A recent article in The New York Times headlined “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider” highlights the danger of undemocratic countries in the Middle East exploiting new media platforms to eliminate activists and dissidents.
That such cyber campaigns are prevailing only underscore how the Arab authoritarian regimes have fully grasped the importance of social media’s impact on politics in the post-Arab Spring period. Indeed, the Arab uprisings in 2011 shook the region in no small part because of social media’s ability to streamline communication and mobilize opposition.
Saudi Arabia ranks near the top of countries worldwide in social media users per capita, which is perhaps due to limitations on public discourse in a society where media outlets are closely controlled by the state and the official narrative cannot be challenged. Doubtless, the specter of any effective Arab Spring movement that challenges the regime’s legitimacy is of grave concern to the leadership in Riyadh. That’s why the Saudi state is so heavily focused on the war of narratives raging on Twitter.
For Saudi Arabia, a key lesson from 2011 is that the region’s regimes had failed to sufficiently control discourse or monitor social media. Thus, the current leadership in Riyadh is determined to tighten its grip on Twitter and promote a model of authoritarian stability throughout the region, highlighted by strong Saudi support for the rulers in Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Libya’s Tobruk-based administration, and Yemen’s internationally recognized government.
According to the aforementioned Times report, the Saudi government planted a mole on Twitter to dig up opponents’ personal information, including IP addresses. It is worth noting that pro-Saudi figures and investors own considerable Twitter stock shares. After being discharged from Twitter, the mole went back to Saudi Arabia and is reportedly working in the government, according to the paper.
Late last year, the Saudis established the National Authority for Cyber Security and the Saudi Federation for Cyber Security, Programming and Drones. The latter was headed by Saud al-Qahtani, who served as an advisor to the Saudi royal court until being relieved from duty earlier this month amid the investigation into Jamal Khashoggi’s death, which occurred following his arrival at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.
It is worth noting that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis, which broke out last year, originated in part due to the hacking of the Qatar News Agency (QNA) and reporting on a fake story regarding alleged statements made by Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani about Iran, Hamas, Israel, and the Trump administration. Throughout the two weeks that preceded the beginning of the blockade, Saudi and Emirati media outlets jumped on these fake remarks attributed to the emir of Qatar and reported on them. Anti-Qatar commentators then launched an onslaught of attacks against the leadership in Doha. Saudi- and Emirati-linked Twitter accounts, which were found to be bots, repeatedly tweeted about Sheikh Tamim being the “Gaddafi of the Gulf,” in reference to Libya’s former leader.
The timing of the QNA hacking was remarkable. It came only two days after President Donald Trump delivered his speech at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit in the Saudi capital, in which he called on GCC members and other Arab and Muslim states to unite against Iran and Sunni extremists. After the GCC crisis broke out on June 5, suspicions that Trump and his administration had given the Saudi/UAE-led bloc a “green light” to act against Qatar were stoked by tweets in which Trump implied not only that he fully supported the siege of Doha but that he deserved credit for the blockade. Such a sentiment was corroborated in remarks made by the former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon at a neoconservative think tank event in Washington in October 2017.
In the immediate aftermath of the cyberattack against QNA, social media users in Saudi Arabia and the UAE castigated Doha. Pro-Saudi Twitter trolls came out rejecting Doha’s official denial statements about the Qatari emir’s alleged remarks. Saudi Twitter users who called for a de-escalation of tensions between Riyadh and Doha in the first few days of the GCC crisis quickly became quiet after the Saudi government made clear that defending Qatar on social media would lead to harsh punishment. Religious scholars and sports stars and media celebrities have all received instructions from Qahtani to post tweets that are supportive of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as warnings about severe consequences for failure to abide by instructions. Renowned Saudi religious scholar Salman al-Ouda, who has millions of followers on Twitter, was arrested after he sent a tweet in favor of reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha.
Freedom of expression has always been restricted in Saudi Arabia. However, now it is also the freedom of silence that is being restricted. Saudis are under pressure not only to not challenge the state’s official narratives, but also to actively promote them. Being quiet on Twitter and not defending the Saudi leadership is itself grounds for suspicion of disloyalty. The Riyadh regime is determined to continue closely monitoring and controlling social media. The aim is to further spread pro-government propaganda and thwart the dissemination of any dissenting opinions.
The fallout of Khashoggi’s case has further illustrated Saudi Arabia’s use of Twitter to control discourse in the kingdom and influence abroad. The New York Times piece reported that Khashoggi, along with many other Saudi regime critics and/or dissidents, were targeted by these Twitter trolls paid by the state.
Khashoggi criticized MbS’s decision to join other Arab states in the still unresolved 2017 blockading of Qatar, a nation that he saw as a vital ally of Riyadh. He also publicly voiced strong disagreement over the crown prince’s view of the Muslim Brotherhood as an enemy as well as the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. In such ways, Khashoggi challenged MbS and became a target of the regime prior to losing his life in a Saudi diplomatic mission in Turkey earlier this month.
For all Saudis who live abroad and speak out against MbS on Twitter or other forums, their ultimate fear is that they too will meet Khashoggi’s fate. Clearly, MbS intends to let all Saudis know that being outside of the kingdom offers no protection for those who cross red lines and criticize his decision-making. The failure of the blockade against Qatar to achieve its goals of pressuring Doha into capitulating to the Saudi/UAE-led bloc’s list of demands is a source of humiliation for MbS and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed.
Even if unable to tip the balance of the GCC crisis in Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s favor, the leadership in Riyadh is clearly determined to create a new environment in which any criticism of the kingdom’s anti-Qatar stance is absent from Saudi Twitter users’ discourse. From MbS’s perspective, any sympathy for Qatar or the Muslim Brotherhood amounts to treason, and any such support for state or non-state actors deemed by the Saudi regime to be enemies will be met with dire consequences.
Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director MENA Center for Research in Washington, D.C.