by Joseph Duggan
Jamal Khashoggi was a thoroughly charming and charismatic person. In March 2012, I took the last available seat at a luncheon table at the 20th Public Relations World Congress in Dubai. By sheer accident I found myself sitting next to Khashoggi and conversing with him for an hour or so. It was the first and last time I had any contact with the man.
His gruesome murder last month distressed me deeply. Here was a human being, a prominent one in his own part of the world, who had accorded warmth and courtesy to me, a foreigner in his region. I love Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, which embraced my family and me as our adoptive home for a number of years. I would like to see the tens of millions of citizens of Saudi Arabia enjoy peace, prosperity, and greater freedom.
It’s in interest of the West—and that of the whole world—for Saudi Arabia to establish good relations with all of its neighbors, including Israel—a prospect that once seemed impossible—as well as a prospect that today seems impossible, Iran.
Khashoggi’s murder, and the revelation that it had been committed on orders of the government in Riyadh, are a setback to the people of Saudi Arabia and their near-term chances for more constructive engagement with the rest of the world.
What I want to discuss, however, has mostly to do with the dishonest, hypocritical posturing by powerful interests that want to exploit decent people’s revulsion at the murder for dark and selfish ends that will not be conducive to human development and peace in the Middle East.
The Journalist Was a Spy
In our lunch conversation, Khashoggi and I found we had a thing or two in common. We both worked in public communications for entities controlled by the Saudi Arabian government or members of its royal family. From 2009 to 2015, I lived in Dhahran, the headquarters of Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company. An American citizen and former staff member of the White House and State Department, I was part of a large expat community that worked at Aramco headquarters. I wrote English-language speeches for the minister of petroleum, the company CEO and the other top Saudi oil executives.
Khashoggi and I had a lot to talk about, as well as boundaries as to what we sensed we shouldn’t talk about.
He was a longtime Saudi intelligence operative, especially close to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who for many years led the Saudi secret intelligence agency and also served as Ambassador in London and Washington. Khashoggi also had an intermittent presence in the Saudi newspaper and broadcast media.
Khashoggi was a celebrity in his corner of the Arab world, and this was indicated by the interest he attracted as a speaker and participant at the conference. Saudis and other Arabs thronged around our table as Americans back in the day might have sought proximity to, say, Dan Rather at a P.R. conference on our shores.
It was no secret that Khashoggi was prominent in the Saudi intelligence community, nor did anyone believe or pretend that there was anything independent about the newspapers and broadcasting networks for which he occasionally worked. These, no less than the oil company, were controlled by the Saudi regime. Nephew of the billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, Jamal Khashoggi was in the highest echelons of Saudi wealth and power outside of the royal family itself. He was a fixture in the ruling class.
With immense charm Khashoggi told me about a new job he was about to undertake as head of a startup enterprise—a Saudi news broadcasting network that would seek to compete with Al Jazeera, the enormously successful state-controlled broadcasting operation of Saudi Arabia’s neighbor and rival, Qatar. He made the new venture sound like something challenging and fun. This new network was to be headquartered, “for greater ease of doing business,” he told me, just across the King Fahd Causeway from Saudi Arabia in the Gulf island ministate of Bahrain. The network’s owner was the “Saudi Warren Buffett,” nephew of kings, super-investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
Bahrain is to Saudi Arabia what Phenix City, Alabama, once was to Fort Benning, Georgia—a place across a bridge over a shallow body of water in another jurisdiction where, verboten on the other side, liquor flowed and hookers plied their trade. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based on the island. Bahrain does not have a foreign policy independent of Saudi Arabia’s. It is a client state of Saudi Arabia whose dynastic rulers are related by marriage to the Saudi royal family.
Khashoggi’s new gig was to put him at the helm of a network called Al-Arab. Unlike Saudi Arabia—a hard place to get into and, for some of its citizens, to get out of—Bahrain granted no-fuss visas to most foreign visitors immediately on arrival. This convenience and the aforementioned amenities made Bahrain an attractive place for the global flying circus of ink-stained wretches, matinee-idol TV news presenters, technical personnel, hangers-on, and think-tank dons and other such characters serving as permanent or guest talking heads.
Khashoggi’s Fall from Royal Grace
My genial lunch partner and I understood one another. Just as I did not commit the absurdity of claiming to be an independent energy issues writer who by pure coincidence happened to be on the payroll of the Saudi government’s oil company, he made no pretense that Al-Arab would be an enterprise in independent journalism. There was, and there still is, no such thing as independent journalism in Saudi Arabia. Al-Arab was intended as an elaborate influence operation to project Saudi power just as Al Jazeera projects Qatari power.
Al-Arab, like many such enterprises in its part of the world, took a long time to get up and running. It began broadcasting on the first day of February 2015. Eleven hours later Bahraini “security forces” arrived to shut it down. Why did the Bahrain government do this? The most likely answer is that the new Saudi King Salman, who had ascended to the throne only a week earlier following the death of his brother King Abdullah, did not want to permit such an operation controlled and favored by rival members of the family, and he instructed Bahrain to put Al-Arab out of business tout de suite. This sort of sudden, crushing power play is a much-loved tactic in the Middle East.
Khashoggi left Saudi Arabia in late 2017, the same time that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman detained Khashoggi’s patron Prince Alwaleed and other royal and non-royal oligarchs at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton on allegations of corruption. Khashoggi soon was writing occasional columns for the Washington Post. Now that his faction of the royal family was on the outs, he had undergone an epiphany. He had discovered the desirability of respect for human rights, and even democracy! In his Post articles he waged a persistent campaign of criticism of the crown prince.
Was the new Khashoggi a lonely, idealistic individual or the instrument of Saudi factions in opposition to the ascendant crown prince? Common sense would suggest there’s greater probability in the latter thesis.
Khashoggi, and whoever were his masters in the campaign opposing Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were in a transactional relationship with the Washington Post. They used the Post to undermine their rival and elevate their status. The Post in turn used Khashoggi for its ends of virtue-signaling and accumulating the sort of prestige and power it values. The Post and Team Khashoggi were cooperating, consciously and I daresay cynically, in influence operations for their mutual benefit.
In the interest of political correctness, Americans are instructed by the Post and the rest of the leftist Big Media to deplore foreign oligarchs. As even conservatives in America are practitioners of liberal democracy, it’s easy enough for us to comply. Russian oligarchs are very bad. Arab autocrats are also, by their very nature, bad. OK. That’s plain. We all get that.
But what was Jamal Khashoggi, warm and disarming as his personality may have been, if not a powerful player within a faction of a foreign oligarchy? We can deplore it as much as it makes us feel good to do so, but there is no democracy movement in Saudi Arabia, nor is there any culture to support democracy there. Like it or not, that is the reality. Whatever Khashoggi was working for on his final mission, it was not a project to transform Saudi Arabia into a sandier version of Montgomery County, Maryland.
And what are the Washington Post and other big leftist media empires if not powerful oligarchical institutions? In current political science jargon, the media empires are “non-state actors’ with influence exceeding that of many nation-states.
Another Overwhelming Power Play
The saga of Ed Rogers deserves attention here. An acolyte of the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater and the affable Haley Barbour, Rogers is one of Washington’s highest-paid lobbyists. For several years he has been writing columns at the invitation of the Washington Post. To be as charitable as possible about it, his columns are not illuminating. No one in his right mind would describe Ed Rogers as a journalist.
Why then does he produce columns for the Post, and why does the newspaper publish them? It can’t be for the money, but the relationship is transactional. Rogers and the Post swap influence and they provide a sort of mutual protection to one another—except when the Post decides to declare a margin call.
Rogers until a month ago had an extremely lucrative contract lobbying for the Saudi embassy. When Khashoggi was murdered, the Post saw an opportunity to carry out an overwhelming power play. The Post publicly demanded that Rogers drop his account representing the Saudis—or else his column would be banished from its pages.
Rogers promptly rolled over. Millions of dollars vanished from the future balance sheets of the Rogers family.
The Saudi embassy will hire other lobbyists, neither worse nor better than Ed Rogers. The ways of Washington will go on as always. Rogers will continue writing columns, even more worthless than before, and the Post will publish them. The Faustian bargain is intact.
Such is the hideous strength of the Washington Post to blackmail and ravage the reputations of its erstwhile allies or minions. Sometimes I wonder if I am the only person in the world who believes that Rogers’ capitulation to the Post was not just a miscalculation, it was immoral.
The public humiliation of Ed Rogers vastly increased the Washington Post’s valuation in the zero-sum-game influence market.
Has anyone noticed whether the coup de main against Rogers and Big Media’s round-the-clock Khashoggi coverage have contributed to the advancement of justice, peace, human rights, democracy, and respect for human dignity and the rule of law in Saudi Arabia or the greater Middle East?
No? Well, on a more modest scale, have Big Media’s actions avenged the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?
It would seem not.
Try this thought experiment: Suppose Ed Rogers were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Antifa, and that the crime had been televised. Does anyone think the Washington Post would declare war on The Left? Would the Post proclaim that all bets were off because a “journalist” had been martyred? Would it would cut all of its ties to leftists and leftism and demand that everyone else do the same or else face the direst exclusion from respectable membership in the human race?
Big Media Propaganda and Lies
The Post also wages disinformation campaigns to play mind games against its declared enemies and to enlarge its reservoir of power. For example, it employs a preposterously annoying person with no journalistic experience or talent and no conservative political credentials. Her name is Jennifer Rubin.
Rubin has been installed as the newspaper’s “conservative” columnist, and her work consists entirely of diatribes against conservatives and conservatism. In Jennifer Rubin, the Post insists against all evidence that it has found the world’s only “real” conservative, just as O.J. Simpson is determined that one propitious day he will track down Nicole’s “real” killer.
Post writers past and present including David Ignatius, Walter Pincus, R. Jeffrey Smith and, of course, Bob Woodward, practice transactional power politics often in combination with leftist ideological aims. A well-remembered example of this activity was during the Reagan administration, when the Post had a symbiotic relationship with Soviet government propagandists and U.S. government leakers. So feverish and implacable was the Post’s campaign against missile defense and other Reagan strategic policies that it is a wonder success in the Cold War was ever achieved.
Under the ownership of Jeff Bezos, the Post adorns itself with the motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” It’s strange, therefore, that its martyr of the moment, Jamal Khashoggi, while possibly having been a decent human being regardless of what he actually did for a living, definitely was a man to whom democracy, and the culture necessary for democracy, were alien.
At the same time, the Post’s neighbor up north, the New York Times, has wrapped its corporate branding in the sacred mantle of “The Truth.” This is strange, too, for a media enterprise whose value system utterly rejects the existence of objective moral truth.
Those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder obviously have something to hide. Shamefully, so do powerful interests that are trying to exploit outrage against the murder for their own selfish and twisted purposes.
For their part, the Western world’s Big Media enjoy freedom to tell the truth without fear of censorship or reprisal. This is a rare, a precious privilege. Why then do they engage in propaganda, disinformation, flat-out lies?
Big Media’s constant description of Khashoggi as having been a mere “journalist” is a huge and consequential deception. It’s not clear exactly for whom or for what powers and interests Khashoggi was working when he wrote his Washington Post columns, but anyone who understands how the world operates should have a high degree of confidence in saying that he was never a journalist in the sense that word is understood in the free nations of the West.
Of course, he had the writing, editing and broadcasting skills of a journalist, but so do a myriad of other foreign intelligence agents around the world who use journalism as a cover—and in the case of publishing or broadcasting enterprises owned by authoritarian governments, it’s a completely see-through cover. To mischaracterize Khashoggi as having been a journalist is a disservice to the few independent journalists who remain on the planet. It’s a dishonor to women and men who don’t have lavish lifestyles and who report with integrity without being agents of foreign governments.
The Washington Post, which has a direct pipeline to the CIA that bypasses the White House, knows this all too well.
What are the Post’s cunning and persistent disinformation campaigns if not cloaks of darkness that harm democracy? Cui bono?
Jamal Khashoggi was a lively, attractive, interesting human being. No one deserves his cruel fate. His murder was a horrific crime, not only against one man but also against stability and security in the Middle East. That said, justice is not served by Big Media’s misleading reporting. Justice requires reporting clearly and honestly who and what Khashoggi really was. Truth requires uncovering the motives and detailing the consequences of Big Media’s disinformation campaigns.
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Joseph Duggan, a former White House speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a former Reagan State Department appointee, is an international business and public affairs consultant. He recently moved home to his native city of St. Louis.