Riyadh Saudi Arabia — Authorities here will not say what became of Saud al-Qahtani, a powerful royal adviser whom Saudi prosecutors allege played a major role in the events that led to Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in Istanbul three months ago.
So in the seven weeks since the government said he was under investigation, only rumors have filled the silence. He was spotted recently in the coastal city of Jiddah, a resident said, and in the offices of the royal court here in the capital, according to a person who works with the government. Other accounts put Qahtani, once a top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a remote corner of the kingdom, laying low.
The government’s treatment of Qahtani is being closely watched in Washington and other foreign capitals as a test of whether Saudi Arabia is sincere about prosecuting everyone found to be involved in Khashoggi’s killing, including senior officials. Even then, the many unanswered questions surrounding Qahtani’s role include whether he helped hatch the plot, as some Saudi officials allege, or is a fall guy served up by the government.
The CIA has concluded with medium to high confidence that the crown prince likely ordered the Khashoggi operation. Saudi officials say Mohammed was unaware of the plot, and some of them privately suggest it was a misguided plan by Qahtani to demonstrate his loyalty to his boss.
The Saudi government did not respond to requests for comment about whether he is free, detained or under indictment. Qahtani did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on his whereabouts. A person close to the Saudi royal court said he believed Qahtani was under house arrest but could not be sure. On Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s general prosecutor said 11 defendants had appeared in court for the first time, but the prosecutor’s office did not release their names, or say if Qahtani was among them.
A U.S. official said in a conference call with reporters that the Trump administration was “pleased” to see the beginning of the trial but added that the legal process had not yet “hit that threshold of credibility and accountability.”
The last detailed government comment on Qahtani was on Nov. 15, when prosecutors said he was under investigation and had been forbidden from leaving the kingdom.
That same day, the Trump administration said it had imposed sanctions on Qahtani, calling him “part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.”
The Saudi government said Qahtani had been fired from his post as royal court adviser. But the lack of clarity on his status — and the various reported sightings of him — have raised questions about whether he continues to wield influence behind the scenes.