• Natalia Golysheva

The tricky narrative of Khashoggi's death

Or how to make your fantasy credible even in the case of a state sponsored killing.

Saudi Arabia's controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

When dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into Saudi consulate in Istanbul early October, he didn’t expect to be immediately strangled. The ones who killed him didn’t expect it either, it was said, - it all just went terribly wrong. Do they mean the killing or the cover up and the huge international shit storm that followed? After all, the Riyadh-led war in Yemen killed thousands of civilians and yet the world did not seem that outraged.

From the 2nd of October when Khashoggi entered the consulate in Istanbul to retrieve his paperwork necessary for the upcoming marriage to then never return, Saudi government offered four consecutive versions of the events, none of them particularly credible. First, they said he stayed there for an hour and left, and that all the talk about the journalist’s disappearance was “completely false and baseless”. Then - that he in fact disappeared. Then – that he accidentally died in a fistfight. Now the authorities admit he was strangled and that his death was actually planned.

The patchy and brooding narratives, nudged by the leaks and statements from Turkish officials, suggest two alternatives: either Riyadh do not have control over their operations abroad, which frankly is hard to believe; or that they deliberately try to conjure a false story in a desperate attempt to contain reputational damage – and shot themselves in the foot instead.

Fantasy element

What’s the best known strategy when faced with the hard facts of a horrible state sanctioned killing? Blame it on the boogie. When the conversations at the royal chambers shifted from denial to damage control, Riyadh announced that this was a “rogue operation”, launched an investigation and vowed to punish “those responsible”.

But in a country where no stray action is allowed unless directly sanctioned by the authorities, and where terror is used to suppress freedom of speech, to suggest that a group of intelligence operatives flew to a foreign country to kill an outspoken government critic as soon as they met him – would be a fantasy element worthy of fiction.

You might inquire that infusing an ordinary story with fantasy elements works well for novels, why wouldn’t it work for real life events? The answer is – it certainly could work for real life events, as long as you understand that fictional stories are make-believe on the surface, but true in their core. And the other way around: real life stories may be totally believable on the surface, but underneath if they are devoid meaning, they don’t inspire credibility.

To sum it short: It’s not enough for the story to be realistic, it has to be meaningful.

The issue of credibility

Experienced spin doctors will tell that what really happened doesn’t matter as much as why it happened. As long as your story sounds meaningful, there will be people who support it.

A believable story needs believable characters – heroes and villains; believable conflict, driven by desires; and believable motivation.

In the public eye Khashoggi was standing for goodness, wanting his country to be free of oppression, while Riyad saw him as a dangerous Islamist and a man who rocked the boat.

The journalist went into the Saudi consulate to retrieve his paperwork needed for impending marriage. Would he engage in a fistfight that might lead to his death? Would you in a similar circumstance? If you wouldn’t, probably neither would another person with common sense.

Even if the ‘rogue killing’ narrative could stand the scrutiny, this does not explain the series of lies posed in the first two weeks after the dissident disappearance: the body double; the indignant insistence that the journalist had left the building when he so had not; the fistfight conundrum.

Finally, where is the body?

The lies are very poor choice when striving for credibility. To put it in storytelling terms, Introducing more than one unbelievable situation or action compromises any real depth of connection to the story.

Khashoggi death will be hard to airbrush. Arguably the crisis is not over, neither is the investigation and there may be other details to support (or deny) the Saudi account. But if Riyadh continues to sell the ‘rogue’ action argument without actually addressing the gaps, it might end up a rogue state. Not that it changes anything.