Missing Saudi writer had big plans for his troubled region

Friends, from left, Amro Darraj, Mohammed Kheir Moussa, Yasin Aktay and Azzam Tamimi gathered around an empty chair with a picture of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi placed on it, center, and speak during a live television program for London-based TV station al-Hewar, in Istanbul, late Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Khashoggi was supposed to appear on the show. The TV presenter Azzam Tamimi, a prominent Palestinian and a good friend of Khashoggi, told The Associated Press that the program was planned to discuss his new projects, his books and other issues.(AP Photo/Mucahid Yapici)


— The Saudi contributor to Washington Post who went missing more than a week ago and is feared dead had major plans, including a string of new projects to promote inclusiveness and accountability lacking around the Arab world, his friends say.

Jamal Khashoggi, a prolific writer and commentator, was working quietly with intellectuals, reformists and Islamists to launch a group called Democracy for the Arab World Now. He wanted to set up a media watch organization to keep track of press freedom.

He also planned to launch an economic-focused website to translate international reports into Arabic to bring sobering realities to a population often hungry for real news, not propaganda.

Part of Khashoggi’s approach was to include political Islamists in what he saw as democracy building. That — along with his sharp criticisms of the kingdom’s crackdowns on critics, its war in Yemen and its policy on Iran — put him at odds with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, which deeply opposes Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing them as a threat.

The Saudi journalist, whose 60th birthday is this weekend, had also personal plans. He bought an apartment in Istanbul and planned to marry the day after he disappeared. He planned to commute between Istanbul and his home in Virginia.

Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct.2 and has yet to emerge. Turkish officials believe he was killed in side the building by a death squad that flew in from Saudi Arabia.

A friend and neighbor in the United States, where Khashoggi had a condo since 2008, said the Saudi writer had the contacts and resources to make his plans work.

“He had the wisdom of a 60-year-old. He had the energy and a creativity of a 20-something,” he said, asking to remain anonymous out of respect for Khashoggi’s family.

Khashoggi had incorporated his democracy advocacy group, DAWN, in January in Delaware, said Khaled Saffuri, another friend. The group was still in the planning stages, and Khashoggi was working on it quietly, likely concerned it could cause trouble for associates, including activists in the Gulf, Saffuri said.

The project was expected to reach out to journalists and lobby for change, representing both Islamists and liberals, said another friend, Azzam Tamimi, a prominent Palestinian-British activist and TV presenter.

Tamimi had planned to interview Khashoggi about the project on his show on Thursday, airing from Istanbul. Instead, the show was held with an empty chair with Khashoggi’s picture on it as guests discussed the case.

“Democracy is currently being slaughtered everywhere. He wanted to alert Western public opinion to the dangers of remaining silent in the face of the assassination of democracy,” Tamimi told the AP. “The Muslim Brothers and Islamists were the biggest victims of the foiled Arab spring.”

Tamimi said he and Khashoggi had set up a similar pro-democracy project together in 1992 when they first met. It was called Friends of Democracy in Algeria, he said, and followed the botched elections in Algeria, which the government annulled to avert an imminent Islamist victory.

Khashoggi spoke out against powerful ultraconservative clerics in Saudi Arabia. He was a voice of reform when Saudi Arabia came under intense criticism following the 9/11 attacks, in which a dozen Saudis were implicated.

When Sunni Islamists rose to power in other parts of the region, Khashoggi was pragmatic. He argued that the future of the region can’t be without Islamists and denounced governments’ crackdowns on them. He argued the most effective way to challenge Iran’s growing influence in the region is by allowing Sunni political Islam— a rival to Shiite Iran— to be represented in governments.

Khashoggi was to marry his Turkish fiancée on Oct. 3.

He visited the Saudi consulate several days before he disappeared, and they asked him to return on Oct. 2 to pick up his divorce papers, necessary to legalize his new marriage in Turkey, Tamimi said.

Tamimi said Khashoggi told him at lunch that the consulate staff were friendly and cordial.

After the first visit, he flew to London to deliver a speech and then returned to Istanbul Oct. 1 at night. The next day, he went to the consulate, walking into what Tamimi called “a trap.”

Saffuri said he was surprised Khashoggi returned to the consulate. He said his friend avoided going to the Saudi Embassy in Washington and didn’t talk to diplomats.

“He didn’t trust them. He knew they were up to something bad.”