A top aide to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, accused of directing the gruesome killing of prominent dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul back in October 2018, is quietly edging back to power, with social media influencers loyal to the Riyadh regime seeking to reintroduce him as a figure who has served the kingdom.
According to a report published by British daily newspaper The Guardian, social media accounts that back the House of Saud have in recent months been posting tributes to Saud al-Qahtani, a royal adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a move that is seen as marking his gradual return to the seat of Saudi power.
A spate of postings supporting Qahtani on social media started to appear in May this year. They became more frequent in July and August and have continued ever since.
All the posts from accounts that support the Saudi regime offer praise for Qahtani as a “hero”, “patriot” or “leader”. Many posts have included photo tributes, while others have showcased videos featuring him with bin Salman.
The posts bear the hallmarks of a concerted campaign in favor of Qahtani and are aimed at his return to power, because such a move is effectively impossible in Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled media environment without the sanction of senior authorities.
“There is no question that Qahtani is back,” an unnamed senior Saudi official said. “The question is, did he ever really leave?”
Khashoggi was murdered on October 2, 2018 after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document stating that he was divorced, so that he could marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
Recording and other evidence gathered by Turkish authorities revealed how a team of Saudi agents subdued, killed and then dismembered the journalist inside the diplomatic mission.
Saudi Arabia initially issued conflicting stories about Khashoggi’s disappearance, but eventually said that he was killed in a “rogue” operation.
In 2019, a Saudi court cleared Qahtani of any charges in connection with the assassination. Five other members of the hit squad were given death sentences and four more sentenced to prison terms of 24 years. However, human rights activists have since described the sentences as a mockery.
The CIA and MI6 both believe Qahtani had been the central figure in Khashoggi’s assassination.
He is also said to have been central in the high-profile purge of princes and senior officials across Saudi Arabia, ordered by bin Salman without formal charges or any legal process, the hacking of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’s mobile phone and a directive to hack two Guardian reporters in 2019.
Moreover, Qahtani is accused of interrogating and personally overseeing the torture of detained female Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul in 2018.