In a world where “American jobs” didn’t depend on smart-bomb producers and cheap oil, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia might be a defendant in a murder trial. Instead, he’s not on the defensive at all.
In The Dissident, Bryan Fogel tells the story of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who got under the monarchy’s skin for championing free speech in the Arab world. “In Saudi Arabia, having an opinion is a crime,” says one of Khashoggi’s younger friends, hiding out in Canada. Khashoggi’s fatal mistake was that, to survive the loneliness of his self-exile, he wanted a wife. And to legally marry, in October 2018, he had to enter the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, his betrothed’s hometown.
The details of the hit are well known. A team of killers, flown into Turkey under diplomatic cover, lured who they referred to as “the sacrificial victim” to his death, strangling him before professionally chopping him into pieces.
The Dissident adds a few more details, including the fact that among the luxuries of the Saudi consul general’s Istanbul residence is a deep patio “fire well,” for roasting the whole goats and lambs on which the House of Saud likes to feast. Turkish investigators believe that Khashoggi’s body, dismembered so that it could more easily be carried out of the consulate, ended up in that oven. The consul general ordered 70 pounds of meat just before Khashoggi was murdered, and all that roasted lamb was apparently intended to mask the smell of Khashoggi’s burning corpse.
Istanbul’s chief prosecutor says the murderers selected a conference room at the consulate with audio and video connections to Riyadh, allowing for spectators—including, it is implied, Mohammed bin Salman—at home. The robed and hooded M.B.S., every inch a video-game medieval villain, didn’t talk to the filmmakers, but appears in B-roll footage from his public appearances over the years, smirking behind a full-face beard that lends a layer of machismo to a weaselly visage.
No national or global entity has punished or sanctioned him.
Fogel won a 2018 Oscar for Icarus, about doping among Russian athletes, still streaming on Netflix. His investigation into the Saudis for a crime far more barbaric than steroid abuse is apparently too radioactive for the big distributors, and has instead been picked up by Briarcliff Entertainment. Even Amazon—Jeff Bezos is shown in the film to have been personally hacked by M.B.S.’s surveillance malware—didn’t bid on it.
As Netflix C.E.O. Reed Hastings put it in 2019 to The New York Times, explaining his network’s programming ethos: “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain.”
The Dissident is available to watch on Apple TV
Nina Burleigh is the author of numerous books, including Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt and The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox. Her most recent book, The Trump Women: Part of the Deal, is out now