By David Ignatius
January 10, 2019
One hundred days after the murder of Jamal
Khashoggi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pressing ahead with
anti-dissident campaigns and remains in regular contact with Saud al-Qahtani,
the media adviser whom the CIA believes helped organize Khashoggi’s killing,
according to U.S. and Saudi sources.
The Saudi crown prince, far from altering
his impulsive behaviour or signalling that he has learned lessons from the
Khashoggi affair, as the Trump administration had hoped, appears instead to be
continuing with his autocratic governing style and a ruthless campaign against
dissenters, the U.S. and Saudi sources said this week.
“Domestically, he feels very confident and
in control. As long as his base is secure, he feels that nothing can harm him,”
says one American who met recently with MBS, as the crown prince is known. One
of Britain’s most experienced Saudi-watchers agreed: “He’s completely
unchastened by what has happened. That is worrying for Western governments.”
MBS has been contacting Qahtani and
continuing to seek his advice, according to the U.S. and Saudi sources. A Saudi
source said Qahtani had also met recently at his Riyadh home with his senior
deputies from the royal court’s Centre for Studies and Media Affairs, the cyber
command post he ran until shortly after Khashoggi’s death. “I’m being blamed
and used as a scapegoat,” Qahtani is said to have told his former aides.
“Qahtani holds a lot of files and
dossiers,” says the American who met recently with MBS. “The idea that you can
have a radical rupture with him is unrealistic.” A Saudi who is close to the
royal court agrees: “There’s stuff [Qahtani] was working on that he may have to
finish, or hand over,” he said.
One indication that MBS hasn’t altered his
Qahtani-style Internet bullying tactics is an aggressive social media campaign
launched this week to attack Khashoggi and Omar Abdulaziz, a dissident living
An Arabic hashtag on Twitter surfaced
Thursday claiming to offer “Fact” about the two men’s alleged involvement in
anti-Saudi conspiracies funded by Qatar. One English-language post showed
pictures of the two men with the caption “Jamal and Omar: Qatar’s Agents.”
Also appearing on Twitter was a slick video
titled “Qatar System Exposed,” apparently produced by a company with the same
name as a Dubai-based studio. The video includes English subtitles alleging
that Khashoggi was involved in a plot to “create a new destabilizing Arab
Spring to unsettle Arab countries, mainly, Saudi Arabia.”
Another new video argues that The Post
shouldn’t have given Khashoggi a platform as a columnist when he was also
receiving editing advice on his columns from the head of the Qatar Foundation
International, a Qatar-funded group based in Washington.
Ironically, the main evidence offered to
support these charges of Khashoggi’s links to Qatar is a Dec. 22 article in The
Post by Souad Mekhennet and Greg Miller. The Qatar Foundation link was hardly a
secret; I mentioned it in a long column about Khashoggi that appeared on Oct.
12, 10 days after he disappeared in Istanbul.
Even MBS’s strongest supporters in the
United States appear concerned by the new social media campaign. Ali Shihabi,
the head of the Saudi-backed Arabia Foundation, commented in an email to me
Thursday: “I have no idea who is behind this new campaign, but it certainly
does not seem wise.” He argued that despite a “concerted campaign funded by
Qatar and others . . . the kingdom’s media organs had so
far exercised great self-control since the Jamal
tragedy, and I would hope that continues.”
The videos and Web postings in the new
campaign all have the professional feel of modern media studios in Dubai.
According to a Saudi source, Qahtani recently made two trips to the United Arab
Emirates, even though he is supposedly under house arrest in Riyadh. The trips
couldn’t be confirmed independently.
The Treasury Department said Nov. 15 in
imposing sanctions on Qahtani that he “was part of the planning and execution
of the operation” that led to Khashoggi’s death.
The American who recently visited MBS said
he cautioned him that top U.S. military and intelligence officials were
weighing whether the crown prince was a dictator, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein,
nominally committed to modernization but unreliable, or a solid ally of the
United States. “As long as you keep Qahtani, people will say you’re more like
Saddam,” this visitor warned.
Senior Saudi officials who have discussed
MBS’s continuing contact with Qahtani have urged U.S. patience. “If I try to
ban him, [Qahtani] will find another channel,” a senior prince is said to have
advised the administration. Meanwhile, the Saudi engine of repression continues
to run at full speed.