Increasingly, though, he put his native caution to one side.
As the years went on his journalistic career got bumpier, usually because he tried to give a platform to voices from the opposition.
He was fired from Al-Watan twice for that, in 2003 and 2010, on orders from the Ministry of Information;
in 2015 a Saudi-funded news channel he had set up in Bahrain was closed down the day it opened, for interviewing a local activist.
The government later banned him from Twitter, where he had 2m followers, and barred him from writing.
At the Saudi court he had ever fewer friends.
Instead, by 2017, he banged up sharply against the new regime of the young crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman.
He was told he should be grateful for the prince's reforms and keep quiet, but he could not make that Faustian bargain, or abide the growing cult of personality and centralised power.
Since even his mild criticism was not tolerated, he packed up a couple of cases and left for America.
From Washington he watched as fellow journalists had their homes stormed by security men, who filmed everything and took books, papers and computers away.
On his Instagram page he posted photos of the American friends he hoped might protect him while, in columns for the Washington Post, he accused Prince Muhammad ("the Boy", as he had let slip that other royals called him) of impetuousness, selective justice and behaving like Vladimir Putin.
Yet even then he was no dissident, in his own eyes.
He really disliked that word.
He was simply urging the prince to be enlightened and modern-minded, as any loyal Saudi should be free to.
Not a morning dawned, however, when he did not miss his country.
Washington seemed stiflingly clean.
In Istanbul, he found solace in the back garden of an Arabic bookshop and in his love for a Turkish researcher, Hatice Cengiz.
Hatice was headscarved and devout;
hand in hand they strolled round the city, conversing stiffly in classical Arabic.
With three divorces behind him, he had paperwork to do before they could be married, and went to the Saudi consulate to sort it out.
He was not heard from again.