The Khashoggi Bomb: What Does Biden Want from Riyadh & What Are MBS’s Options?

The Khashoggi Bomb: What Does Biden Want from Riyadh & What Are MBS’s Options?

By Ali Abadi

The release of the US intelligence community’s declassified report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is more than two years overdue. Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

The sanctions announced by the administration of US President Joe Biden did not include specific measures against Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. This despite the fact that the report pins the murder on the royal. The report states that the hit team could have only gotten its marching orders from the Crown Prince, given the latter’s tight grip on the security apparatus.

The CIA report did not introduce any new information. But the intelligence assessment about what transpired and who is responsible are important. The substance of the report was toned down following several weeks of consultations between Biden and his team. The aim was to avoid pushing their Saudi ally into a corner and keeping an outlet for him to modify his behavior in line with the policies of the new US government.

The report asks correlative questions

Do the steps taken by the US administration regarding the assassination of Khashoggi indicate a turning point in the relations between the two states? Are they merely scoring political points in restoring American soft power by pretending to protect human rights? Or are these steps the end of the tolerance phase practiced by former US President Donald Trump and do they mark the start of a new relationship based on new-old foundations?

American review

First, let’s review the steps that have been taken to date by the Biden administration vis-à-vis the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia:

– Halting the supply of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and pushing for an exit from the US-sponsored Saudi predicament in Yemen

– Calling for the release of human rights activists in the Kingdom.

– Stopping US communication with the Saudi Crown Prince and limiting presidential communication with King Salman

– Announcing gradual steps, even if currently conditional, to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran

– Perhaps most importantly, the declaration of a break from the Trump era in several areas, including those related to dealing with Saudi Arabia leading up to the release of the Khashoggi report

It is clear that the new administration in Washington doesn’t enjoy a harmonious relationship with the current ruling team in Saudi Arabia, specifically with Mohammed bin Salman, who seized power by force, imprisoned his opponents [some of whom are in cahoots with officials in the deep state in America] or placed them under house arrest. Bin Salman is attempting to buy the support of the US government for all his reckless actions, while harming American soft power, especially with the open wound in Yemen.

There is a very important point that may be the main motive behind the new way America is dealing with Riyadh. Circles of the American elite, among the Democrats in general and even some Republicans, feel indignant and suspicious regarding the very special relationship between the Saudi Crown Prince and former US President Donald Trump and his entourage. The Democrats, in particular, want to break this relationship and expose it retroactively. There is a current within the Democratic Party that wants to go further than Biden in dealing with Riyadh. However, the US President preferred a traditional approach that separates the relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince from the one with the entire Saudi government, despite the fact that the two are indistinguishable. Even the Saudi King cannot break away from the authority of his favorite son, and this is another story.

How will Saudi Arabia respond?

Saudi Arabia’s official version about the trial of Khashoggi’s killers is irrelevant. The outcome of the trial was always a foregone conclusion, and it ended in limiting the charges to a number of people and removing the accusation not only from the Crown Prince but from his two closest associates, Saud Al-Qahtani and Ahmed Al-Asiri.

The death penalty against the killers was also abolished, while the family of the victim was compelled to waive their right to retribution in exchange for financial compensation [a typical Saudi procedure in such cases]. Of course, we are not interested now in recovering the contradictions of the official Saudi narrative, which involved disjointed narratives since the assassination saga began to unfold.

However, each of the above steps is sufficient to annoy the Saudis, who are very disappointed with the end of the Trump era, in which the Saudi Crown Prince invested hundreds of billions of dollars in order to cover his impulsive policies. Trump left, and the Saudi money went to the US treasury and American companies. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is once again in the dark about the American agenda that represents an extension of the Obama era. Faced with the American moment of truth, the Saudi government will have to deprecate this incomplete revelation through:

– Downplaying the importance of the US measures and the talk that the Saudi judiciary has spoken in the case

– Stirring up patriotism among the Saudis to give renewed legitimacy to the Crown Prince, whose image was tarnished by this crime

– Betting on time to overcome this saga

– Accelerating the relationship with “Israel” in order to use its influence in Washington to moderate the dealings with the Saudi Crown Prince. In this sense, normalization becomes a price [currently hidden] for legitimizing Bin Salman’s status in Washington

– Hinting to the Americans that Riyadh is looking for alternatives to American weapons with China and Russia, for example, in order to push Washington to reduce its criticism of the Saudi Crown Prince

Most of what the Biden administration wants is for Riyadh to return to the ranks of the passenger rather than Saudi Arabia leading the United States to where it wants in the region, especially after the Saudi Crown Prince proved unprecedented recklessness in managing internal affairs and a lack of efficiency in managing regional challenges.

The Biden administration also wants to preempt any Saudi or non-Saudi objection to returning to the nuclear agreement with Iran and to dispel any attempt by Riyadh and others to enlarge their role in a way that disturbs the new government managing this file from the perspective of various US priorities. We should pause here at an interesting point, which is that the Biden administration is adopting a triple containment strategy for objections to the nuclear deal that was reached in the era of the Democrats in 2015.

This strategy includes, in addition to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and “Israel”. In addition to stopping the US presidential communication with Bin Salman and halting offensive weapons supplies to Riyadh, Washington has also stopped arms deals with the UAE and has allowed, in a carefully studied time frame, to publish satellite images of construction operations at the “Israeli” Dimona reactor, at a time when Netanyahu waited weeks to receive a call from Biden.

In conclusion, the new US administration aims to get rid of Trump’s legacy on several levels and reset US-Saudi relations to a purely American rhythm, but the desired justice stopped with Mohammed Bin Salman.

Let’s remember:

– Jamal Khashoggi’s body was never found, and the Saudi side refuses to reveal its fate.

– We are facing a declassified US report, which means that the US administration preferred to keep secret facts under wraps in order to preserve relations with Saudi Arabia and maintain the loyalty of Riyadh.

– We are facing scanty measures against those involved in the crime. Not granting them entry visas to the United States is the weakest measure in the huge US sanctions arsenal, and Washington was satisfied with the weaker punishment.

– The bitter cup was removed from the Crown Prince, although the moral message was received.

– It is important to note the impact of this position on the way European countries and the international community view the Saudi Crown Prince, who will remain in his father’s shadow as long as the latter is alive.

The question remains: What is Mohammed Bin Salman’s fate after the current king? Will his past be overlooked and his position on the altar of American strategic interests be normalized, or is Washington thinking about reopening the path of the caliphate in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is currently unavailable after Bin Salman smashed all possible alternatives?

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For Trump’s Middle East allies, Joe Biden is a new nightmare

 Source

David Hearst
17 November 2020 14:19 UTC | Last update: 17 hours 25 mins ago

David Hearst is the editor in chief of Middle East Eye. He left The Guardian as its chief foreign leader writer. In a career spanning 29 years, he covered the Brighton bomb, the miner’s strike, the loyalist backlash in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Northern Ireland, the first conflicts in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in Slovenia and Croatia, the end of the Soviet Union, Chechnya, and the bushfire wars that accompanied it. He charted Boris Yeltsin’s moral and physical decline and the conditions which created the rise of Putin. After Ireland, he was appointed Europe correspondent for Guardian Europe, then joined the Moscow bureau in 1992, before becoming bureau chief in 1994. He left Russia in 1997 to join the foreign desk, became European editor and then associate foreign editor. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he worked as education correspondent.


The president-elect’s actions in the Middle East will be dictated by events. But the loss of Trump represents a body check for the ambitions and aspirations of Gulf hegemons
Then Vice President Joe Biden during a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2011 (Reuters)

You can detect the shadow of Donald Trump fading from the Middle East in the nervous twitches of his closest allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is accelerating settlements before the inevitable freeze or pause in construction in January when President-Elect Joe Biden takes over. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is releasing just a fraction of the estimated 60,000 political prisoners he has stashed in his jails.

Trump’s Middle East triumphs will soon turn to disaster

Read More »

Sisi’s television anchors are, from one day to the next, given different scripts to read out. Take the sad case of Nashaat al-Deehy. When Biden was a candidate, al-Deehy trashed him: “Joseph Biden will become the oldest US president in the history of the United States of America. On 20 November he will be 78 years old. This will impact his mental situation and he suffers from Alzheimer’s and therefore is not fit to be president of the United States of America.”

But once the US media had called Biden president-elect, al-Deehy became respectful. “We have just learned that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sent a congratulations cable to US President-elect Joe Biden. This man has great respect for Egypt and is known to be wise and he listens well. He does not take decisions frantically. He does not take decisions when he’s angry. All of this was missing in the case of Donald Trump, who was violent and stubborn and arrogant. All of this we’re seeing it.”

Small gestures

The Saudi ambassador in London is in an equal turmoil. One day he hints to the Guardian that jailed women activists could be freed during the G20 summit next week.

“The G20, does it offer an opportunity for clemency? Possibly. That is a judgment for someone other than me,” said Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. “People ask: is it worth the damage it is causing you, whatever they did? That is a fair argument to make and it is a discussion we have back at home within our political system and within our ministry.”

The next day he calls in the BBC to deny what he has just said.

Poor ambassador.

The king himself is by no means immune from wild policy swings. He has started being nice to Turkey.

A week after the earthquake in Izmir, Salman ordered the dispatch of “urgent aid” to the city. Then we learn that the king of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were in talks. The occasion was to present condolences for the death of the Bahraini Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. But direct contact with a satellite of Riyadh would have been impossible without a green light from the diwan, the Saudi royal court.

Ever since Erdogan refused to let the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul drop, he has become a hate figure in Riyadh. Turkey has been declared – repeatedly –  a regional threat by Saudi social media and Turkish goods subject to a growing boycott. Now it has all changed.

These are small gestures, but telling ones, as Trump leaves office.

CIA bites back

Top of the list of nervous allies is the man who used Trump to fashion his rise to power.

Biden has every incentive to encourage MBS’ many enemies in the Royal family to step forward to prevent the over ambitious prince from becoming King

To become crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had to get rid of, and trash the reputation of his elder cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, who was at the time the CIA’s prime asset in the country and the Gulf region. Before he did this, bin Salman phoned Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law and Middle East adviser, to ask permission. It was given, sources with knowledge of the call told Middle East Eye.

Biden knows bin Nayef personally. Bin Nayef’s chief of staff and former interior minister Saad al-Jabri has fled to Toronto. A few days after Khashoggi’s assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, MBS despatched another crew from the Tiger Squad to kill al-Jabri, according to a lawsuit filed under the Torture Victim Protection Act in the US District of Columbia.

Al-Jabri was lucky. Border agents at Toronto International Airport detected the operation and sent it back home. All this is active evidence. None of this has been dealt with. The CIA’s own assessment that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing has never been published.

It is not just Biden himself the crown prince has to fear – although the presidential candidate reserved his sharpest words for the killing of Khashoggi – but the return of the CIA to the top table of decision making in the White House.

Overnight MBS goes from having a president in the White House who “saved his ass”, as Trump put it, to a successor who is not remotely interested in doing the same. Biden has every incentive to encourage MBS’s many enemies in the royal family to step forward to prevent the over-ambitious prince from becoming king. There are enough of them, by now.

Get out of jail card

An Oval Office under new management leaves MBS with relatively few options.

He could use Israel as his get-out-of-jail card, by pushing for recognition and normalisation. There is bipartisan support in Congress for the Abraham Accords signed between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel.

How Mohammed bin Salman is quietly enabling an Israeli axis in the Arab world

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Although the incoming Biden administration will put more emphasis on restarting direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, it would not stop another major Arab state like Saudi Arabia from joining the party.

The opposition to Saudi normalisation with Israel would be at home, not abroad. Recognising Israel would be perilous domestically. However much Saud alQahtani’s social media trolls bully Saudi public opinion, it is ferociously pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist.

Never more so than today, Palestine remains the key source of instability in the Middle East, the conflict that defines it, the conflict that endures as a symbol of European colonisation and Arab humiliation.

The custodian of the Two Holy Mosques recognising Israel? Not over many Muslims’ dead bodies.

Each time MBS has had to walk back on his wish to recognise Israel (and he was very near to flying to Washington and playing the role of smiling sponsor at the signing ceremony in the White House, before cancelling at the last minute) he has turned to his father, the king, to say that nothing has changed and reaffirm official state policy.

This is the Arab Peace Initiative published by his predecessor King Abdullah in 2002 and it only allows  recognition of Israel after a negotiated solution has been found based on 1967 borders.

US President Donald Trump waves to supporters on 15 November (Reuters)

US President Donald Trump waves to supporters on 15 November (Reuters)

The loss of Trump’s “крыша” – or protective roof – and the arrival of a hostile president in Biden will mean that MBS will need his father in the post as king even more than he has done in the past. We know from Saudi sources that at one point MBS was toying with the idea of forcing his father’s premature abdication on health grounds and seizing the crown himself.

The loss of Trump’s protective roof and the arrival of a hostile president in Biden will mean that MBS will need his father in the post as king even more than he has done in the past

In his latest round of purges, MBS targeted leading members of Hay’at al-Bayaa (the Allegiance Council) whose role is to approve a royal succession and the appointment of a new crown prince.

The latest arrests to purge the Allegiance Council of his critics would only have made sense if MBS himself was intending to becoming king. But that was in good times, when bin Salman’s star was rising and he could still visit London and Washington without creating flashmobs of human rights protesters.

In bad times, the king remains the tribal chief, who commands the loyalty of the royal family and the kingdom. Regardless of Salman’s actual mental condition, he is still the head of the family and there will be no rebellion against him. The same would not apply to his son if he pushed his father aside and seized the crown. He would be fair game for a palace coup. This is probably the main reason why the father is still king.

Regional alliance

The fate of the regional alliance that a future King Mohammed was attempting to build around himself also hangs in the balance. The real fight going on in the Sunni Arab world is about who would take over as leader and Western proxy.

Biden must end Trump’s alliance with Mohammed bin Salman

Read More »

The purpose of the alliance with Israel – in Emirati eyes – is not to increase wealth but power, power to become, with Saudi Arabia under King Mohammed, the regional hegemon.

That ambition still exists.

But the role that an “Arab Nato” alliance was intended to play to combat and curb Iran will now be diminished by Biden’s attempt to restore the nuclear agreement with Tehran. Iran’s rulers stared Trump in the eyes and did not blink first. They outlasted this US president as they have done to Jimmy Carter and every president who followed him.

The nuclear agreement (known as JCPOA) was Barack Obama’s crowning foreign policy achievement – although it was the fruition of years of negotiation involving many countries and past foreign ministers – the so-called P5 plus one, the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, and Turkey and Brazil before them.

However, each side’s moves are sequenced and whatever difficulties that lie on that path, Biden will pivot once more to restoring this nuclear agreement. Even if some sanctions continue, the policy of using them to exert “maximum pressure” will be over.

Detente will inevitably create a new reality in the Gulf region.

It will also create a new reality for members of the opposing alliance, Turkey and Qatar. Biden is no admirer of Erdogan, with whom he has spent many hours talking. He has apologised to Erdogan once for remarks suggesting that Turkey helped facilitate the rise of the Islamic State group. He is not about to do that again soon.

In a meeting with the New York Times’ editorial board filmed in December, Biden described Erdogan as an autocrat. Asked about how comfortable he felt with the US still basing 50 nuclear weapons in Turkey, Biden said his comfort level had “diminished a great deal” and that he would be making it clear to the Turkish leader that the US supports the opposition.

A volatile world

Once in power, Biden may find it more difficult to express this personal hostility. Whether he likes it or not, Turkey is a more confident regional military power than it was in Obama’s time.

Its military has proved itself as a counterweight to Russian military power in Syria and Libya, and it has just achieved a major breakthrough in Nagorno Karabakh, establishing for the first time access by road from the Turkish border to the Caspian Sea.

This is a strategic win for the Turkish state.

If he is going to partially lift sanctions on Iran, Biden will find that he needs Turkey as a regional counterbalance. There are today too many arenas, from Syria and Iraq to Libya, where Turkey has become a player. Biden has to deal with these “facts on the ground” whether he likes it or not.

Similarly, pressure will also now grow on Saudi Arabia to end its siege on Qatar. Their immediate neighbour, the UAE, will always regard Qatar’s pro-Islamist foreign policy as an existential threat. But the same does not apply to Riyadh, and quiet negotiations in Oman and Kuwait have already taken place.

Biden’s actions in the Middle East will be dictated by events. But the loss of Trump represents a body check for the ambitions and aspirations of Gulf hegemons.

It’s a more uncertain, volatile world.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Mohammed bin Salman Faces His Biggest Threat to the Throne. US Law Suit against Saudi Crown Prince

Law Suit in US Federal Court

By Steven Sahiounie

Global Research, August 12, 2020

Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, has been able to dodge legal responsibility in the death of Jamal Khashoggi, while US President Trump has defended and supported him.  It appears Mohammed bin Salman is facing a serious legal threat, and it will take personal interference by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to save him from facing a judge in the federal court at Washington, DC.  Mohammed bin Salman may be praying for Trump to win in November 2020 to be sure he holds a ‘get out of jail’ card. 

Mohammed bin Salman faces US court summons

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been issued a summons by the US District Court in Washington, DC. on August 7, 2020, after Saad al Jabri filed a lawsuit accusing Prince Mohammed bin Salman of sending a Saudi death squad to Canada to kill him.

Saad al Jabri was a former senior Saudi intelligence official working under the former Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was then Minister of the Interior.  Al Jabri was well known as the key link between Saudi intelligence services and their counterparts in the US and Europe.

Jabri’s lawyers filed a recent lawsuit in a federal court in Washington, DC. against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, alleging he had sent a Saudi death squad to kill him in Canada on October 15, 2018, less than two weeks after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Jamal Khashoggi

Al Jabri owes his life to the Canadian border officials who were suspicious of the Saudi death squad after they were caught lying at the Ontario International Airport while carrying forensic equipment and traveling on tourist visas, which resulted in denied entry to all but one member who carried diplomatic credentials.

The lawsuit reads:

“Dr. Saad was privy to sensitive information about Defendant bin Salman’s covert political scheming within the Royal Court, corrupt business dealings, and creation of a team of personal mercenaries that Defendant bin Salman would later use to carry out the extrajudicial killing of Jamal Khashoggi, among others.”

The FBI became aware of the threats to al Jabri and his family in January 2018, when his son, Khalid al Jabri, was prevented from boarding a flight departing from Boston’s Logan International Airport by FBI agents, who informed the young man his life and that of his family were under threat.

Al Jabri’s legal team maintains that the threat to his life remains, and the Saudi death squad was planning to enter Canada by land, thus avoiding any airport security.

Mohammed bin Salman’s death squad on trial in IstanbulIs CIA Leak of Bin Salman’s Guilt in Khashoggi Murder Aimed at Kushner, or Trump Himself?

Last month the trial in Istanbul began against 20 Saudi Arabians accused of killing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate at Istanbul on October 2, 2018, even though none of the accused were present. His body was dismembered while his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, had waited outside the consulate, and his remains have never been found.

Saudi Arabia’s former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri is accused of planning the murder and assembling a team to carry out the murder of Khashoggi at the behest of their boss, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to Mohammed bin Salman, is similarly charged with having “instigated premeditated murder with monstrous intent.”  Qahtani continues to work closely with the crown prince, and according to a Saudi Arabian activist, who had been in prison, Qahtani told her, “I’ll do whatever I like to you, and then I’ll dissolve you and flush you down the toilet.”

Agnès Callamard said the Turkish trial is an “important judicial process. Here we have a space where the victims are heard in a way they have never been heard before. We have a space where witnesses are asked to speak under oath.”

UN report names Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s death

In June 2019, Agnes Callamard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, published the results of her investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

The report concluded that Khashoggi’s death “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible”. The report also said there is “credible evidence” warranting further investigation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The full UN report can be read here.

 “The operation involved multiple flights, including two private jets, one under diplomatic clearance. It entailed training, with two Saudi attaches from Istanbul flying to Riyadh for ‘top secret’, ‘urgent’ training and preparation, and it required planning and execution in Istanbul,” wrote Agnes Callamard in the report for the UN.

Callamard concluded that the decision to murder Khashoggi was taken before two of the most important members of the Saudi death squad Maher Mutreb, and Salah Tubaigy, the forensic pathologist who cut the body up, flew from Riyadh to Istanbul.

CIA concluded Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi murder

In November 2018, the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi,

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and senior adviser have remained close to Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump and Kushner have defended and supported the strong relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, despite the various important reports placing the responsibility of the murder of Khashoggi on him.

US arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Democrat and Republican lawmakers in the US Congress had held up a Trump administration request to sell 22 batches of munitions worth $8.1 billion to Saudi Arabia, because the US-made weapons were being used to kill thousands of civilians in Yemen, including the targeting of school buses full of children.

Marik String was acting chief of the US State Department’s political-military affairs bureau in early 2019, and he helped Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bypass a congressional freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE by using a declared state of emergency in May 2019 to dodge the congressional hold.

The State Department’s inspector general, Steve A. Linick, had opened two investigations; one into the arms sale beginning in June 2019 and one into possible misuse of agency employees for the benefit of Mr. Pompeo and his wife. Pompeo asked Trump to fire Linick in May 2020, who was investigating whether the declared state of emergency was legal. Pompeo promoted String to acting legal advisor the very same day as he had declared the state of emergency.

Congressional officials have been told that the Trump administration plans to sell yet another package of weapons to Saudi Arabia worth $478 million.  With Linick gone, there will be no investigations.

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This article was originally published on Mideast Discourse.

Steven Sahiounie is an award-winning journalist. He is a frequent contributor to Global Research.The original source of this article is Global ResearchCopyright © Steven Sahiounie, Global Research, 2020

The Saudi Engine of Repression Continues to Run at Full Speed

 

David Ignatius

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 US 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 US 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 un-chastened by what has happened. That is worrying for Western governments.”

MBS has been contacting Qahtani and continuing to seek his advice, according to the US 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 Abdulaziz, a dissident living in Canada.

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 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 article 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.

Even MBS’s strongest supporters in the United States appear concerned by the new social media campaign. Ali Shihabi, the head of the Saudi-backed Arabia Foundation, commented in an email to me Thursday:

“I have no idea who is behind this new campaign, but it certainly does not seem wise.” He argued that despite a “concerted campaign funded by Qatar and others . . . the kingdom’s media organs had so far exercised great self-control since the Jamal tragedy, and I would hope that continues.”

The videos and Web postings in the new campaign all have the professional feel of modern media studios in Dubai. According to a Saudi source, Qahtani recently made two trips to the United Arab Emirates, even though he is supposedly under house arrest in Riyadh. The trips couldn’t be confirmed independently.

The Treasury Department said Nov. 15 in imposing sanctions on Qahtani that he “was part of the planning and execution of the operation” that led to Khashoggi’s death.

The American who recently visited MBS said he cautioned him that top US military and intelligence officials were weighing whether the crown prince was a dictator, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, nominally committed to modernization but unreliable, or a solid ally of the United States. “As long as you keep Qahtani, people will say you’re more like Saddam,” this visitor warned.

Senior Saudi officials who have discussed MBS’s continuing contact with Qahtani have urged US patience. “If I try to ban him, [Qahtani] will find another channel,” a senior prince is said to have advised the administration. Meanwhile, the Saudi engine of repression continues to run at full speed.

Source: WP, Edited by website team

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Behind a Saudi Prince’s Rise, Two Loyal Enforcers

By Ben Hubbard and David D. Kirkpatrick

When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia convened an outdoor banquet this spring for his fellow Arab rulers, seated among the kings, princes and presidents were two friends with few qualifications other than their closeness to the young prince himself: a poet who has become known for orchestrating ferocious social media campaigns, and a former security guard who runs the Saudi sports commission.

The two men had each played pivotal roles in many of the brazen power plays that have marked Prince Mohammed’s sprint to dominance of the kingdom — the ouster of the previous crown prince, the detentions of royals and businessmen in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, and the kingdom’s diplomatic spats with Qatarand Canada. Even Saudi royals have come to fear the prince’s two friends — Saud el-Qahtani, 40, and Turki al-Sheikh, 37 — and the Arab potentates around the table could scarcely object to their presence.

Now the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents has focused attention on their roles as enablers of the crown prince’s impulsiveness and aggression, and Saudi watchers consider the men’s fate a bellwether of the royal court’s direction as it grapples with the international outrage over the killing.

“They are the closest people to the crown prince,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They are his political enforcers and the face of the brash new ‘Saudi first’ posture at home and abroad, and those opposed to the hypernationalist, thuggish direction in Saudi foreign policy would be happy to see them cut down to size.”

Neither man is among the 18 people Saudi Arabia says it has arrested in the course of its investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

But the kingdom has already assigned some blame for the killing to Mr. Qahtani, the social-media czar. He lost his title as an adviser to the royal court because he contributed to the vitriolic rhetoric toward the kingdom’s critics that led to Mr. Khashoggi’s death, a Saudi official said. It is unclear which of his many duties Mr. Qahtani has relinquished.

Mr. Sheikh, the sports commissioner, was in New York for medical treatment during the killing, according to Saudis who know him, and has since avoided the spotlight.

Mr. Khashoggi, who was a Saudi insider before fleeing the kingdom last year to live in Virginia and write columns for The Washington Post, had said the two men exemplified what was dangerous about Prince Mohammed.

The crown prince “does not have political advisers except Turki al-Sheikh and Saud al-Qahtani,” Mr. Khashoggi said in private comments published by Newsweek after his death. “They are very thuggish. People fear them. You challenge them, you might end up in prison.”

Mr. Qahtani did not respond to messages seeking comment. Mr. Sheikh did not respond to a request for comment sent to the sports commission.

Both men run portfolios — social media and sports — that resonate with the large population of young Saudis whom Prince Mohammed has courted as his base. Both have sought to fire up the fierce nationalism that the prince has encouraged by pouring money into battles against rivals in stadiums or on the internet.

Although neither portfolio relates to foreign affairs, foreign envoys often seek out the two men because of their influence, said Dennis Horak, the former Canadian ambassador to Riyadh who was expelled in August after other Canadian diplomats called for the release of detained rights activists.

Mr. Sheikh was approachable while Mr. Qahtani “had a much fiercer reputation,” Mr. Horak said. The pair, he said, was “not so much good cop-bad cop, more bad cop and lesser-bad cop.”

Like Prince Mohammed, neither was well known before the prince’s father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015. Both were educated inside the kingdom with scant experience abroad.

Critics in the kingdom say that they sometimes failed to understand the dynamics of Western politics and culture, like when Mr. Qahtani orchestrated the plastering of billboards and trucks in London with his boss’s photo during the crown prince’s visit there last spring — to the derision of Londoners unaccustomed to foreign personality cults.

But each man had skills the prince treasured.

Mr. Qahtani, who held an undergraduate law degree and wrote poetry, had been recruited to work in the royal court more than a decade ago. He gained a deep understanding of the royal family’s secrets that members and associates of the royal family say he later exploited to help Prince Mohammed plot his rise and eliminate his rivals.

He also appears to have developed an interest in hacking. As early as 2009, someone using credentials associated with Mr. Qahtani was trawling amateur hacking forums to learn about surveillance software, according to images of the posts captured by other forum members.

In 2012, someone using Mr. Qahtani’s government email address solicited services from the Italian spyware company Hacking Team, according emails later released by WikiLeaks. In one email, the writer sought a visit by people with “high technical knowledge” to “explain the solutions you offer and training and costs.”

“Will bear all the costs of the trip from A-Z,” the author of the email added.

Mr. Qahtani has become Prince Mohammed’s chief propagandist. With a Twitter following of 1.36 million users, he solicited names for a blacklist of enemies of the kingdom and then marshaled mass social media attacks against them, commanding followers his critics have called “electronic flies.” His work has earned him the nicknames Lord of the Flies, Mr. Hashtag and “Saudi Arabia’s Steve Bannon.”

Mr. Sheikh was a bodyguard in Prince Mohammed’s security detail who charmed the prince with his sense of humor and intense loyalty, said associates of the royal family who know both men. Roughly the same age, they developed a personal rapport, and the prince rewarded Mr. Sheikh with a seemingly limitless budget to make the kingdom an international contender in tennis, boxing, soccer and other sports. He has welcomed wrestling legend Hulk Hogan to Riyadh and last April, he joked in the ringabout keeping for himself the championship belt for the WWE’s Greatest Royal Rumble.

In an extension of his royally financed campaign to build a sports empire, Mr. Sheikh became the honorary president of one of the most successful and popular soccer teams in Egypt, an honor widely believed to reflect heavy investments of money from the crown prince. But Mr. Sheikh resigned in a dispute with the board after just a few months and instead bankrolled his own rival franchise, Pyramid. He recruited three star Brazilian players and launched a sports channel dedicated to his team, reportedly pouring in as much as $33 million.

But he complained publicly that Egyptian referees, fans and commentators were failing to appreciate his investments, and said he had asked Egypt’s president to intervene. In September, a stadium of Egyptian soccer fans broke out in vulgar chants denouncing Mr. Sheikh and the Saudis, and he responded by abandoning the team.

“Strange attacks from everywhere, and a new story every day,” he wrote on Facebook. “Why the headache?”

Mr. Sheikh also splurged last September on a $4.8 million limited edition Bugatti Chiron sports car, according to a sales contract obtained by The New York Times. The seller, the Emirati businessman Saeed Mohammed Butti Alqubaisi, declined to comment.

When an entertainment program on the Saudi-owned satellite network MBC last year seemed to hint at a rumored affair between Mr. Sheikh and an Egyptian singer, Mr. Sheikh ordered the network to fire the production team, according to industry executives familiar with the case. The show remains off the air.

Both men played signal roles in Prince Mohammed’s rise. In June 2017, Mr. Sheikh and Mr. Qahtani were among a handful of Prince Mohammed’s loyalists who forcibly detained the previous crown prince and interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, holding him overnight and threatening him until he agreed to give up his claim to the throne, according to members and associates of the royal family.

 

In a video made the next day, Mr. Sheikh can be seen hovering behind the ousted prince as he pledges allegiance to Mohammed bin Salman. A social media campaign spread rumors that a cocaine addiction had made the ousted prince unfit to rule, and people close to the royal family said Mr. Qahtani fueled the rumors.

Both men sprang into action again when Saudi Arabia led a blockade of its tiny neighbor Qatar in June 2017, over its support for political Islam. They unleashed insults and promoted hashtags bashing Qatar, and Mr. Qahtani forced MBC to stop airing Turkish soap operas because of Turkey’s support for Qatar, costing the network millions in losses, according to industry executives.

He also persuaded Prince Mohammed to spend more than $100,000 on American television commercials denouncing Qatar, evidently unaware of how few Americans were following the Gulf dispute.

A Qatari-owned network, BeIN Sports, had acquired the exclusive rights to broadcast this year’s World Cup in the Arab world. So Mr. Qahtani helped promote BeoutQ, a bootleg operation beamed from Riyadh-based Arabsat. BeoutQ ripped live events from BeIN’s feed and broadcast the games without paying for rights, spurring international lawsuits. The Saudi government has denied any relationship to the pirate network.

Both men also played key roles again last fall when Crown Prince Mohammed arbitrarily detained hundreds of the kingdom’s richest businessmen and several of his royal cousins in a Ritz-Carlton hotel in what was billed as a crackdown on corruption — just a few weeks after Mr. Sheikh had picked up his $4.8 million Bugatti.

Both men acted as interrogators, demanding that the captives confess to corrupt self-enrichment and pledge to surrender vast sums, according to relatives and close associates of several detainees. Although blindfolded during some interrogations, detainees told relatives that they saw the two men or recognized their voices from broadcast interviews. Others said that through hotel room windows, they saw Mr. Sheikh coming and going surrounded by armed guards.

Several former detainees have reported physical mistreatment during the interrogations, including beatings, electrical shocks and suspension upside down for long periods.

Some have shown their family members lasting scars from the beatings and shocks, and in one case photographs of the bruises and scars have been shared with The New York Times; some of the pictures included the electronic monitoring bracelet that the government has forced released detainees to wear to track their movements. One was forced to make his consent to a forced confession with only a thumb print because he was too incapacitated to write out his signature, according to a relative informed by the detainee.

Although no evidence has emerged that either man directly abused the captives, both questioned detainees who had been abused.

The government of Saudi Arabia has called the allegations of physical abuse “absolutely untrue.”

A few weeks after his release from the Ritz, Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, once the kingdom’s wealthiest investor, made a donation of more than a half-million dollars to a Saudi soccer club, writing on Twitter that he was “responding to the invitation of my brother Turki al-Sheikh.”

Neither Mr. Qahtani nor Mr. Sheikh have commented publicly on the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. But Mr. Qahtani, who lost his title as a royal court adviser, appears to believe his days of serving the prince are not over.

After his dismissal, he tweeted his thanks to the king and crown prince for “this great opportunity to have the honor to serve the homeland.”

“I will remain a loyal servant of my country forever,” he added.

Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and David D. Kirkpatrick from London. Tariq Panja contributed reporting from London, and Karam Shoumali from Berlin.

Source: NYT, Edited by website team

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