Jamal Khashoggi’s death exposes Urban’s relationship to the Middle East


Phoebe Grandi

Illustration of deceased Saudi-Arabian journalist Jamal Kashoggi, by Phoebe Grandi, Visuals Editor

Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian journalist who self exiled to the United States for fear of getting arrested because of his public opposition to the Saudi government and to the ideals of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). On Oct. 2, 2018, Khashoggi disappeared at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, then, after two weeks of countless conflicting stories, he was confirmed dead by the Saudi government.

Khashoggi visited the consulate hoping to retrieve papers that would enable him to wed his fiancé, who waited outside the consulate for ten hours. During the weeks following Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudi government denied having knowledge of the incident or any relationship to it. However, 15 Saudi Arabian men, four of whom serve as aid to MBS, arrived on private jets in Istanbul early Oct. 2.

After an investigation by a Saudi-Turkish task force, the Saudi Arabian state prosecutor stated that the murder was “premeditated,” and he intends to seek the death penalty for five of the perpetrators. In Turkey’s official statement, they claim that the 15 Saudi agents removed surveillance equipment from the consulate before Khashoggi’s arrival and before strangling and dismembering the journalist’s body.

Although delayed, the U.S. Treasury Department placed economic sanctions on the Saudis accused of Khashoggi’s murder. There is strong evidence from the CIA investigation that MBS ordered for the assassination, but President Trump denies it because he does not want the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia to be jeopardized. In opposition to Trump’s opinion of MBS’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Dianne Feinstein stated that MBS was “complicit” in the assassination and must be held accountable for the “unjustified killing of [the] journalist” as well as “contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”              

The perpetrators’ relation to MBS is significant because he has previously arrested citizens who oppose the government, despite his reformist image. Before his disappearance, Khashoggi told Al Jazeera, “as we Speak today, there [are] Saudi intellectuals and journalists jailed. Now, nobody will dare to speak and criticize the reforms [initiated by MBS].”

Khashoggi often wrote about the need for freedom in the Arab world and directly spoke out against MBS’s policies in the Arabic newspaper Al-Arab, of which he was editor-in-chief. He continued his critique of the Saudi government in the Washington Post while living in the United States. On Oct. 17, his last article, “What the Arab world needs most is free expression,” was published after his death.

Although Khashoggi was writing for the American press, his murder initially lacked coverage in mainstream media and news. Urban history teacher Brooke Roberts said, “If [Americans] were living in a calmer political climate, more attention would have been paid to it.” Roberts believes this story is important for Americans to know because “a major ally of the U.S. clearly murdered an outspoken journalist.”

This fall, Americans have been distracted by an array of major national events. The appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, numerous acts of domestic violence and the midterm elections have left little room for American attention to international affairs.

Rose Bendekgey ‘19, a member of the Middle Eastern and North African affinity space MENA, points out that in the wake of numerous tragic events, such as the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh and lynching of activist Danye Jones in Missouri, Khashoggi’s murder escaped the attention of many Americans. “Obviously those are all horrific tragedies, but it seems looked over that a journalist just trying to do his job was murdered when trying to marry his fiancé,” she said.

Both Tara Kamali ‘19, one of the co-leaders of MENA, and Bendekgey believe that the Urban community’s lack of focus on news in the Middle East could be related to there being fewer Arab than Jewish students at Urban. “I think that the news we take into Urban is more based around our student body and because we have more Jewish students than Arab students, obviously we are going to focus more on the synagogue shooting, which I’m not saying isn’t important… but it is still super important to discuss Arab rights and how Saudis are losing their freedoms,” Bendekgey said. “[Khashoggi] had refuge [in the U.S.] and he went back to Turkey and got killed…it’s so sad that our country has so much tragedy that we can’t seem to focus on all of it.”

Kamali stressed the importance of learning global histories, saying, “it is important to study American history… we live in America [and] understanding the foundations that it was built on is important… but at the same time not everyone in America came in the Mayflower and there’s so many of us that come from different parts of the world… taking a global history class you [also] learn more about American history, so it goes hand in hand.” She added that as a leader of MENA, it is her job to incorporate more outreach opportunities at Urban, but attention to Middle Eastern affairs should exist throughout the community, not exclusively within MENA.

David Sherr ‘20, an avid follower of events in the Middle East, pointed out that any neglect of Middle Eastern news—whether intentional or not—hurts the U.S. and since Khashoggi’s death is a global issue, the United States is affected too. Recently, Trump chose to disregard the evidence of MBS’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder. Sherr believes that this poses as an issue because “the response of the American government is indicative of the [its] views on freedom of the press.” Although the President may not want to take action against the Saudi government, Sherr said, “I’d imagine that the Senate is closer to the views of the American people [right now].”

Having taken Urban’s Modern Middle East class, Kamali observed that the course is the only way to get exposure to the Middle East through Urban’s curriculum, besides World History A (Ottoman Empire) and English 1B (Destination – The Middle East). “It’s sad to hear that because a class is so difficult it turns people off from it… I wish there was more opportunity to bring in topics about the Middle East and talk about them… hopefully the floor will be opened up in Month of Understanding.” Kamali said.