He put his teacup down with the deliberation of a man about to choose his words carefully.
“Look,” he said. “It’s getting increasingly hard to believe our Kingdom’s version of events. So many parts of the story don’t add up, or they require a leap of faith that no one could be expected to make.”
He wondered aloud as to why it was “necessary” for a forensic pathologist to accompany a team of security personnel to interrogate Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate on October 2.
The Saudi suggestion, in private briefings to journalists, is that this was to remove clues that could link the team of Saudi operatives that, Saudi Arabia says, was dispatched to temporarily abduct the Washington Post columnist to a safe house before taking him back to Saudi Arabia, or releasing him.
My friend, a leading Saudi political analyst, rolled his eyes.
The Turkish version, laid out in selective leaks to the media, including CNN, is that Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered in the consulate.
My friend wondered why the cameras and hard drive that recorded surveillance video would have been removed from the consulate where Khashoggi was last seen alive, as the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contends.
And why it was “necessary” to use a body double to fake his safe departure from the building?
Saudi Arabia has committed to a transparent and timely investigation into the death of Khashoggi – and insisted that the investigation would identify who gave the orders for the operation – whoever that might be.
There’s no suggestion here in the Kingdom that among those being investigated is the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who’s the real law in the land and controls the intelligence services and is the Minister of Defense. Even if the promise to stop at no one in the investigation leaves that possibility open, technically.
The foreign ministers of the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States of America – and the High Representative of the European Union issued a statement saying that they “condemn in the strongest possible terms the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has confirmed took place in its consulate in Istanbul.”
Adding: “The confirmation of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi’s death is a first step toward full transparency and accountability. However, the explanations offered leave many questions unanswered.”
Many Saudis, like my friend, agree.
But they are worried that a weakening of the power of the Crown Prince, for all of his flaws, could open the doors to a return of the religious police and the domination of ultraconservative clerics. In other words: now is bad – but the past was worse.
“It’s terrible to say so in terms of human rights and a belief in free speech, but Mohammed bin Salman has locked up clerics who would otherwise be trying to lock people like me up,” said the leading local political analyst.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has soiled his own international reputation as a reformer over the past two years in which he has dominated the Saudi scene.
He’s locked up women’s rights campaigners while ending the ban on female drivers. He’s tried to attract investment by detaining hundreds of the super wealthy and releasing them in return for billions in settlement of unspecified economic “crimes.”
His men detained the Prime Minister of Lebanon and forced him to announce his resignation on TV until French President Emmanuel Macron intervened and restored Saad al-Hariri to the premiership in Beirut.
To many in the outside world, especially the West, the Crown Prince has thrown his intimidating bulk around too clumsily – deepening a war in Yemen, joining the US in squaring off against Iran. Now, with the death of Khashoggi, the effects of his erratic rule have had tragic, highly public consequences.
For Saudi liberals, though, questions over the role of the prince in the mysterious death remain troubling – even shameful. But they fear a future in which he’s weakened.
“He got rid of the mutawa (religious police). They controlled every aspect of our lives and the hard-line clerics stifled the country. MBS got rid of them.”
Now it is not uncommon to see women who have thrown off the black abaya coats that cover their clothing and sport white and grey silk abaya while leaving their heads uncovered by scarves.
Music has come to the Saudi streets, along with cinemas and circuses (briefly).
“None of this would have been conceivable three years ago,” my friend says.
A strong desire to punish Saudi Arabia’s most powerful prince for centralizing so much power in his own hands that they appear bloodied by the Khashoggi murder risks returning the country to something that, for liberals here, could be worse.
Many people, liberals and intellectuals known to CNN here, are on holiday abroad and won’t answer their phones, or speak freely.
“I can’t blame them,” said my friend as he sighed and reached for a biscuit.