Saud al-Qahtani still active despite ‘firing’ over Khashoggi murder
Washington is pressuring Riyadh to hold Saud al-Qahtani, an ex-senior aide to the crown prince, accountable over his role in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as reports suggest he remains free to work and travel despite his involvement.
Saud al-Qahtani, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's former right hand man, continues to serve as an informal adviser, according to a Wall Street Journal report, and the kingdom is refusing so far to bow to US pressure.
Qahtani was supposedly fired from his position as a royal court adviser and media consultant by Saudi King Salman after intelligence gathered by Turkish authorities pointed to his leading role in orchestrating the murder.
"MbS still goes to him for advice, and he still calls him his adviser with his close associates", a Saudi official told the American newspaper. If true, this means the powerful crown prince has ignored US calls to reign in Qahtani's influence.
Before the Khashoggi killing, Qahtani had an overwhelming influence on Saudi affairs. He is dubbed "Lord of the Flies" by many Saudis for commanding an online army of 3,000 trolls to intimidate and attack dissenters on social media.
Despite being fired, US sanctions placed on his person and a Turkish extradition request, Qahtani continues to act as an informal adviser to the crown prince, known as MbS. He has also been spotted in Abu Dhabi, violating a supposed travel ban.
"For MbS, Qahtani was the backbone of his court," said one Saudi royal. "MbS had no intention whatsoever to let go of Qahtani and was furious when he was fired by his father."
MbS reportedly assured Qahtani he could "return when the Khashoggi case blows over", the unnamed royal said.
Officials say Qahtani has not had to wait. He has been repeatedly sighted at the royal court and is still carrying out many of his former duties, such as giving instructions to journalists and arranging meetings for the crown prince.
"We don't see that Qahtani is very constrained in his activities," a US official said. Riyadh has refused to close the cyber trolling centre under Qahtani's control used to harangue dissenting voices online, as requested by the US.
The US has also called for Qahtani's prosecution, if proven responsible for Khashoggi's death. While President Trump has refrained from criticising Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, US officials say they want to see MbS accept some responsibility for the killing.
"If MbS wants to demonstrate leadership," said a State Department official, MbS should say the Khashoggi killing is "inexcusable and this will never happen again and the bucks stops with me."
That sentiment aligns with a 2017 tweet by Qahtani which suggested all of his actions were directed by MbS. "Do you think I make this stuff up or are these orders from my liege? To whom I am a loyal and obedient servant?", he wrote.
Although Saudi Arabia charged 11 people for their involvement in Khashoggi's death, Qahtani is not among them. Instead the former adviser is one of ten additional people being 'investigated' in relation to the killing, but critics question the credibility of the Saudi probe.
The Saudi attorney general has sought the death penalty for five of the 11 accused - though none of their identities have officially been revealed and Riyadh's investigations have been far from transparent, leading to concerns that those responsible are not necessarily those now facing death row.
"The Saudi regime knows that the US wants to see Qahtani on trial, but they are hoping these five names will be enough," a US official said. US officials also believe the legal process is not moving fast enough and are sceptical that any executions will take place.
NGOs including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists called the criminal proceedings a "sham".