The mystery surrounding Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, has drawn scrutiny to the Saudi government’s efforts to silence critics at home and abroad.
But Mr. Khashoggi’s case is more complicated.
While he had become known as a dissident writer in recent years, he was a longtime insider who remained close to some of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful princes.
One of the country’s best-known journalists, he clashed with the clerical establishment for his socially liberal views. His sympathy for democratic movements drew the ire of the Saudi government, particularly for the Muslim Brotherhood, which the royal family views as a threat to its absolute monarchy.
The rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the crackdown he oversaw against dissidents ranging from clerics to women’s rights activists, pitted Mr. Khashoggi against the establishment that had long tolerated him, and ultimately he decided to leave for the U.S. last year.
Fellow Saudis implored him to return with a mixture of blunt intimidation and subtle flattery he suspected was a trap. Saudi officials told him that his views were valued, and that he could contribute to the monarchy’s new vision—maybe even work with the government, according to his friends who recounted these conversations. Pro-Saudi government
users hounded him, branding him a traitor.
“Your end will be painful, Mr. Jamal,” one Twitter user told him in March.
Turkish officials now suspect Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by a Saudi intelligence hit squad in the consulate the day he visited. The Saudi government has denied the accusation, and claimed Mr. Khashoggi left the building shortly after he entered it. Representatives for the Saudi government didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
The journalist, who was 59 when he disappeared, had believed he was safe in Istanbul. “He trusted Turkey even more than the U.S.,” said a Saudi friend of Mr. Khashoggi.
Mr. Khashoggi was close to the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ties with Saudi Arabia had become increasingly strained in recent years. Turkey backed Qatar in its diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia last year, and like Qatar, Turkey also differs with Saudi Arabia over its view of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Khashoggi knew President Erdogan personally and was a friend to some of his closest advisers, say people who knew him. During a conference in Turkey this past spring, he met Hatice Cengiz, a Ph.D. student. Over the summer they agreed to marry.
For most of his life, Mr. Khashoggi’s views broadly aligned with those of the Saudi establishment. A scion of a prominent Saudi family, he embraced in his youth the wave of Islamist fervor that swept the kingdom and was influenced by Muslim Brotherhood ideology.
He traveled to Afghanistan as a journalist, where he became the first Arab journalist to interview Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s. “A lot of them went to fight. He went to report,” said Peter Bergen, an American journalist and academic who knew Mr. Khashoggi.
In the 1990s, he reported from across the Middle East, where he became acquainted with different schools of political Islam. He was removed three times as editor of a leading Saudi daily, Al Watan, for crossing red lines, such as criticizing the religious establishment.
Through it all, he maintained close ties to some of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful princes. In the early 2000s, he served as an adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence, during the prince’s time as ambassador to the U.K. and the U.S. He was a friend of the billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal.
“He had been part of the establishment,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former top State Department official for the Middle East, who knew him.
Until the current Saudi leadership came to power, Mr. Khashoggi never thought of leaving his homeland, he said over multiple conversations with The Wall Street Journal before his death.
That began to change in 2016. After the election of President Trump, Mr. Khashoggi made comments critical of him. The Saudi government, eager to cultivate better relations with the Trump administration, swiftly banned him from speaking publicly, Mr. Khashoggi told the Journal.
Fearing he would be arrested or banned from leaving, he left Saudi Arabia. In the U.S., he became a contributor to the opinion pages of The Washington Post, which along with his nearly two million Twitter followers, gave his praise and criticism of the Saudi royal family enormous weight. In his penultimate column, Mr. Khashoggi said democracy in the Middle East couldn’t happen without the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes,” Mr. Khashoggi wrote Aug. 28. “There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it.”
He maintained cordial relations with some Saudi officials.
“Jamal has many friends in the kingdom, including myself, and despite our differences, and his choice to go into his so-called self-exile, we still maintained regular contact when he was in Washington,” Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, D.C., and a son of King Salman, told reporters earlier this week. He has dismissed accusations of official Saudi involvement in the journalist’s disappearance as baseless.
Among the Saudi officials who contacted him after his departure was Crown Prince Mohammed’s media adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, according to a Saudi friend of Mr. Khashoggi.
“They told him: ‘You are a valuable voice, you should return to Saudi Arabia,’” recalled the friend. “They were trying to lure him back.”
His departure had come around the time when Saudi Arabia and its closest allies broke diplomatic ties with neighboring Qatar, citing Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood among the reasons.
Much to the frustration of the Saudi government, Mr. Khashoggi continued to write favorably about the group.
U.S. officials have pointed to Mr. Khashoggi’s views on the Brotherhood as one issue that likely irritated Saudi royalty.
What We Know About Jamal Khashoggi
“There is very little nuance in how the Persian Gulf monarchies see the Muslim Brotherhood,” Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “They view them as an inherent threat and evil.”
Although he denounced the rapidly shrinking space for public discourse in the kingdom, he applauded some of the social reforms spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed, such as the decision to allow women to drive.
Mr. Khashoggi became deeply homesick, but he didn’t feel safe enough to return.
Mr. Khashoggi has four adult children, three of whom are U.S. citizens, a U.S. official said. The fourth, a son named Salah, is in Saudi Arabia and holds Saudi citizenship. The Saudi government barred Salah from traveling outside the kingdom after his father left the country, according to friends of the journalist. Mr. Khashoggi lobbied to have the ban lifted, appealing to Saudi officials including Mr. al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s media adviser, and Prince Khalid, the ambassador, but to no avail.
Still, his criticism of the monarchy alienated him from his family back home, and he and his Saudi wife soon agreed to divorce.
During his time in exile, Mr. Khashoggi’s views on the monarchy hardened. In early 2018, he founded a pro-democracy nonprofit group called Democracy for the Arab World Now, according to a friend.
Mr. Khashoggi was preparing to start a new life with his Turkish fiancée, Ms. Cengiz, who accompanied him to the consulate on Oct. 2 and said he never came out it. He had an appointment to pick up documents related to his divorce.
Before he went missing, he noted that even members of the Saudi royal family—once thought untouchable—were now just as afraid as common citizens that Crown Prince Mohammed might order their arrest for speaking out.
“There’s no room for people like me,” Mr. Khashoggi said to the Journal in July. “If I go back, I have to dance their dance.”
He added: “If America cares about Saudi Arabia, they should be worried about Saudi Arabia.”
—Warren Strobel and Peter Wonacott in Washington, and Summer Said in Dubai, contributed to this article.