By Tamer El-Ghobashy/ Washington Post/Washington
In the months before he disappeared, Jamal Khashoggi told friends he had received calls from a senior Saudi official urging him to end his self-imposed exile and come home to Riyadh.
The invitation included the promise of a safe return and even the possibility of a job with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia whom Khashoggi had been so critical of in his columns for The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section.
Khashoggi told his friends he did not trust the offer or the official delivering it, Saud al-Qahtani, a 40-year-old adviser to Mohamed described as the mercurial prince’s enforcer.
In the West, Qahtani is not among the better-known members of Mohamed’s stable of young aides. But in the Gulf, he is the loudest and most visible Saudi official. He tweets often and in populist terms, urging his 1.33mn Twitter followers to identify critics of the kingdom to add to his blacklist.
As Saudi Arabia has campaigned to isolate Qatar, Qahtani has been the chief promoter of the kingdom’s most provocative ideas, such as digging a canal to turn Qatar into an island. He is also a powerful amplifier of fake news and social media bots.
But above all, Qahtani is known for being a fierce loyalist to the crown prince, having served under Saudi kings since 2003, and a firm believer in Mohamed’s project to modernise Saudi Arabia while enforcing the strict restrictions on free speech and movement that have ensnared dozens of Saudi activists, clerics and social media users.
In Khashoggi’s estimation, Qahtani is the official through whom Mohamed maintains total control over Saudi media.
“Over the past 18 months, MbS’s communications team within the Royal Court publicly has chastised, and worse, intimidated anyone who disagrees,” Khashoggi wrote in a Post column in February, referring to Mohamed by his initials. “Saud al-Qahtani, leader of that unit, has a blacklist and calls for Saudis to add names to it. Writers like me, whose criticism is offered respectfully, seem to be considered more dangerous than the more strident Saudi opposition based in London.”
But in a column in the Saudi-controlled Al-Arabiya news in April, Qahtani portrayed himself as Mohamed’s humble servant, awed and intimidated by his vision for modernising Saudi Arabia.
Qahtani said he was personally assigned by the crown prince to study how to overhaul and streamline Saudi bureaucracy. “‘Sky is the limit.’ So said the prince. This is who we are,” Qahtani wrote.
In recent days, Qahtani has taken to Twitter to mock what he described as outlandish Turkish statements blaming Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s disappearance and has denied having any role in a plot to lure the prominent journalist to a gruesome death.
“Dexter of the century,” he wrote sarcastically in Arabic, a reference to the American television series that featured human mutilation. “The rest say I’m Grendizer,” he continued, making reference to the robot hero of a Japanese cartoon popular in the Middle East.
Khashoggi’s disappearance has drawn renewed attention to the crackdown on criticism in Saudi Arabia and the methods Mohamed has used to eliminate public opposition to his policies. Qahtani has been central to that effort. He cuts a flamethrowing figure on social media but is known behind the scenes as an intelligent strategist.
“He probably can be described as MbS’s information czar,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University who has known Qahtani since 2006. “He’s extremely bright, well read, but I would say he’s not very exposed to the West.”
Haykel added: “He’s known for being extremely loyal, extremely nationalistic and extremely competent. If one of the royals asked him to do something, he just gets it done.”
With his influential family name, Qahtani rose through the ranks in the royal court quickly after studying law and criminal justice. He was well known for his newspaper columns promoting the royal family and nationalist poems he would write under the nom de plume of Dhari – many of which served as lyrics for Saudi and Arab musicians.
“You would never mistake him for a true intellectual, but his writings in the early 2000s were never as inflammatory as they are now,” said a Saudi media analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of publicly criticising Qahtani.
Less visible to US officials than Mohamed’s security and diplomatic aides, Qahtani has the title of adviser to the royal court and head of the state-run Centre for Studies and Information Affairs.
A senior official from the administration of former US president Barack Obama said he could not recall Qahtani in any meetings with the Saudis. But others say his low profile belies his influence, especially on the 33-year-old Mohamed, who is a fan of technology and video games.
“The politics of Saudi Arabia have certainly become more populist and more aimed at the young, who are the more engaged in social media,” Haykel said. “I think he’s modulating or changing his tone based on that demographic and that kind of politics.”
On his Twitter account, Qahtani frequently warns of consequences for critics of the kingdom and promotes what some call conspiracy theories claiming destructive plots by the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. He enthusiastically retweets supportive replies from Saudi users.
Marc Owen Jones, a researcher at Exeter University, has written that Qahtani’s “Twitter activity has reached Trump-levels of antagonism.”
In comments to the New York Times in March, Khashoggi said Qahtani has leveraged his mastery of social media and technology to command “a troll army” online and project an image of Saudi power at a time when the kingdom is embroiled in regional rivalries with Iran and Qatar and a costly war in Yemen.
Mohamed has enthusiastically embraced Qahtani’s methods, Khashoggi told the Times.
“They are creating a virtual world where Saudi Arabia is a superpower and MbS is the most popular leader,” Khashoggi said. “Of course, all this has his approval.”
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