A top Saudi official who was fired after being accused of playing a role in the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to serve as an informal royal adviser, and the U.S. is pressing the kingdom behind the scenes to hold him accountable, according to American and Saudi officials.
Saudi Arabia, however, has resisted American pressure to take decisive action against Saud al-Qahtani, who previously served in effect as the right-hand man to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the U.S. and Saudi officials said.
U.S. officials say Mr. Qahtani’s continued influence is a sign of what they see as Saudi Arabia’s inadequate response to the death of Mr. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist killed by Saudi operatives on Oct. 2 at his country’s consulate in Istanbul.
“We don’t see that Saud al-Qahtani is very constrained in his activities,” said one senior State Department official.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Mr. Qahtani and other Saudis in the case, saying they were involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The sanctions prohibit Americans from engaging in transactions with them. Turkey is seeking Mr. Qahtani’s extradition to face charges for the killing.
Before the Khashoggi killing, Mr. Qahtani, who is 40, had extensive sway over domestic and foreign affairs, according to Saudi officials. Under Prince Mohammed’s patronage, he tightened controls on the press and assembled a 3,000-strong team to monitor and intimidate critics on social media, Saudi officials said.
Mr. Qahtani was fired by Saudi King Salman after the king was briefed on the evidence Turkish authorities had gathered. Yet he still serves as an informal adviser to the crown prince, the country’s de facto ruler, who is known as MBS, Saudi officials said.
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“MBS still goes to him for advice, and he still calls him his adviser with his close associates,” said one Saudi official.
Unofficially, Mr. Qahtani continues to carry out some of his duties as a royal-court adviser, such as issuing directives to local journalists and brokering meetings for the crown prince, Saudi officials said.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately comment. Mr. Qahtani didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, last week called the killing of Mr. Khashoggi a “huge mistake” and said, “Let the legal process play out and then judge us when it’s complete, but don’t judge us before this is complete.”
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President Trump has avoided criticizing Prince Mohammed, citing the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials are exerting diplomatic pressure on Riyadh to do more, recognizing a growing bipartisan backlash in Congress that could curb U.S.-Saudi military ties and restrict arms sales.
The Central Intelligence Agency concluded, with “medium-to-high confidence,” that Prince Mohammed personally targeted Mr. Khashoggi, authorized the operation against him, and probably ordered his death. The Saudi government has repeatedly denied that Prince Mohammed was involved in the killing.
The Saudi public prosecutor is investigating the Khashoggi case and has charged 11 people. Mr. Qahtani hasn’t been charged and is one of an additional 10 people who are under investigation, according to the Saudi government.
Prince Mohammed has sought to protect him, according to a Saudi royal familiar with the matter.
“For MBS, Qahtani was the backbone of his court, and [Prince Mohammed] assured him that he will be untouched and will return when the Khashoggi case blows over,” he said.
“MBS had no intention whatsoever to let go of Qahtani and was furious when he was fired by his father,” the Saudi royal said.
Mr. Qahtani has been spotted in Abu Dhabi, even though Saudi Arabia imposed a travel ban, said a Saudi official. He was seen in the royal court at least twice until people complained and he was banned, Saudi officials said.
A U.S. official said that the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Khalid bin Salman, who is Prince Mohammed’s brother, told the Americans that Saudi authorities wouldn’t take Mr. Qahtani’s cellphone away from him because he would find a way around it.
Riyadh has also resisted U.S. pressure to close the royal media center that Mr. Qahtani once used to intimidate Saudi dissidents, American officials said.
American officials said they have pressed Riyadh to rein in Mr. Qahtani, and they have made it clear that he should be prosecuted if the facts support it.
The U.S., they said, also wants to see Prince Mohammed accept some responsibility for the death of Mr. Khashoggi, who had become a prominent critic of the crackdown on dissidents.
“If MBS wants to demonstrate leadership he, at some point—it should have happened already—but there’s a statement made that this is inexcusable and this will never happen again and the bucks stops with me,” said the State Department official. “That sort of helps people move on, but that hasn’t happened.”
Mr. Jubeir rejected outside pressure to constrain the crown prince, saying challenges to Saudi leadership were a “red line.”
“For anyone to think that they can dictate what we should do or what our leadership should do is preposterous,” he said.
Five of the people Saudi Arabia has charged in connection with Mr. Khashoggi’s killing face the death penalty. Citing Saudi laws, prosecutors haven’t named any of the suspects.
Two Saudi officials told The Wall Street Journal that the five facing the death penalty are: Ahmed al-Assiri, the former deputy chief of intelligence; Maher Mutreb, a former member of the Saudi royal guard; Salah al-Tubaigy; Moustafa Madani; and Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi.
Turkish authorities have accused Mr. Assiri of ordering the operation and identified Mr. Madani as wearing Mr. Khashoggi’s clothes leaving the Saudi consulate in an attempt to fool security cameras. Turkish authorities have said the others were among the Saudis sent to Istanbul.
Saudi officials are hoping these cases will reduce American pressure to prosecute Mr. Qahtani. “The Saudi regime knows that the U.S. wants to see Qahtani on trial, but they are hoping these five names will be enough,” said one Saudi official.
Neither the accused people nor their representatives could be reached for comment.
Some U.S. officials said they are skeptical that anyone will be executed for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. And they have told Saudi officials that the legal process isn’t moving quickly enough.
“We see it going very slowly,” said the senior State Department official. “It’s a way for them to turn the tap on and turn the tap off in terms of accountability. It could string out for a long time.”