A vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s government who vanished last week was working to launch a pro-democracy advocacy group, The Daily Beast has learned.
Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist and legal United States resident who wrote for The Washington Post opinion section, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Sept. 28. Then he disappeared. Turkish government sources have told numerous outlets, including the New York Times, that they believe Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, dismembered, and smuggled out piece by piece. The Saudi government, meanwhile, has maintained that Khashoggi left unharmed.
Khashoggi frequently criticized the Saudi government in his newspaper columns. And before his disappearance, he planned to turn his arguments into action. Sources familiar with his plans told The Daily Beast that he was working to launch a non-governmental organization whose stated purpose was to boost democracy and human rights in the Arab world.
The group, called Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), was incorporated in the state of Delaware as a tax-exempt organization in January of this year, according to documentation reviewed by The Daily Beast. According to a statement of core principles, the group would aim to provide “a counter narrative in the Arab world and the West to Arab Spring skeptics.” Its members also planned to advocate to corporate leaders, policymakers, journalists, and think tanks on behalf of democracy in the Middle East.
The group intended to push for democratic change even when it ran counter to American foreign policy goals. “Free and fair elections may result in some governments that are less favorable to U.S. interests,” a statement from the group read. “Regardless, America must respect democratic processes.”
“Victims of the Arab world’s authoritarian regimes seek leadership from the U.S. and DAWN intends to provide such leadership,” the statement continues.
The documentation indicates Khashoggi was set to lead DAWN, and that it aimed to gather “Arab Spring exiles who are scattered in various world capitals and cities, to strengthen their morale and utilize them.”
The group also planned to monitor the adherence of regional governments to democratic values and release a yearly report on its findings.
Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, told The Daily Beast his paper was aware that Khashoggi was looking to formally move into the advocacy world.
“We knew of Jamal’s interest in building platforms to promote the discussion of issues that he is passionate about, notably freedom and democracy in the Middle East,” he said. “We’re also confident that he would be transparent with readers about these efforts as they progressed.”
Khaled Saffuri, an Arab-American political commentator and long-time friend of the vanished journalist, told The Daily Beast that Khashoggi had made trips to Europe to raise money for DAWN from Gulf state expats. He said Khashoggi didn’t voice intentions to overturn governments, but rather to expand the rights of people living in the region.
“He told me, ‘I am not in the opposition,’” Saffuri said. “‘I do not want to overturn the Al Saud government. I do not want to replace them with another regime. I just want freedom of expression for the people. We’re in the 21st century; we have to keep up with the rest of the world.’”
He said Khashoggi told him he feared his work could bring risks.
“He knew it was going to put him in danger,” Saffuri said.