Khashoggi’s apparent detention in Istanbul shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In recent months, Saudi Arabia has sought to present a fresh face to the world in the form of its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has heralded a modern vision for his country. He has announced significant reforms, including permitting women in the conservative kingdom to drive, and embarked on what Saudi officials say is a massive anti-corruption campaign that has ensnared some of the kingdom’s most influential citizens, including prominent members of the royal family. At the same time, however, Saudi Arabia has also cracked down on dissidents, arresting dozens of people, including prominent women’s-rights activists, who it says are acting at the behest of other countries, and silencing others for voicing critical views.
What’s puzzling is why the 59-year-old Khashoggi didn’t fall afoul of Saudi authorities sooner. After all, before he left the kingdom in September 2017, he had publicly criticized the Saudi political system and been fired twice as the editor of an influential newspaper: The first time, in 2003, for allegedly criticizing a 14th-century Islamic theologian, and in 2010 for allowing the publication of a column critical of Salafi Islam. He had also given interviews in which he called Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy “obsolete,” and said that “democracy is the only solution.”
In the intervening years, Khashoggi served as media adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Britain and then the United States. “Perhaps it seems odd to be fired by the government and then serve it abroad,” he wrote in the Post. “Yet that is truly the Saudi paradox. In the starkest terms, Saudi Arabia is trying to moderate the extreme viewpoints of both liberal reformers and conservative clerics.”
That view doesn’t quite explain, however, all that is happening in what is arguably the world’s most important Muslim country.
The BBC reported last year that since 2015, three Saudi princes who were critical of the government and living in Europe all disappeared. They are believed to have been abducted and taken back to Saudi Arabia. Late last year, some of the richest men in the kingdom were arrested, detained in luxury, and eventually released shorn of some of their vast fortunes. Prosecutors insisted that this was a demonstration of the Saudi justice system in action, and that the arrests were part of a crackdown on corruption.
Finally, last week, Reuters published an extensive investigation into the dramatic decline in fortunes of the Saudi BinLadin group, for decades the royal family’s favored building contractor. The crown prince, who ascended to that title in July 2017, is credited—or blamed, depending on whom you ask—for these actions. In an interview last year, Khashoggi said the crown prince was “creating an environment of intimidation and fear,” warning that Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy since its founding in 1932, was moving toward “one-man rule.”