Just over two years ago, on October 2, 2018, the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who at the time was a columnist for The Washington Post, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and was never seen again. Subsequent investigation, by journalists and governments, would find that Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered, in particularly gruesome fashion, by agents of the Saudi state, most likely under the orders of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS).
What were consequences, from Washington or other governments, of the brazen and gruesome murder of a journalist who lived in the United States and worked for a major American newspaper? There were virtually none.
The murder, Khashoggi’s life and career, and the broader U.S.-Saudi relationship, is the subject of “Kingdom of Silence.” It’s a new documentary that debuted over the weekend on Showtime, and remains available through the channels’ streaming platform. It’s an eye-opening, infuriating, but very well put-together look at an international tragedy.
Directed by Rick Rowley, who directed last year’s Chicago police brutality documentary “16 Shots,” and executive-produced by the prolific documentarian Alex Gibney, the film features archival interviews with Khashoggi and new interviews with his friends and colleagues. Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker writer and author of “The Looming Tower,” is also both a talking head and a producer.
The film goes through how America and Saudi Arabia became allies in the 1970s, with an alliance over oil. The document then goes into the Persian Gulf War—in which the United States protected the Saudis from potential invasion by Iraq—and into the 9/11 attacks, which were masterminded by Saudi Osama Bin Laden and carried out by fifteen Saudi hijackers. The Saudi regime went on to back the Iraq War.
The documentary also examines the Arab Spring during the Obama era, which the Saudi royals resisted; one American talking head, parroting the conventional wisdom of the Washington establishment defends the current regime, arguing that their overthrow would likely result in a worse outcome for the United States.
“Kingdom of Silence” shows how the Saudis cultivated interest across multiple presidential administrations of both parties. MBS, the son of the current Saudi king, began to rise as the main figure in Saudi politics around the time that the Trump Administration arrived in Washington. “Kingdom of Silence” also details the rise of MBS, one marked by purges of other factions in the House of Saud, along with a brutal war in Yemen that’s been fought with U.S.-supplied weapons.
We also get a look at Jamal Khashoggi’s multifaceted biography. He reported from Afghanistan embedded with the mujahideen who included Bin Laden as they were fighting the Soviets in the early 1980s, although he later broke with the al-Qaeda leader and denounced extremism. Later, Khashoggi, the nephew of the late financier Adnan Khashoggi and part of the nation’s elite, was allied with the Saudi regime, before breaking with them as well. He was, one interviewee says, something of an informant, knowing all the secrets of Saudi royal complexity, especially with al-Qaeda.
The documentary then follows Khashoggi’s murder, which took place after he entered the consulate in order to obtain documents necessary for his upcoming marriage.
Just a few months before Khashoggi died, MBS visited the United States, meeting with a wide cross-section of the American business, political and entertainment elite. He met only met with President Trump in Washington— “they’re rich and entitled people, so they found common ground,” Wright said—and it’s been said that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are tight with the Saudis because they are themselves not too different from a “half-wit Saudi prince.”
The Crown Prince also hobnobbed with Tim Cook at Apple Park and had dinner with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in Los Angeles. Even Oprah got some face time with the bin Salman. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, the previous November, wrote a particularly disgraceful column, touting MBS as a righteous reformer.
The film is critical of the Trump Administration, as well as past U.S. presidents, for giving the Saudis a pass for their murder of Khashoggi, among other misdeeds over the years-while noting that a U.S. break with the Saudis is not nearly as simple a proposition as we might hope.
If you enjoyed “Kingdom of Silence,” another documentary about the death of Khashoggi, “The Dissident,” is coming later this year.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.