Everyone should watch the documentary “The Dissident,” which details the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and the Gulf monarch’s offensive to silence opponents.
The documentary is on view not only because it is excellent, but because the absolutist government of Saudi Arabia has done everything so that no one can see it. The feature premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020. It won acclaim and lived up to the high expectations it had raised – director Bryan Fogel has an Oscar for Best Documentary on the program, for “Ícaro”, on doping in Russia.
Even so, it wasn’t until September of that year that the film found a distributor – Briarcliff Entertainment. However, many of the big rigs feared buying a fight with the country which has the second largest oil reserve in the world. The film didn’t end up making its small-scale commercial debut until December 25, but is now finally available on US platforms iTunes and Amazon.
The panic of the Saudi monarchy is justified. Mo hammered bin Salman (MbS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of the country, leaves the film committed to the bone in the assassination of Khashoggi.
The one hour and 59 minute documentary reconstructs the crime in detail. With assistance from the Turkish government, the team obtained security camera footage that captured the moment Khashoggi arrives at the consulate with his fiancée, Turkish Hatice Cengiz. He had gone to get papers to marry her. The scenes show Hatice waiting for Khashoggi in front of the building. He never went there.
The conversations that led to the murder and Khashoggi’s desperate appeals are the most terrifying. The director obtained 34 pages of transcripts of everything that was said in the room where Khashoggi was choked and then dismembered with a saw. In the transcripts, Saudi government officials discuss how to dismember the body for easy transport (one was an autopsy specialist). The film shows that some entered Turkey with diplomatic passports and many were linked to Saud al-Qahtani, MbS’s right-hand man.
According to Turkish authorities, the film shows an oven in the official residence of the Saudi consul, where Khashoggi’s body was reportedly cremated. On the day of the murder, according to the documentary, the consul had ordered 32 kilos of meat, so that the smell of the barbecue concealed the smell of the burnt corpse.
But the documentary also shows Khashoggi’s transformation. After decades as a great insider, the journalist with the greatest access to the Saudi monarchy, he began to feel the siege of MbS. The Prince Regent did not like the assertive tone of some of Khashoggi’s texts and, after the journalist criticized President Donald Trump, banned him from writing. Faced with censorship, Khashoggi decided to emigrate to the United States and engage in independent journalism. He became a columnist for the Washington Post and a staunch critic of the government.
Khashoggi endorsed the initiative of economic openness undertaken by MbS. But at the same time, King Salman’s son was concentrating power and driving out enemies. MbS has arrested hundreds of critics of the regime. With the excuse of ending corruption, he jailed some of the kingdom’s wealthiest businessmen (many of whom were his rivals) within the Ritz Carlton for months, and demanded the return of billions who, he said, came from negotiations.
The West had also embraced the idea of the young reformist Saudi leader. Columnists like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times went out of their way to praise MbS. In November 2017, Friedman wrote a column titled “Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia, Finally”.
The Saudi government pushed for Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia. After all, he was a time bomb, a journalist in possession of several secrets of the monarchy. But he did not return and became a dissident.
Saudi Arabia was punished for dissent. His wife had to divorce and the children never spoke to the reporter again. Khashoggi has become the target of Saudi “flying armies” – government-funded troll factories that shape public opinion of the Saudi people on Twitter. Over 40% of the Saudi population uses Twitter, the highest percentage in the world.
The trolls have embarked on an operation to destroy the reputation of the journalist.
In the United States, Khashoggi has started to cooperate with a YouTuber and blogger critical of the regime, Omar Abdulaziz, who has millions of followers. The documentary is based on Abdulaziz – who also suffered reprisals from the Saudi government, arrested two brothers, one of whom was tortured, and several friends in detention.
The film sins a bit by insisting on the activist and YouTuber Omar Abdulaziz and by trying to make an equivalence between his work and that of Khashoggi.
The documentary has a thriller pace and doesn’t even appear to have two hours. Parallel screens help to maintain attention. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, had a close relationship with MbS, but broke up with the prince after the crime. Bezos also owns the Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked when he was assassinated. In retaliation, he had his cell phone hacked via a file sent by MbS himself via WhatsApp. Shortly thereafter, photos and conversations of Bezos with a lover leaked to a tabloid.
The film not only reveals the earthiness of the Saudi government and its certainty of impunity. After denying knowing Khashoggi’s whereabouts and exonerating themselves of responsibility, the kingdom finally admitted to the murder – though it never assumed MbS was the mastermind of the crime. In a secret trial, five people have been convicted and three arrested for the crime – so far, no names have been revealed.
The negative repercussions of the case led to the fiasco of the meeting dubbed Davos in the desert in 2018. The forum was an attempt by MbS to proclaim Saudi reforms and to attract investors. Following the news of the murder, many businessmen and heads of state boycotted the event. But a year later, investors and heads of state uncovered the crime and attended the meeting en masse – including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Even after the CIA touted US senators and the presidency for the murder, concluding that it was the Prince Regent who had given the orders for the execution.
President Jair Bolsonaro also attended the event in Riyadh, the kingdom’s capital. On this occasion, he met MbS and said he felt “almost brother” to the prince.