The Dissident tells the story of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It is gripping, enlightening, and moving.
This film was quite an eye-opener for me, going into a wealth of context I did not know. I followed the story in the news at the time, but my reaction was “Brutal regime murders journalist. No mystery there then.” I didn’t feel the need to dive much deeper into the details because it was so obvious that no explanation seemed needed.
But there is a huge amount of pertinent context to Jamal’s killing. Firstly, the idea of Saudi Arabia as a place that always has been and always will be as oppressive as it is now, is a reductive over-simplification. Reporting usually has slightly racist connotations of the ancient (and backward), brutal rulers of the ruthless and opulent East, this image of sultans chopping off hands, in an unchanging and unvarying stereotype from a timeless age. This obscures the truth of what is actually happening in the 21st century in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And it makes it harder to tackle the reality of government oppression, and denies and erases the reality of activists and citizens who resist on a daily basis.
In Saudi Arabia, 8 out of every 10 citizens is on Twitter. There has been for generations a suppression of free speech there, but the boom in social media has overturned that in an extremely short time frame. With IRL speech dangerous, online is the only place to have open discussions about the state of the country. It reminds me of a joke in the movie Rosewater, another movie about a journalist being targeted by the state, where his interrogator accuses the protagonist of disseminating anti-government propaganda through newspapers, and the journalist replies that there would be no point doing that, it’s a dead medium.
The Saudi Arabian government has reacted quicker than most to the digital revolution, and has strategies to neutralise online dissent. They have a building with 1000 government staff all with multiple dummy accounts who flood Twitter with pro-government propaganda, to drown out the noise of any differing opinions. Like Russia and China, it has top-level hackers.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s government is changing. While yes, it is a monarchy, not a democracy, the king used to have a wide range of other royals as government appointees. To our ears this sounds worse, because then you’ve just stacked ever more of the same powerful family into positions of power, but it had the converse effect of dispersing power among a range of powerful individuals. Yes, not great, but what is happening now is worse. Because Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) is wildly ambitious, and has been strategically removing from office other royals, and concentrating power solely on him. And up until Jamal’s murder, he was doing so with excellent spin. He was seen as a reformer and moderniser, purging corruption from within the royal ranks. He pushed through many popular policies, such as allowing women to drive, and allowing cinemas and concerts.
So where does Jamal fit in this story? Despite how he is seen now, as a martyr for free speech, Jamal spent most of his life in government reporting institutions, he was part of the establishment. He was a supporter of MBS, seeing his values and goals for the country as aligned with MBS’s espoused vision. He considered himself a patriot, and was not particularly bothered by the Saudi style of reporting, which he saw as basically telling the truth while not being disrespectful to the honoured institutions of the royal family. While he met with reprimand on some stories over the course of his life, he was considered a loyal servant of the state.
So how did he get from there to here? Step-by-step, and very much against his will. While speech was always limited in Saudi Arabia, MBS’s rise to power saw a crackdown. And several journalists, colleagues of Jamal, were arrested. Jamal, as someone considered friendly to MBS was let off with a warning, but even the intimidation he faced was enough to make him flee the country. Even then, he believed he would return, that things would calm down, that he would watch for the release of his colleagues. But things got worse, and he was now seen as a defector. His wife had to divorce him to protect her and their kids. He was fired from all his Saudi Arabian outlets, and he became targeted by trolls on Twitter. It was MBS’s overreaction that drove Jamal from someone content to see the country change little by little to someone who became an activist against increasing government tyranny.
And that was why Jamal was considered so much more dangerous. Because he had spent his entire career on the inside of the establishment, he knew how they worked, he had powerful connections, he knew MBS, and he had a large following because he had mainstream exposure. And now he was going rogue, using his platform and knowledge to speak about against MBS, and hiding behind the shield of American residency and employment at the Washington Post.
He was not just any journalist. And he was considered far worse than any protestor who was on the outside of things. MBS took Jamal’s defection and criticism as a personal betrayal.
And worse, when Jamal started to meet up with other dissidents like Omar Abdulaziz, he became a mentor to the younger generation of activists, and they in turn radicalised him and educated him on how new technology was being utilised for surveillance and oppression. He learned of the government tactics on social media, the new frontier of propaganda, and started to organise an online resistance. And for the Saudi government, if you are trying to counter their cyber attacks, that means you are engaging in war against the state.
That is the big picture part of the story, but this film also has the very human part of this story. Jamal was a man, who at the age of 60, had the life he had built for himself taken away. And while he had his integrity, he facing a lonely life in a strange land. And then he met Hatice Cengiz, and fell in love. And they planned to marry and start a new life together. And while he had taken every precaution to stay clear of his government’s reach, if they were to wed, he had to get a marriage document from the Saudi embassy. So he and the woman he loved turned up in the bright sunshine of the afternoon, and he told her to wait for him outside while he stepped inside and got it. And she stood. And she stood. And she stood. And hours passed, and she began to worry, and she called the police, she called journalists, she called Jamal’s friends with political clout. And she stood there until 1 in the morning. And he did not come out. And that’s because she had stood outside on the street while he was being murdered in that building. It is a nightmare we cannot even imagine.
And now this is the future she has, trying to hold to account her fiancé’s murderer. It is not what she wanted, but it is what has come to pass.
It is a deeply moving story, showing the best in people, who act with love and integrity, and the worst in people, who act with cruelly and callousness.