LONDON/WASHINGTON: A Saudi royal advisor fired over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to wield influence in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle, according to Western, Arab and Saudi sources with links to the royal court.
Saud al-Qahtani was dismissed as a top aide to the de facto Saudi leader in late October, after overseeing the operation to kill Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by giving orders via Skype, according to regional intelligence sources.
A senior Saudi official at the time called his removal “a political decision … based on dereliction of duty and participation in the sequence of events” that led to the murder. Weeks later, the US Treasury sanctioned Qahtani for his role.
But six sources told Reuters that Qahtani remains active on behalf of the royal court. Two of them said he has kept in touch with the crown prince while three others said he has continued to instruct a small group of Saudi journalists on what to write about the kingdom’s policies.
As head of the royal court’s media center until his dismissal, Qahtani ran an electronic media army tasked with protecting Saudi Arabia’s image, dictating the official line on issues from a dispute with Qatar to security and human rights.
The apparent impunity of Qahtani, seen as the crown prince’s right-hand man, risks undermining Saudi promises to hold those responsible to account, the sources say. The US Senate last month backed a resolution blaming the crown prince, known as MbS, for the killing and insisted Riyadh fully investigate.
A Saudi official denied Qahtani was still playing a role inside the royal court, saying he has not conducted any work since his dismissal and that he remains under investigation and banned from travel.
The official referred Reuters to comments by the public prosecutor’s spokesman last year that 21 Saudis were taken into custody in relation to the Khashoggi case, 11 of whom have been indicted and referred to trial.
Reuters has been unable to reach Qahtani since he was fired.