Jamal Khashoggi had reason to fear and loathe the Saudi Arabian authorities. The Washington Post journalist and dissident had once been close to the Middle Eastern Kingdom’s ruling family but had since turned fierce critic of his native country.
But love is a very powerful force, and when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to obtain a divorce certificate that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée Hatice Cengiz, he could have expected little more than a bureaucratic procedure, having already been to sign the required documents a few days prior.
What happened shortly after he bid farewell to his anxious fiancée was medieval in its brutality: seized by members of a Saudi security force deliberately flown in to murder Khashoggi, Khashoggi was swiftly killed, his body butchered using a surgical bone saw brought in especially for the operation. It would be weeks before his putrefying remains, and decapitated head, would be found hidden in the garden of the Saudi consul’s residence, a few minutes’ walk from the consulate.
Bryan Fogel’s forensic documentary, The Dissident, features never-before-seen surveillance footage, and what the producers say is «unprecedented access to other damning information previously unavailable to the public.»
Fogel gained the trust of several figures in the investigation, including the fiancée, Cengiz, Agnès Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur who lead the enquiry into the assassination, and Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi activist with whom Khashoggi was secretly collaborating.
There are also interviews with top Turkish and US government officials, as well as appearances by US House of Representatives Speaker, Nancy Pelosi and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos—someone else who has fallen out with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
The result is a chillingly accomplished telling of a story that negotiates a web of «money, power, tyranny, love, and technology run amok.»
The Dissident plays like a fast-paced thriller, opening with CCTV footage of Khashoggi entering the embassy before seamlessly shifting to an interview with Turkey’s lead prosecutor and extracts from transcripts of the chilling audio recordings obtained by the Turkish authorities within days.
«Has the sacrificial victim arrived?» one man asks.
Khashoggi is heard pleading for the men to stop: «You’re strangling me, I am going to die here. I have asthma…» before only wheezing and grunting is heard.
In a story where we know what happened – the murder made headlines around the world, seriously threatening diplomatic relations not only between Turkey and Saudi Arabia but between the US and the Kingdom as well – everything plays on what we don’t know about Khashoggi and his relationship with the Saudi monarchy.
a chillingly accomplished telling of a story that negotiates a web of «money, power, tyranny, love and technology run amok.»
Once an insider
Once an insider, close to the crown princes, Khashoggi was educated at an American university and spoke fluent English. Steeped in the history and culture of his country, he understood the nuances and limitations of operating within a rigid, traditional society, although he always insisted that the monarchy’s rule was not absolute, but subject to a degree of consent from the oil-rich nation’s.
In archive footage, we meet the younger Kashoggi – and are lead to a favourable view of a man who, until 2017, was close to power as an advisory to the crown princes – as Saudi dissidents scattered around the world in exile from Oslo to Montreal, recount their stories of friendship with a man said to have had «an innocent smile».
Other influential friends – from a former Egyptian presidential contender to the ex-head of Al Jazeera’s news operation – also add to the picture of a man who spent 30 years as a loyal member of upper-class Saudi society, before becoming disabused of the regime’s Potemkin attempts at reform.
Marked for death
As disturbing as Khashoggi’s murder was – and the evident grief his fiancée, extensively interviewed, still feels – it is its revelation that he was marked for death after one of his dissident contacts’ was hacked by Saudi Arabia using sophisticated Israeli Pegasus 2 spyware. Omar Abdulaziz has the distinction of sharing with Jeff Bezos, a Saudi phone hack. Abdulaziz is convinced the information on his phone linking Khashoggi to the funding of an opposition Twitter operation to combat a major Saudi troll farm, is what triggered the kill order.
A thorough and forensic film that draws upon top-level sources in Turkey and the USA, The Dissident leaves one with many emotions and thoughts. One outside the box takeaway is that only by weaning ourselves off the drug that is oil can we ever truly hope to be free of the evil influence of super-wealthy fossil fuel dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia.