The black­lis­ter: The spot­light fixes on a Saudi “in­for­ma­tion czar.”

Khashoggi mys­tery fixes spot­light on Saudi of­fi­cial de­scribed as crown prince’s strate­gist, en­forcer

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY TAMER EL- GHOBASHY

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 Mo­hammed 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 Mo­hammed de­scribed as the mer­cu­rial prince’s en­forcer.

In the West, Qah­tani is not among the bet­ter-known mem­bers of Mo­hammed’s sta­ble of young aides. But in the Per­sian Gulf, he is the loud­est and most vis­i­ble Saudi of­fi­cial. He tweets of­ten and in pop­ulist terms, urg­ing his 1.33 mil­lion Twit­ter fol­low­ers to iden­tify crit­ics of the king­dom to add to his black­list.

As Saudi Ara­bia has cam­paigned to iso­late its small neigh­bor 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 that pur­port to show Qatari pop­u­lar dis­con­tent with Qatar’s roy­als.

The New Arab, a Qatari news out­let, has dubbed him the Saudi Steve Ban­non.

But above all, Qah­tani is known for be­ing a fierce loy­al­ist to the crown, hav­ing served un­der Saudi kings since 2003, and a firm be­liever in Mo­hammed’s project to mod­ern­ize 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 Mo­hammed 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 Mo­hammed 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 Mo­hammed’s hum­ble ser­vant, awed and in­tim­i­dated by his vi­sion for mod­ern­iz­ing 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 Mo­hammed 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 crit­i­ciz­ing Qah­tani.

Less vis­i­ble to U.S. of­fi­cials than Mo­hammed’s se­cu­rity and diplo­matic aides, Qah­tani has the ti­tle of ad­viser to the royal court and head of the state-run Cen­ter for Stud­ies and In­for­ma­tion Af­fairs.

A se­nior of­fi­cial from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion said he could not re­call Qah­tani in any meet­ings with the Saudis. But oth­ers say his low pro­file be­lies his in­flu­ence, es­pe­cially on the 33year-old Mo­hammed, 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.

Mo­hammed 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.”

“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.” Bernard Haykel, a pro­fes­sor of Near Eastern stud­ies at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity who has known Saud al-Qah­tani since 2006

BREN­DAN SMI­ALOWSKI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Saudi Ara­bia’s Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man on a visit to the Pen­tagon in March. The dis­ap­pear­ance of Post con­trib­u­tor Ja­mal Khashoggi has drawn re­newed at­ten­tion to Mo­hammed’s crack­down on crit­i­cism — and the lead­ing role of his ad­viser Saud al-Qah­tani.

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