Saudi ‘Mr. Hashtag’ becomes fall guy in Khashoggi case, but is he really down?
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Saud al-Qahtani, the once powerful Saudi online media enforcer, was fired amid reports of his personal involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. But is he simply biding his time, waiting for the tide to turn before he strikes again?
He’s been called “the Saudi Steve Bannon", the “minister of disinformation", “Mr. Hashtag” and “Lord of the Flies” – after the cyber bots and online attackers sometimes called “flies” by their victims. That’s just some of the catchier monikers designed for an international audience.
Among Arabic speakers, the sobriquets were more cutting and contextual. “Dalim” -- a reference to a lowly servant in an Arabian folk tale -- was a common derogatory term among people who dreaded Saud al-Qahtani, the powerful media aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
With a 1.35 million strong Twitter following and at the head of a well-resourced campaign that hired armies of social media operators, Qahtani was the strategist behind a vicious online campaign targeting critics of his boss, the powerful young crown prince known by his initials, MBS. A sort of updated, high-tech version of a vizier, Qahtani could torment his victims no matter how far they fled in cyberspace.
“He was far more than a media adviser to MBS. He was one of his most important advisors, his right-hand man,” explained Cinzia Bianco, London-based senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics.
But while many of Qahtani’s victims were trying to raise international awareness about “the Saudi Steve Bannon", few people outside Middle East circles paid much attention to the pudgy, 40-year-old Saudi court advisor who tweeted mostly in Arabic. The dominant discourse from the world’s largest oil exporter centered on a brash, but reformist young crown prince modernising his kingdom by diversifying the economy and sidelining the conservative clergy.
That was until the October 2 killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Suddenly, Qahtani became a familiar name as journalists began revealing details of the extent of the intimidation Khashoggi and other MBS policy critics endured for over a year.
Taking a bullet for the boss
By the time Saudi Arabia finally acknowledged, under mounting international pressure, that Khashoggi had been killed in its Istanbul consulate, someone had to pay – or be seen to pay – for the murder.
Qahtani became the kingdom’s most high-profile fall guy. The crown prince’s top adviser was one of five senior officials fired over what the Saudis claimed was a botched operation.
The “minister of disinformation” responded to his firing in a characteristic way: he tweeted his undying fidelity to the Saudi government.
“I will forever be a loyal servant to this country and this nation shall always stand tall,” he wrote.
أتقدم بجزيل الشكر والعرفان لمقام مولاي خادم الحرمين الشريفين، وسمو سيدي ولي العهد الأمين؛ على الثقة الكبيرة التي أولوني إياها، ومنحي هذه الفرصة العظيمة للتشرف بخدمة وطني طوال السنوات الماضية…سعود القحطاني (@saudq1978) October 20, 2018
سأظل خادماً وفياً لبلادي طول الدهر، وسيبقى وطننا الغالي شامخاً بإذن الله تعالى.
‘Bring me the head of the dog’
Qahtani had taken a bullet for MBS -- the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia who is widely believed to be behind Khashoggi’s killing -- and his fall from grace appeared to be merciless.
News reports promptly identified Qahtani as the man behind the interrogations of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was detained in Saudi Arabia last year, as well as top Saudi princes and businessmen who were held at Riyadh’s luxury Ritz Carlton hotel.
But the worst was yet to come. Once officially down, leaks about Qahtani’s personal involvement in Khashoggi’s killing made the rounds, stunning the Arab world.
The Saudi “Lord of the Flies” was beamed live, via Skype, on October 2 into the Istanbul consulate room where Khashoggi was brutally killed, a senior Arab source told Reuters earlier this week.
Qahtani apparently yelled insults at Khashoggi, who hurled them right back at his longtime cyber tormentor, Arab and Turkish sources told Reuters.
Before his death, Khashoggi wrote about the intimidation tactics employed by MBS’s communications team in a Washington Post column earlier this year. “Saud al-Qahtani, leader of that unit, has a blacklist and calls for Saudis to add names to it,” noted Khashoggi. “Writers like me, whose criticism is offered respectfully, seem to be considered more dangerous than the more strident Saudi opposition based in London.”
Some of Khashoggi’s friends have told Reuters that Qahtani had called the Saudi journalist who was living in exile in Washington several times. MBS’s right-hand man kept urging Khashoggi to return home, but the former Saudi newspaper editor was suspicious of the offer. “Jamal told me afterwards, ‘he thinks that I will go back so that he can throw me in jail?'” a friend told Reuters.
Khashoggi had told friends that during his conversations with Qahtani, the firebrand Saudi communications chief was always polite. That apparently was not the case during their final virtual encounter. At one point, the crown prince’s adviser reportedly told the 15-member Saudi hit squad to dispose of Khashoggi. “Bring me the head of the dog,” the sources quoted Qahtani as saying.
Tail that wagged the dog is a tall tale
Since the Saudi response to international calls for transparency was to appoint MBS to head the Khashoggi investigation, the implications of the leaks was that Qahtani was the tail that wagged the dog and got the kingdom in this latest mess.
But the official line failed to convince most observers, primarily because Qahtani himself had declared that he could never do anything without the approval of his powerful boss.
“Do you think I make decisions without guidance? I am an employee and a faithful executor of the orders of my lord the king and my lord the faithful crown prince,” he tweeted last summer.
وتعتقد اني اقدح من راسي دون توجيه؟ انا موظف ومنفذ أمين لأوامر سيدي الملك وسمو سيدي ولي العهد الأمين.سعود القحطاني (@saudq1978) August 17, 2017
Down but not out
The problem with having loyal executors take the bullet for their masters is that it gives a sign to potential employees that they too could be left to stew if they executed controversial orders.
The House of Saud however proved nimble at handling domestic public opinion. While Qahtani was stripped off his position as royal court adviser, he retained his title of “Chairman of Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones", as his updated Twitter profile revealed.
Unlike several critics of MBS, Qahtani was neither arrested nor placed under house arrest. He also still has access to Twitter and on Tuesday, as the kingdom launched an international investment conference -- dubbed “Davos in the desert” -- Qahtani retweeted photographs of the gathering at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton.
The official rebuke was hardly harsh, according to Bianco. “His powers have been curtailed, but he is not completely out of the picture. He has not been detained or charged,” said Bianco. “I’m not saying that there was no corrective because that would be unfair. But they didn’t go far enough, they could have gone deeper. He could have been taken away from the political scene.”
Power games behind the bead curtains
One of the reasons for his comparatively light punishment, observers note, is that the aggressive Saudi enforcer could be useful for MBS in the future.
Qahtani was a poster boy of what Bianco calls “the new generation of 30-somethings” who were promoted by MBS when his father, King Salman, ascended the Saudi throne.
“He comes from a powerful family in Saudi Arabia. The Qahtanis are a huge tribe that are originally from the Asir region in the south of the country and they are spread across many countries, including Iraq, Syria and other Gulf countries such as Kuwait and the UAE.”
Qahtani’s rapid rise in Saudi power circles mirrors that of Dalim, the folkloric lowly servant who rose to become his master’s enforcer. According to his Twitter profile, he studied law before joining the Saudi air force, where he rose to the rank of captain. After leaving the services, an early Qahtani blog caught the eye of Khaled Tuwaijri, the former royal court secretary to the late King Abdullah, who hired him in the early 2000s to run an electronic media army tasked with protecting Saudi Arabia’s image, according to Reuters.
Tuwaijri’s fortunes however fell when the new king took over and MBS started to seize the levers of power in the kingdom.
Analysts studying the murky power jockeying behind the House of Saud’s bead curtains say Tuwaijri was named in the list of prominent Saudi princes and businessmen who were detained at the Ritz Carlton last year.
Tuwaijri is believed to be under house arrest and journalists have been unable to reach the once powerful Saudi official.
Under MBS, the old guard allied with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef – the former Saudi crown prince who was stripped of his position last year – has been stifled and placed under considerable pressure.
As the fallout of the Khashoggi case continues to ripple, Bianco says the jury is out on whether the kingdom could witness a change of guard. “In the next few weeks and months, it could be significant if more people from the old guard will be taking or re-taking positions in the kingdom,” said Bianco. “There could be a rebalancing of power, which could see the king replacing younger people by older, more politically conservative ones. If that happens, other Arab leaders would be reassured.”
But forecasting what could happen behind the bead curtains has never been an easy business and the same can be said about Qahtani’s likely fate.
“He could be left in some minor position and with time, get more involved in more consequential roles. Or they could push him further away depending on the international pressure,” said Bianco. “But right now, his fate is very much a work in progress.”