Not long before he was murdered, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi told his young friend Omar Abdulaziz two things that have subsequently never been far from his thoughts. The first was: “Never forget, your words matter.” And the second: “Be careful, this kind of work might get you killed.”
Omar Abdulaziz, 29, lives in exile in Montreal, Canada, where he has been, before and after Khashoggi’s death, among the most vocal critics of the Saudi regime that killed his friend. His words do matter – his tweets have been viewed nearly a billion times in the past year; he has an almost daily YouTube programme that has clocked up 45m views. And he is left in no doubt of their potential consequence: death threats are routine; both of his younger brothers and dozens of his friends have been arrested and imprisoned in Saudi Arabia in failed attempts to silence him.
Much of this story is set out in the film The Dissident, made by documentary director Bryan Fogel – who won an Oscar for his 2017 movie Icarus, which exposed the full story of the scandal of state-sponsored Russian doping in athletics. The Dissident, no less incendiary, lays bare in horrific detail all that is known of the death of Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where, on the afternoon of 2 October, 2018, he had gone to pick up papers that would allow him to divorce and remarry.
Fogel’s film establishes how the smiling Khashoggi, who had left his fiancee Hatice Cengiz to wait for him in the street outside, was greeted inside the consulate by a hit squad of Saudi government agents who had flown in from Saudi Arabia the previous day. Using the transcripts of tapes obtained from the Turkish government, which had bugged the offices, and in interviews with the forensic team that searched the building, the documentary pieces together exactly how the Saudi operatives suffocated Khashoggi, and a government physician dismembered him with a bone saw in the consulate’s media room.
In the course of the film Fogel interviews Cengiz, who speaks with great tenderness of the life they had planned together, and how that was destroyed. And it details how activists such as Abdulaziz, who was among Khashoggi’s closest confidants, courageously continue their mission to speak out against human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact that the film received a standing ovation when it was premiered at the Sundance festival and has received universally positive reviews, neither Amazon nor Netflix chose to distribute Fogel’s film. Now streaming through smaller independent networks, it is near the top of the iTunes download chart.
I spoke to Abdulaziz on a video link to an anonymous apartment in Montreal last week. He is a relaxed and friendly presence, long used to speaking his mind. He first sought political asylum as a student in Canada after the Arab spring, when the authorities in Riyadh took notice of his Twitter account and called his father to bring him to a government office; he instead fled to the airport. His outspoken political commentary escalated with the emergence of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman – called MBS – as the power behind the Saudi throne and anointed heir in June 2017; Abdulaziz launched his YouTube channel to speak out about the war in Yemen, and the crackdown on dissident voices and imprisonment of political opponents that followed it.
It was those same events that prompted Khashoggi’s flight into exile in the US in September 2017. His departure was viewed as particularly “traitorous” by the crown prince because he had been an insider to the House of Saud; his grandfather, Muhammad Khashoggi, was the personal doctor to King Ibn Saud; he was a nephew of the infamous arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, and a first cousin to Dodi Fayed.
Not long after Khashoggi arrived in Washington, and started writing articles for the Washington Post critical of the growing authoritarianism in Riyadh, he contacted Abdulaziz to connect with a younger generation of dissidents. To begin with, Abdulaziz’s group was sceptical of these overtures. But the more Khashoggi criticised abuses at home, the more he was trusted.
Fogel’s film documents how parliament in Saudi Arabia is really Twitter. Eight out of 10 Saudis use the platform (as opposed to 20% of Americans). In order to control that narrative, the ruling royal family has flooded it with propagandists pushing the government line, and armies of trolls who seek out negative coverage and overwhelm it.
When Khashoggi discovered that his articles were swarmed over by government “flies” in this way, he and Abdulaziz came up with a plan to form their own “army” of Twitter activists to force their statements to keep trending. They gave hundreds of untraceable US and Canadian sim cards to groups of friends across the world who were instructed to do combat with the official propagandists (The Dissident dramatises this battle between “flies” and “bees” using video-game-style animation). Khashoggi funded the first batches of sim cards, which Abdulaziz distributed. That was the moment – fatal as it turned out – Abdulaziz says, when Khashoggi understood that he had crossed over the line from journalist to activist.
At around the same time that this war between bees and flies was being waged, Abdulaziz received a call from someone who claimed to represent Mohammed bin Salman, inviting him to return home, where he would enjoy royal protection. When he declined this offer, two government envoys flew out to meet him in Montreal, in the company of his younger brother Ahmad. Khashoggi instructed him to meet them only in public places, and to record the encounters (these recordings also feature in Fogel’s film).
The envoys begin by promising Abdulaziz his own chatshow in Saudi Arabia, the opportunity to become the voice of the youth. He replies: “You have just arrested many people who said nothing really. And you’re telling me that you want me back in Saudi and nothing is going to happen to me?”
Having failed to make this case, the pair try to insist that he at least accompany them to the Saudi embassy, where he can renew his passport. Again he declines, at the same time trying to seek assurances that nothing will happen to his brother, witness to all these negotiations, on his return home.
Subsequent investigations carefully outlined in the film suggest that a month or so later Saudi authorities hacked his phone. “It was then,” he recalls, “at the beginning of August 2018 that they started to arrest my friends, my brothers, my relatives. Every two, three hours I was receiving a new phone call from someone in Saudi telling me that someone was getting arrested. I was in shock. I made a YouTube broadcast and I said: ‘Guys, this behaviour shows me that something bigger than just arresting my brothers and friends is going to happen. I do believe MBS is going to do something huge.’”
Looking back, knowing what he knows, I wonder if he was surprised that Khashoggi chose that time to go to the consulate in Istanbul to get the papers he needed for his marriage.
“I don’t want to say that he was naive. OK, we knew that we could not do that in Egypt, say, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. But in Canada, in the UK, in Turkey – where there was a kind of cold war against Riyadh?”
Even though he was aware of threats against him, he was still shocked by what followed.
“At that time,” he says of Khashoggi’s unexplained disappearance, “the Turkish government started leaking some information to Al Jazeera. I didn’t believe it. I heard these stories. I was told they had killed Jamal. I said it was fake news. I still didn’t believe that Saudi people would do such a thing. It was as shocking to me as to the rest of the world.”
Khashoggi’s fate might never have been known had Turkish agents not been illegally bugging the consulate. The film stops short of replaying the whole recording of those events, though it highlights Khashoggi’s last words – “I can’t breathe” – and some of the transcription of Salah Mohammed Abdah Tubaigy, the forensic surgeon and army colonel, who is heard discussing the size of the body parts as he saws through them. Khashoggi’s body has never been found, but Turkish investigators in the film believe that the hands and head may have been transported by “diplomatic pouch” to Riyadh the next day as proof of identity.
At that point, Abdulaziz had no idea that his phone had been hacked months before. He now realises that some of his calls to Khashoggi may have been intercepted and revealed their campaign to undermine government propaganda, as well as some of the movements of friends and associates.
Two years on, his brothers and friends remain in prison. “And,” he says, “the number is just rising. When we filmed in 2019 we thought that there were 23 people. Today we’re probably talking about something like 100. It really hurts every morning waking up and knowing that so many people get arrested because of you.”
In some ways, for all the graphic horror of the murder, the most chilling part of the film is an audio of Abdulaziz’s brother Ahmad, who is heard pleading with him by phone to shut down his activism, stop criticising the regime, so that he can be released from jail.
When he received that awful call, perhaps dictated under duress, did any small part of him think enough’s enough?
“They were trying to use my brothers and friends to silence me,” he says. “Jamal was still alive then. I asked him. I said: ‘What do you think about that?’ And he said: ‘Listen, if you stop now and give in, they will only go harder [against dissidents].’ It turns out that they must have been listening to that conversation too. I asked other activists, and they said the same.” If anything, he says, knowing so much about the unlawful detention means that he is more determined to be heard.
Is the internet war between flies against bees also continuing?
“We are trying. But if I’m able to spend $1,000, MBS can easily spend $1m. Two days ago, we launched a hashtag regarding the salaries of workers in Saudi. And in a few minutes, they took that hashtag down, right? We have talked to Twitter a thousand times about what happens. Guys, please fix this, that. But it doesn’t change.” In response to Khashoggi’s death, Twitter suspended 88,000 accounts that it believed were part of that coordinated government operation.
The murder has also prompted the dissident Saudi voices across the globe to be more organised. “We used to be a bunch of crazy individuals,” Abdulaziz says. “And some people would say, OK, they are just loose cannons. But six months ago we formed the first Saudi opposition party [the National Assembly party]. It is headquartered in London.
“We’re not just angry people talking. I think what’s really happened in the last few years gave us the power and the courage to be more professional.”
That courage clearly expresses itself in Abdulaziz’s daily life. He is unable to contact friends or family in his home country, and in Canada he has always to be vigilant, he says. “I can’t announce where I’m going. I’m using a code to interact with others. I’m worried about my safety, but to be honest I’m more worried about the safety of the people of Saudi Arabia. I want to talk about my brothers and my friends, but really we’re talking about thousands of people who are threatened.”
Donald Trump, who made good relations with Riyadh a priority of his foreign policy, and falsely insisted that the CIA investigation into Khashoggi’s murder was inconclusive, turned a predictable blind eye to the regime’s atrocities. (“I saved his ass,” the president boasted of Mohammed bin Salman.) It is unlikely that Joe Biden will be so minded. Last week, after a grim Scheherazade-like 1,001 days in prison without charge, the Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was finally released from jail, in what is widely seen as a gesture toward pressure from the new American administration. “Loujain’s years-long imprisonment has ended, but she is not free,” said Adam Coogle, the deputy director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. “Banned from travel and coerced into silence by a suspended sentence hanging over her, Loujain’s ordeal remains a flagrant miscarriage of justice.”
Abdulaziz hopes that his brothers and friends will also be liberated. I wonder, when they finally are able to talk again, whether he thinks they will understand his stubborn courage?
“I believe that they do not blame me,” he says. “I’m pretty sure about it. I think they would understand that there was a plan to kill me and other people.”
He has faith that the film will help to show that to a wider audience. He has helped to get a free Arabic version of it out on to certain platforms – one, he says, has already clocked up 600,000 downloads. It was disappointing that Amazon and Netflix declined to carry it, but he was not surprised. “I told the producers what would happen from the beginning,” he says. “Everybody who watched that documentary has told me the same thing, that it deserves to be on those platforms. But I knew that they would be scared to do such a thing,” he smiles. “And to be honest. I don’t blame them.”
The film ends with an account of the fact that five of those involved in the murder of Khashoggi were tried and sentenced to death in a Saudi court and three others were jailed (the death sentences were overturned last May after pardons granted by Khashoggi’s grownup sons). The Saudi government said the killing was the result of a “rogue operation”. The UN’s special rapporteur Agnès Callamard, who investigated the scandal, wrote on Twitter: “Bottom line: the hitmen are guilty, sentenced to death. The masterminds not only walk free. They have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial.” Her report held the state of Saudi Arabia responsible for the “premeditated extrajudicial execution” of Khashoggi and recommended that Mohammed bin Salman be personally investigated. “Until that happens,” Omar Abdulaziz says, “We are still waiting for justice to be served… and we will not forget the power of our words.”
The Dissident has its UK premiere online at the Glasgow film festival on 6 March. For more information visit www.thedissident.film