The tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, and presumed death, demands accountability, but it should not distract from pursuing the broader agenda of the far-reaching reform program on which the future of Saudi Arabia rests, writes Mohammed Alyahya


After 2 weeks of feverish speculation, accusations and rampant information warfare surrounding Jamal Khashoggi’s fate after he entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, there are credible indications that he is dead. A Saudi official told Bloomberg that Saudi Arabia has launched an internal probe to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance, adding that the Kingdom “could hold people accountable if the evidence warrants it.” The Saudi leadership also promised visiting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday that the Kingdom would hold a “thorough, complete and transparent investigation”. US President Donald Trump has suggested that “rogue elements” could be behind Khashoggi’s suspected killing.

As I sat down to write this article, I became fixated on recalling the first time I met Jamal Khashoggi. I’ve known him for over seven years. We shared panels, roundtables, and dinner tables in London, Berlin, Riyadh, Bahrain, and Washington. Sitting across from Jamal, one could not help but notice a kindness in his soul that would subdue even his staunchest intellectual opponents. I would know because I am one of them.

Jamal saw Islamist political parties as an integral part of the political future of the region and resented his government’s positions on political Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. His worldview was largely shaped by Saudi and US support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s that helped hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was at the center of those events and he witnessed first-hand the energy they gave to Saudi Arabia’s own Islamist countercurrent, the Sahwa movement, in the 1980s and 1990s. I did not witness these events – two-thirds of Saudis are under 30 years of age. This generation did not grow up in the politically-charged days of the war in Afghanistan or the political mobilization of the Sahwa. Their sensibilities differ from those of the previous generation. This is what I argued to Jamal when we last met. Simply, that he should let that era go.

“Sitting across from Jamal, one could not help but notice a kindness in his soul that would subdue even his staunchest intellectual opponents. I would know because I am one of them.”

Saudi Arabia is undergoing a massive transformation that I have supported for the last two years, and that I continue to support. The Jamal Khashoggi saga has proven that a social and economic reformation on overdrive is at too high a risk of failure without the parallel legal and procedural transformation occurring at the same pace and intensity.

Saudi Arabia’s reform process is a transformation that outside observers have the luxury of blessing or cursing. Saudis do not have that luxury. This process is the country’s only option going forward. Outside observers would do well to always consider this reality. No good would come from derailing Saudi Arabia’s reforms, flawed as some may consider them to be. There is no other way than to continue easing social restrictions, diversifying the economy, and most importantly, promoting transparency on all levels: primarily the legal sector. Public trials could be a first step to achieve that last goal.

The outrage that followed Khashoggi’s disappearance is justified. It is expected. The notion that Saudi Arabia would kill one of its own citizens in its own consulate is outrageous and fundamentally uncharacteristic of Saudi policy. Jamal knew this. If he didn’t, he would never have entered the consulate in the first place. Whoever is responsible for this tragedy, especially if they are Saudi, must be held to account for the sake of justice, for the sake of truth, and ultimately for the sake of Saudi Arabia’s future in a region plagued with turmoil and uncertainty.

Mohammed Alyahya is a Senior Fellow at the Gulf Research Centre