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The Saudi engine of repression rumbles on

David Ignatius on

WASHINGTON -- 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 behavior or signaling 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 Center 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 Albdulaziz, a dissident living in Canada.

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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 Washington 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 story 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.

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