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How The Fallout From Jamal Khashoggi's Death Is Playing Out Inside Saudi Arabia


OK, so Saudi Arabia has shifted positions on what exactly happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi. For weeks, the royal family said Khashoggi left the consulate alive. Now the royal family says he died inside the consulate at the hands of rogue operatives.

To give us a glimpse of how Khashoggi's death and the royal family's contradictory narratives around it are reverberating within Saudi Arabia, we're going to go to Ben Hubbard. He's been covering this story for The New York Times. Welcome.

BEN HUBBARD: Thank you.

CHANG: So putting aside how credible the current explanation is for Khashoggi's death, how unusual is it for the royal family to publicly change its explanation for anything?

HUBBARD: Well, I would say that they're not always professionals at communication. This is a monarchy. This is a place where - this is an authoritarian state as well. And domestically, they are in charge of all the media. So when it comes to how they communicate with their people, they can pretty much say whatever they want. It gets a little bit more complicated when they have to communicate with the rest of the world, which I think is what we're seeing now.

CHANG: What about within Saudi Arabia? How is fallout from Khashoggi's death playing out there? Is there any fallout?

HUBBARD: As far as we know, there isn't. And that's for the simple reason that nobody has much of a say in anything that happens except the crown prince and except his father, who is the king.

CHANG: So there have been sort of these two dueling images of the crown prince. There's this image of a man who has worked quite actively to consolidate his power. But then, there's also this other image of a man who's tried to bring modernizing, progressive changes to society, like letting women drive. Which image do you think Saudis buy into more?

HUBBARD: I think it's one of the things that's made him such a fascinating character to watch is really these two sides. And I do think that the social things he wants to do are genuine. I do believe that he wants women to drive. I do believe that he wants to diversify the economy. I do believe that he wants to change the religious rhetoric away from some of the extremism. And it's safe to say that there were lots of people in Saudi Arabia, especially young people, who were very excited about the social changes that he wanted to make.

But I think people are also very aware of the flip side of this. I mean, I have many, many Saudi friends and a lot of people that I keep in touch with, and a lot of them are very scared, you know? Again, one of the best examples that we've seen to this was the fact that somebody like Jamal Khashoggi, who had worked for members of the royal family and been sort of part of that elite society, decided that it was time to get out of town and go live in Virginia.

CHANG: You reported over the weekend about the tremendous turmoil all of this has caused within the royal family. Who, besides the crown prince's father, King Salman, could exert any meaningful pressure on the crown prince to change course at this point?

HUBBARD: It doesn't appear that there's anybody. And we really have to differentiate between the leadership of the kingdom, which I would say is the king and the crown prince, with the crown prince being the one who's doing the day-to-day management of the kingdom, and the rest of the royal family. I mean, the royal family is a huge, sprawling family. We're talking thousands and thousands of princes and princesses.

What you did used to have in Saudi Arabia before this current leadership came into play was much more of a consensus system of governing the place. Throughout Saudi Arabia's history, you've had kind of a group of top princes who shared the big portfolios, whether it was defense, domestic security. Mohammed bin Salman has very effectively demolished that system. He has sort of dismantled all of the other power centers in the kingdom and put everything under himself.

CHANG: Well, do you think the crown prince has been taken aback, genuinely, by the blowback he's gotten because of what happened to Khashoggi?

HUBBARD: The reporting that we have suggests that he has - that he has just been completely blown away by how large this story has gotten and by how much it means to people. I mean, at the end of the day, the guy wasn't an American citizen; he was a Saudi. So I think he's been quite surprised by it all.

CHANG: Ben Hubbard is the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. Thank you very much.

HUBBARD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.