On Friday, the Washington Post reported
that before he went missing
after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Jamal Khashoggi told friends he had received calls Saud al-Qahtani "urging him to end his self-imposed exile and come home to Riyadh".
The invitation reportedly included the promise of a safe return and even the possibility of a job with Mohammed bin Salman, whom Khashoggi has criticised since his controversial rise to power.
Khashoggi reportedly "told his friends he did not trust the offer or the official delivering it, Saud al-Qahtani".
In recent days, reports suggested Saudi Arabia tried to 'lure' Khashoggi back to the kingdom as part of an alleged plan to abduct him, but the missing journalist did not take the bait. The Post's report did not specify whether Qahtani was part of that alleged plan but the revelation about his 'offer' to Khashoggi makes this plausible.
Who is Saud al-Qahtani?
Qahtani is known for whipping the country's journalists into submission, promising to smite the enemies of his master, and peddling fake news.
Last year, Saud al-Qahtani launched on Twitter a McCarthyist
appeal to Saudis to compile a blacklist containing the names and identities of anyone showing sympathy with Qatar under the Arabic hashtag #TheBlacklist.
Qahtani vowed to "follow" every name reported via the social media site, and tweeted that anyone who "conspires" against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain, all of which are imposing an unlawful blockade on Qatar, would be unable to escape "trial".
Many Saudis on Twitter then began adding the names of dissidents and activists who had expressed solidarity with Qatar.
Anwar Gargash, the UAE's state minister for foreign affairs, was one of the first to express support for the blacklist, tweeting: "Saud al-Qahtani is an important voice ... and his tweet on the 'blacklist' is extremely important."
The sinister and disturbing nature of these statements cannot be over-emphasised, especially as Qahtani himself suggests they reflect official Saudi policy. Responding to a tweet questioning his actions, Saud al-Qahtani stated: “Do you think I make this stuff up or are these orders from my liege? To whom I am a loyal and obedient servant?"
If this is the case, then the advisor to the Royal Court is only a spearhead of a drive from up above to stifle online opinions, silencing dissent entirely and terrorising anyone from engaging in discussion of any kind - friendly picture shots taken of MBS
and Facebook CEO Marc Zuckerberg notwithstanding.
|Qahtani, nicknamed derogatorily as Dalim in reference to an old folk tale about a lowly servant, quickly gained notoriety in the Arabic twittersphere with the coup by Mohammed bin Salman against his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef
MBS's man in the royal court
Little known by Western media circles, Qahtani, nicknamed derogatorily as Dalim
in reference to an old folk tale about a lowly servant, quickly gained notoriety in the Arabic twittersphere with the coup
by Mohammed bin Salman against his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef.
Curiously, the royal reshuffle was engineered to coincide with the campaign against Qatar, and Qahtani was instrumental in selling MBS to the Saudi public as well as leading the smear campaign against Doha and justifying the draconian measures against its people.
He was officially appointed to the royal court in December 2015 as adviser with the rank of minister by King Salman. Less than thirty years of age at the time, the move was touted by Saudi media as part of the "leadership's wise plan to give important responsibilities to young faces in the kingdom."
In reality however, the move was part of MBS's scheme to plant loyal men in the court, according to David Hearst who describes
him in the Huffington Post
as being "Tuwaijri 2.0" in reference to Khaled Tuwaijri, the late king Abdullah's supreme vizir.
Before his installation in King Salman and his son's court, Qahtani had a stint as a 'journalist' in Saudi outlet Elaph, and contributed to pro-government newspaper Al-Riyadh.
According to Qahtani’s own admission, he studied at Prince Nayef Arab University for Security Studies and completed a number of ‘officer’ training courses; hardly the background normal journalists have. Many sources complained about him having been close to Saudi intelligence.
Reports also suggest he was detained briefly before the rise of King Salman to the throne. The detention was reportedly a way of breaking him into become an informant against his peers for the regime.
|With direct access to MBS, his name has reportedly become synonymous with fear among Saudi journalists as MBS's personal enforcer
The Qatar 'Blacklist' is only the most recent shenanigan by Qahtani, a man who has since his rise to prominence garnered a special reputation for crude and dishonest tactics reminiscent of Donald Trump's aides, especially the outgoing Steve Bannon. Some analysts have started to notice
his use of fake news and shoddy methods to drive his masters' anti-Qatar agenda.
With direct access to MBS, his name has reportedly become synonymous with fear among Saudi journalists as MBS's personal enforcer. Intimidatory messages to journalists and newspaper editors mentioned on many occasions that ‘these were the orders of His Royal Highness’.
Saudi journalists and editors say in private meetings that they have been called up by Qahtani, bullying them to take down an article, toe MBS's line and/or join the anti-Qatar campaign, complete with threats and insults. They say he even dictated the soundbites and hashtags to them.
Saudi writer Turki al-Ruqi, the founder of Al-Wi’am
newspaper, accused al-Qahtani
of acting like an internet troll, launching social media campaigns against selected targets to terrify dissenters.
Al-Ruqi claimed al-Qahtani had access to an army of hackers to target sites and defame and damage the reputation of many.
Al-Ruqi said: “The man has transgressed a lot. Many of the country’s young men have been his victims. He has provoked tension in the relations between decision makers and the country’s citizens. He has undermined the immunity that is supposed to be enjoyed by ministers and statesmen.”
It is certainly true that a number of prominent Saudi voices have been silenced, like that of Jamal Khashoggi, one of the country’s foremost analysts from within the establishment, wrote Hearst. Recently, Khashoggi penned an editorial in Al-Hayat, calling Qahtani 'a friend of journalists', in an apparent dig at the young propagandist.
|Qahtani is said to have established a dedicated social media surveillance unit, producing daily reports on dissidents, and has been linked to the so-called Saudi Twitter robot army
As if posting his vitriol under his name publicly wasn't enough, Qahtani also writes poetry under the name of Dari. Like his tweets, his poetry is obscene and vulgar, and even contains racist slurs. But his real-name shenanigans remain much more sinister.
According to Saudi insider sources, such as famed Twitter dissident Mujtahid, Qahtani's war chest include much more dangerous tools.
He is said to have established a dedicated social media surveillance unit, producing daily reports on dissidents, and has been linked to the so-called Saudi Twitter robot army
-- an outfit that controls tens of thousands of fake accounts used to disseminate Saudi propaganda and overwhelm political opponents.
This same army has been deployed against Qatar, beginning with the hacking against QNA that precipitated the current blockade of Doha.
Qahtani's twitter account is filled with a litany of poor tweets greatly lacking in substance though not in obsenities, and often containing pure fabrications and fake news, including the debunked claim that Qatar conspired with Libya to assassinate King Abdullah (crown prince at the time) in 2003.
More recently, Qahtani threatened to invade Qatar in a series of tweets
and endorsed a Saudi government plan to dig a canal around Qatar.