STORY BY REUTERS
(Reuters) – He ran social media for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. He masterminded the arrest of hundreds of his country’s elite. He detained a Lebanese prime minister. And, according to two intelligence sources, he ran journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by giving orders over Skype.
Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is one of the fall guys as Riyadh tries to stem international outrage at Khashoggi’s death. On Saturday, Saudi state media said King Salman had sacked Qahtani and four other officials over the killing carried out by a 15-man hit team.
But Qahtani’s influence in the crown prince’s entourage has been so vast over the past three years – his own rise tracking that of his boss – that it will be hard for Saudi officials to paint Qahtani as the mastermind of the murder without also raising questions about the involvement of Prince Mohammed, according to several sources with links to the royal court.
“This episode won’t topple MbS, but it has hit his image which will take a long time to be repaired if it ever does. The king is protecting him,” one of the sources with ties to the royal court said.
Qahtani himself once said he would never do anything without his boss’ approval.
“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,” Qahtani tweeted last summer.
Qahtani did not respond to questions from Reuters. His biography on Twitter changed in recent days from royal adviser to chairman of the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones, a role he had held before.
Prince Mohammed had no knowledge of the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death and “certainly did not order a kidnapping or murder of anybody”, a Saudi official said on Saturday. Officials in Riyadh could not be reached for further comment.
As the crisis has grown over the past three weeks, Saudi Arabia has changed its