation state sending a mafioso “message” across social and mainstream media to expatriates who think they can criticise the homeland. The Saudis denied it, of course; Donald Trump, typically, accepted Bin Salman’s bland assurances that “rogue” elements had to be involved and even his successor, Joe Biden, has declined to sanction the Saudis.

But the damage was done. The one world leader who was outraged was Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, livid that his turf had been encroached on, and his security services duly released the surveillance-tape transcripts, thus casually revealing the open secret that they bug foreign embassies. These documents show in minute-by-minute detail how Khashoggi was overpowered and killed.

Bryan Fogel’s documentary about the Khashoggi murder may not reveal anything substantially new, but it’s a fierce, forceful and highly illuminating film, set out with clarity and verve. In a way, Erdoğan has played Deep Throat; his outrage and document-dump did all the work that might have taken investigative journalists years. But there are gripping details.

The Saudis flew a sinister security expert and a forensic surgeon with dismemberment expertise into Istanbul on a private jet before the hit as part of a 15-strong team. Khashoggi’s body parts were evidently incinerated in the basement and the consulate had ordered about 30kg (70lb) of meat from a local restaurant, to cook it so that the smell would cover up the awful corpse fumes.

Khashoggi himself had for decades before this been a reasonably trusted and loyal journalist in Saudi Arabia. His very moderate and nuanced criticisms made him a plausible ambassadorial spokesperson for a “modernised” Saudi on foreign TV news. But he was energised by the Arab spring during 2011, about which no Middle Eastern country was more furious than Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi befriended the young radical Saudi-born dissident and YouTube megastar Omar Abdulaziz who was exiled in Canada. Like Khashoggi, Abdulaziz had a colossal social media presence – something else that infuriated the Saudi authorities, who employed armies of human keyboard-warrior trolls, nicknamed “the flies”, to abuse dissident voices. (The Saudis did not appear to have matched Russia’s mastery of computerised “bots”.)

Khashoggi ended up in exile in Istanbul, from where he was a visitor to the US and wrote well-regarded articles for the Washington Post, and it was Abdulaziz and Khashoggi’s brilliant Twitter counterattack to the flies that infuriated Bin Salman, with lethal consequences.

One question remains. How could Khashoggi have been so rash, not merely to have stepped into the consulate building, but to have made a preliminary visit some weeks before that, effectively giving the Saudis time to prepare their assault? Abdulaziz tells Fogel that Khashoggi had specifically warned him against doing the same thing, when Saudi officials smilingly invited him to visit the Saudi embassy in Montreal to “renew his passport”.

So was Khashoggi overconfident? Did he think his international prestige protected him? Or was he just human and fallible? He had been forced to divorce his first wife and abandon for ever the idea of seeing his children when he went into his Turkish exile – and then, at the age of 60, he was in love. It is possible that he was thinking of married life as one of gentle retirement in which he would leave the activism to younger people. It is a horrible story of state-sponsored violence from arrogant bullies who calculated – rightly – that they would get away with it.

• The Dissident is available from Glasgow film festival, 6-9 March, Dublin film festival on 11 March and on digital formats later in the year.