“The Dissident”: Takeaways From (and About) Bryan Fogel’s New Jamal Khashoggi Doc
Or, What I Now Know About the Bees.
THE DISSIDENT, the superb new documentary by Icarus filmmaker Bryan Fogel that Hillary Clinton calls “chillingly effective,” dropped on Friday. Expertly made and beautifully shot, it can be seen on Apple TV and various video-on-demand services—but not, crucially, any of the streaming services (of which more later).
As someone who wrote a series of pieces about the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi back in October of 2018, I was especially curious about the film. I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peek, and it did not disappoint.
Here are my takeaways from the must-see doc (caution: spoilers):
1/ MbS is a fucking monster…
The CIA is pretty damned sure—as sure as anything Shane Harris, the national security reporter at the Washington Post, has seen in 20 years covering that beat, as he says in the film—that the brutal execution of Jamal Khashoggi was ordered by Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
And boy was it brutal. After overpowering Khashoggi with a team of Saudi thugs flown in for the occasion, the killers gave him some sort of sedative, and then secured a plastic bag over his head. It took over seven minutes for him to suffocate, during which time he made horrible noises that can be heard on the audio recording of the hit (which, thank god, we do not hear in the film). Then the team cut up Khashoggi’s body with a bonesaw, smuggled it to the Saudi consul’s residence, and burned it up in a tandoori oven—along with 80 pounds of actual meat, which they hoped would cover up the smell of human smoke.
Wait, there’s more! The execution took place in the consulate’s conference room, with its cutting-edge multimedia equipment. The film strongly suggests, but does not directly say, that the proceedings were broadcast for an overseas audience of one—MbS.
It’s not hard to believe the Crown Prince is a psychopath. There are a number of close shots of him in the film, and something is off there. There’s madness in those eyes. He reminds me of Tuco, the crazy Salamanca from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, who was always on the brink of murderous rage. Royals tending to marry other royals, perhaps MbS is the Saudi version of Charles II of Spain. Or maybe he’s just a bad seed. If he did order the Khashoggi hit, and if he did watch on closed-circuit TV as his goons killed and dismembered the defenseless middle-aged journalist, that’s indicative of some seriously fucked-up psychopathology.
2/…and has skin so thin it may as well be translucent.
MbS is painfully, tragically insecure. It is his hamartia, his fatal flaw. And the irony is, it didn’t have to be this way! Some of the reforms he made in the Kingdom were good, and politically savvy, and desperately needed for the despotic and retrograde House of Saud to survive. As I wrote two years ago in Medium:
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United States’ supposed ally, is one of the more repressive regimes going. Women are famously treated as second-class citizens. It is illegal to be gay, to speak ill of the kingly government, to not be Muslim. Capital punishment is meted out by beheading. Slavery was finally outlawed in the Kingdom in 1962, but still continues in the more remote desert regions. The House of Saud made a deal at the turn of the 20th century to link its fortunes to the puritanical and retrograde Wahhabi sect of Islam. The king allows the Wahhabi imams to dictate the way of life of his subjects, and in turn, the imams endorse the Saudi monarchy, who derive their Allah-given authority to rule from the imams. One hand washes the other.
Although a rich country, the bulk of the oil wealth there is controlled by the royal family and a small coterie of other sycophants. Mohammed bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s father, was one of these. The actual unemployment rate is something like 30 percent. Like too many petroleum exporters, Saudi Arabia produces nothing else of value the rest of the world wants. There is no flourishing art scene, no golden age of cinema, as in Iran. Outside the milquetoast royal family, the most famous Saudi nationals are arms dealers and terrorists: Iran-Contra figure Adnan Khashoggi, Osama bin Laden, and 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers.
So when MbS indicated he was moving the Kingdom from the eighth to the 21st century, the Western world was delighted. When the Crown Prince went to Hollywood and Silicon Valley, seeking to diversify the portfolio of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund? That was forward-thinking and smart. When he allowed Saudi women to drive? Way overdue, but also welcome. After so much oppression, all he needed to do was implement a few modest reforms, and he could have dined on that for the next 50 years.
But the guy can’t bear any critique. At all. His fragile ego can’t handle it. And so MbS completely destroyed his reputation, all to silence a journalist—an establishment journalist, not some muckraker.
For decades, Jamal Khashoggi was the ultimate insider, the House of Saud’s Maggie Haberman. He was not the Che Guevara of Riyadh. He was not a revolutionary. He was not even a dissident—not until he was forced into exile. All he wanted was modest reform. “I’m not asking for democracy,” an exasperated Khashoggi says in one clip. “I just want people to have a voice.” The Washington Post writer was always, even while being critical, respectful of MbS and the Saudi monarchy. His reward for that undeserved respect was assassination and the defilement of his remains.
Omar Abdulaziz, Khashoggi’s youthful protégé and the centerpiece of the film, is a far more vocal critic. He is a proud dissident, and wants the situation in Saudi Arabia to improve for his countrymen. Back in 2017 or so, he made his opinions known on social media, especially Twitter. So MbS dispatched his goons to Montreal, where Abdulaziz is living in exile, and made him an offer: His own TV show back home. All he had to do was get on a plane. And, probably, but not directly stated: stop being critical of the Crown Prince. When Abdulaziz refused to “play ball,” MbS arrested and imprisoned his two brothers, torturing the younger one by having his teeth yanked out. The brothers are not dissidents, have not been charged with any crimes. Abdulaziz continues to do his work, to fight for the cause of freedom, but the film captures his painful internal struggle. Is he doing the right thing? Is it all worth it? He blames himself, it’s pretty clear, for Khashoggi’s murder, and for the imprisonment of his brothers. But the fault lies with the Crown Prince, as sensitive as he is sadistic.
Had MbS simply allowed modest dissent to take place, had he given Khashoggi and Abdulaziz permission to be critical of the government, he would have been regarded as the bigger man, and welcomed by elites in the United States and other Western countries for years to come. Now? He’s rightly seen as a pariah.
3/ The Saudis have bots.
According to Abdulaziz in the film, social media, and Twitter in particular, is especially influential in the Kingdom. In the U.S. and Canada, twenty percent of the population is on Twitter. In Saudi Arabia, it’s eighty percent. So to control that space, the paranoid Crown Prince set up a massive operation of Saudis who patrol the internet on his behalf, drowning out dissent with asinine pro-MbS hashtags. The ghoulish functionary who oversees this massive operation is—ta-da!—the same guy who handled the Khashoggi killing.
Abdulaziz calls the Saudi bots “The Flies.” He tried to combat The Flies by setting up a sort of Twitter insurgency, composed of real people, but with SIM cards outside of the Kingdom, so they couldn’t be tracked down. “The Bees,” he called them. This effort was financed by Khashoggi—and that, Abdulaziz believes, is what compelled MBS to have the man killed.
4/ Saudi intelligence can hack anything.
MbS used some of his vast fortune to buy Pegasus version 2, the vaunted hacking software, from the Israelis. And the Saudi hackers are good. The Crown Prince was chummy with Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO and the richest man in the world, from his days barnstorming Silicon Valley looking for places to invest sovereign wealth fund capital. They would hit each other up on WhatsApp. Which is how the Saudis hacked Bezos’ phone, found dirt on him, and attempted to strongarm him into killing the Khashoggi pieces that were running at WaPo, which Bezos also owns.
This did not come to pass. Bezos did an end-around, got in front of the story, and that was that. But if MbS can get to Bezos, who presumably has the best security money can buy, he can get to anyone.
5/ It was mostly Republicans in the film who criticized MbS about killing Khashoggi.
Not Trump, who pretty much blamed the Khashoggi hit on the same 400-pound man in his parents’ basement he said hacked the DNC. But GOP stalwarts like Rand Paul and Bob Corker were pretty scathing in their rebukes of the Crown Prince. (Nikki Haley, remember, resigned right after the assassination). Not sure what this means, but it was refreshing to see Republicans denounce tyranny, rather than adopt it as a plank in the party platform.
And here are my takeaways about the must-see doc:
6/ Jared Kushner is the missing link—but he’s barely mentioned in the film.
For the first two and a half years of Trump’s presidency, the United States did not have an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. That role was filled by Jared Kushner, bosom friend of MbS, who during the Obama years introduced the Crown Prince to his chums in Hollywood and Silicon Valley—including his brother, Josh, a bigger player in all of this than most people realize.
As I explained in a piece for Medium two years ago:
With respect to the assassination, Trump and Kushner both have skin in the game. Saudi Arabia was the first state visit Trump made as president, a trip organized and pushed for by Kushner, who is chummy with MbS and has acted as the de facto ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi was not banned from Saudi media for his criticisms of MbS, but rather for his criticisms of Donald Trump. More importantly, U.S. intelligence knew of a plan to lure Khashoggi back to arrest him, so the president and the de facto ambassador to Saudi Arabia must have also known. If they knew and did not share the information with Khashoggi, they are liable. Per the Washington Post:
Intelligence agencies have a ‘duty to warn’ people who might be kidnapped, seriously injured or killed, according to a directive signed in 2015. The obligation applies regardless of whether the person is a U.S. citizen. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident.
Why exactly are Trump and Kushner going to the mat for MbS? Is it to advance U.S. interests—or their own?
Last October , Jared Kushner paid an unannounced visit to Riyadh, where it’s reported that he stayed up until the wee hours talking “strategy” with the crown prince, apparently his new BFF. He allegedly gave MbS an “enemies list” culled from the classified president’s daily brief, which MbS seems to have used the following month to purge disloyal relatives from government and take their money. Also last October, Kushner’s company received a $57 million loan from Fortress Investment Group, which was recently purchased by SoftFund, a Saudi investment concern, to bail out its troubled property at One Journal Square in Jersey City. (A larger and more widely-reported loan, to bail out the troubled property at 666 Fifth Avenue, came the following summer, via Qatar.)
I don’t fault Fogel for glossing over Jared. In terms of narrative flow, Kushner is tangential to the story told in The Dissident. Hopefully the film will inspire journalists to dig a little deeper into Boy Plunder’s cushy relationship with the odious Crown Prince.
7/ MbS seems to have used his influence to make The Dissident harder to watch.
The Dissident was supposed to be released in October, and that was pushed back, and then on Christmas, and that was pushed back, and even now, none of the streaming services are carrying it. It’s pay-for-view only—$19.95 on Amazon. Which is strange, because Icarus, Fogel’s previous doc, streams on Netflix.
Or maybe it’s not so strange. Nicole Sperling wrote a piece in the New York Times about Fogel’s difficulty finding distribution on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services, which the director believes was “a sign of how these platforms—increasingly powerful in the world of documentary film—were in the business of expanding their subscriber bases, not necessarily turning a spotlight on the excesses of the powerful.”
No doubt that plays some part in it, although this take is contradicted in the same NYT piece:
Netflix declined to comment, though a spokeswoman, Emily Feingold, pointed to a handful of political documentaries the service recently produced, including 2019’s “Edge of Democracy,” about the rise of the authoritarian leader Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
What the film doesn’t tell us, because it’s a bit off-topic, is that MbS invested a shit-ton of capital in Silicon Valley and in Hollywood. For example, he had a huge stake in William Morris Endeavor (WME), the behemoth agency, which, after the Khashoggi killing, returned 400 million of the Crown Prince’s now-bloody dollars. As news trickled out of Istanbul about the October 2018 hit, a livid Ari Emanuel—“King of Hollywood,” prime mover of WME, brother of Barack Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, former agent to Donald John Trump, and inspiration for Entourage’s Ari Gold, among many other things—rung up Kushner and gave him an earful. Presumably, the excoriation went something like this: “Jared, you Slenderman motherfucker, why didn’t you tell me your BFF was the Hannibal Lecter of Saudi Arabia before you let us take his money? Fuck you!”
Let me be clear: WME was one of many, many American companies that took Saudi investment capital. And at the time, they were well advised to do so. A reform-minded Millennial Crown Prince, vouched for by the not-yet-toxic brothers Kushner, with more cash than he knew what to do with? Anyone would have taken that money. I would have. You would have.
The problem is, so much Saudi money has been injected into the market, it’s impossible to extricate. Via SoftBank’s Vision Fund, the largest venture capital fund of all time, which gobbles up blue chip stock, MbS owns stakes in lots of big media companies—including Amazon and Netflix. If the Crown Prince wanted to, he could divest himself completely overnight, which would torpedo their stock prices and roil the markets. MbS was willing to send a hit squad to Turkey to murder and dismember an avuncular journalist to avoid bad press. Do we really think he wouldn’t dump shares of Amazon or Netflix stock—or, at least, threaten to do so—to keep it all on the down-low?
It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened. A year ago, Netflix pulled an episode of Patriot Act with Hassan Minaj in Saudi Arabia that the government deemed too critical of MbS’s role in Khashoggi’s killing. Now, the streaming services—including Bezos’s own Amazon Prime! Bezos, who is portrayed heroically in the film!—have snubbed The Dissident.
Whether the companies passed on the film on their own, or did so as a direct order from one of their largest and most important shareholders, we can’t say. But it seems pretty clear that The Dissident is not on the streaming services because this petty, insecure dictator does not want it seen.
8/ Bryan Fogel is a badass.
Fogel has now taken on Vladimir Putin, in Icarus, and MbS, in The Dissident. Those are some scary dudes. He’s as brave a filmmaker you’ll find. I hope he is safe. And I hope viewers honor his courage by watching this remarkable film.
Photo credit: Mazen Al-Darrab, via Wikipedia.