Footage of Qahtani attending a social gathering in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah circulated on social media over the weekend, drawing condemnation – as well as praise from his backers.
Qahtani was hosted by a Saudi real estate developer and investor Ahmed al-Obaikan.
He appeared to be using a walking stick when Obaikan, his uncle, and other visitors greeted him.
Pro-government Saudi Arabian social media accounts hailed his return, calling him a “beloved” national figure.
One prominent Saudi account called on Elon Musk to reinstate Qahtani’s Twitter account, calling his ban “wrongful” and saying it was “influenced by the radical left agenda and the Washington Post”.
Qahtani was suspended from Twitter a year after being removed over his suspected role in Khashoggi’s murder, accusing him of manipulating the platform. The former official was head of the royal court’s media centre and oversaw a social media campaign where hundreds of fake accounts promoted the Saudi government.
“His first videos and photos, which emerged on Twitter today, are cherished by many, especially in Saudi Arabia. The affection and respect shown to him by Saudi people should be recognized,” tweeted Abdullah al-Khurayyef.
Qahtani disappeared from public view following the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee at the time of his murder, tweeted: “It seems that he is mentally and physically devastated. This is little for him in return what he has done against the innocent. Damn him and people like him.”
Turki al-Shalhoub, a Saudi journalist critical of his government, described Qahtani as the “dirty hand” of MbS.
“The criminal [Saud al-Qahtani] committed a crime that shook the world, brought calamities upon the state and tarnished its image… This murderous criminal is still at work and moves freely, while those who truly loved their country and defended the rights of citizens are being ravaged by imprisonment!” Shalhoub tweeted.
After bin Salman assumed the position of crown prince in 2017, Qahtani became one of the most powerful figures in Saudi Arabia. He was reported to have had a leading role in the Ritz Carlton purge of that year, and is alleged to have overseen the torture of imprisoned women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul. He is also believed to have been a leading figure in the brief detention of then-Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri in 2017.
Qahtani was reported to long have been angered by Khashoggi’s critical writings, and soon after the journalist’s disappearance US and Turkish intelligence sources began to identify him as the ringleader of the operation that killed him.
Middle East Eye revealed that Qahtani was part of the command structure of the Saudi death squad, which operated under the guidance and supervision of MbS.
The crown prince and Qahtani have denied involvement, with Riyadh describing the assassination as a rogue operation that went wrong.
Qahtani was banned from entering the US, UK and other European countries, and was among the 17 Saudis sanctioned by the US Treasury over Khashoggi’s murder, based on intelligence reports that he was involved in the operation.
A Saudi court cleared Qahtani of wrongdoing in 2021. Last year, a US district court dismissed a case brought against bin Salman and Qahtani over the murder, after the Biden administration advised that the crown prince should be given immunity as he had become prime minister.
Qahtani was also one of two people accused in a Turkish court case over the killing of Khashoggi. However, the case was suspended in April 2022 after a judge ruled that the trial be transferred to Saudi Arabia.
Sources have previously told Reuters that Qahtani remained influential behind the scenes after disppearing from public view.