We had been travelling for 13 hours, changed planes twice and flown over hundreds of miles of desert. Finally we had arrived in Abha, a small city deep in the south of Saudi Arabia, 100 miles north of the Yemeni border.
It was March 2009. My colleagues Ryan, Zadok and I were there to work on the re-design and re-launch of Al Watan (the Nation), one of the Kingdom’s four newspapers of note.
Al Watan is the most liberal newspaper in the Kingdom. Although hardly ‘radical’ in British terms, Al Watan is a brave newspaper, pushing boundaries in the Kingdom, occasionally having its licence to publish suspended as a result. The production HQ was located in Abha because Khalid al Faisal, then Governor of this southern province, had secured an elusive regional newspaper licence for the south, allowing it to quietly develop its national reach and influence.
Watching other travellers disappear in a haze of dust in huge trucks, 4x4s and American gas guzzlers. There were no taxis. It was clear that, despite well-laid plans, we had been forgotten.
We hitched a lift to the newspaper’s HQ courtesy of a grizzled man with a car full of sand whose fragmentary English focused entirely on dollars. On the way we passed a flatbed truck with two camels kneeling on the back, strapped down by a loop of rope. The driver had a band of ammunition wrapped round his chest.
At 10am outside the glass and marble HQ only the confused, Pakistani cleaners were working. We blagged our way past an entrance with huge chandeliers and expanses of marble to find long office corridors, a huge news floor and a two shiny printing presses sufficient to print 30 times the number of copies required.
An hour and a half later the first journalists and editors started arriving. By the end of the day a third of registered staff had turned up.
Two weeks later things had changed: each day more staff appeared as word of interesting change spread; we trained them to create graphics, use bigger images and write features; more pages of the new look paper were designed in parallel to the live edition each day; the worst pain of implementation was slowly waning.
Then, one morning, the office was full.
The Editor-in-Chief was joining the push towards relaunch. He arrived in a large, black Mercedes; a tall figure in his immaculately pressed white gamis covering the curve of a well-rounded tummy; a red and white chequered shemagh headscarf was wrapped round his head.
It was Jamal Khashoggi.
Now confirmed dead, murdered in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul – an act Turkish authorities claim was carried out with medieval brutality – Jamal was a man with whom our small team would work on and off for the next 6 months and with whom I remained in occasional contact in the years that followed.
During the decade since, Jamal moved from Editor-in-Chief to work in television news and, through the power of social media, established himself as a leading liberal voice commentating on Saudi Arabia and the fractious politics of the Middle East.
Jamal was a man with a richly varied history. As a young man he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a socially and religiously conservative Sunni organisation whose beliefs clashed with the erratic and profligate behaviours of some members of the Saudi royal family. Jamal became a journalist and covered the Afghan war, reporting on the role of Saudis and other Arabs in the conflict.
He was not an outsider. Jamal mellowed with age and became close to segments of the Saudi royal family. When Osama bin Laden was based in Khartoum, long before 9/11, Jamal was sent by the Saudi government to persuade him to renounce violence and return to Saudi Arabia. Later Jamal was media advisor to Prince Turki Al Faisal when ambassador first to London and then to Washington. Jamal’s phone would ring and he would disappear to royal palaces for long meetings.
Jamal did not shy away from difficult political issues. After 9/11 he had the courage to talk about the social, economic and religious issues within the Kingdom that helped create a cadre of young, Saudi men ready to fly aeroplanes into icons of American economic and military might. (15 of the 19 men involved in 9/11 were Saudis). More recently Jamal was vocal in his concern at the growing autocratic tendencies of its leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and expressed horror at the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen.
This courage almost certainly resulted in his death.
Ideas, facts, open discussion, opinion and furious debate were the heart of Jamal’s world. Jamal poured over the re-design, the new logo, the structures, the templates and editorial formats we had created. There were long discussions with his editorial team as he sought not just to sell more copies but to open up new ideas within the strictures of state controls. He saw that careful use of factual graphics allowed powerful points to be made without provocative headlines; that crafted, visual features (then an innovation in the country) could be brought to life controversial issues from blood revenge between clans to women in the workplace; and that better presentation of columnists could turn them from journalists into recognised commentators, something he was delighted to use in raising his own profile too.
In our meetings Jamal explained his views of the Kingdom. Looking back at my diaries from the time, a few notes from our conversations stand out.
‘You are a citizen. I am a subject,’ Jamal explained early on. Saudi Arabia is a Kingdom in which the land belongs to the King. The people are his subjects. Ultimately the word of the King is all. Jamal would remind me that Saudi Arabia is a young country, unified by war within the last hundred years, with old attitudes just beneath the surface. The American and British educated men and women we met through our work covered a limbic core with less rational, baser impulses.
‘Here too many still see disagreement as heresy.’
Jamal, like the Saudi leadership, felt the pressing need for change both economically and socially. ‘If my generation goes out on the streets, it is not an issue. We will be crushed within minutes. If the young generation rebels, there is chaos,’ he said. Around three quarters of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 35. Official unemployment is at 13% but for the young this figure is far, far higher with a bored generation emerging that is dependent on the trickle-down of public and family money.
Mohammed bin Salman is driving radical experiments in social and economic change - huge investments have been made into the domestic economy with the aim of creating whole new industries and half a million jobs by 2020. It is the means of change where the Kingdom’s leadership and Jamal disagreed. Jamal and I built respect through discussion, debate and, at times, loud disagreement. Under MbS’ rule, competing voices have been silenced, the highest echelons of the Royal family and business world intimidated through imprisonment and the Prime Minister of another sovereign state detained (Saad Hariri of Lebanon).
In my diary notes a final line stands out - ‘Here too many still see disagreement as heresy.’ Somebody in the limbic heart of power decided that it was time that the Kingdom was ridded of this troublesome journalist who spoke truth to power.
Jamal’s clear, brave voice will be missed.
Let others fill his place.