How Saudi Arabia’s MBS conquered Twitter and upped his online game

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Inside the rise of Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman

By Jihâd Gillon

Posted on Friday, 12 February 2021 20:07, updated on Monday, 15 February 2021 12:34
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs final session of the 15th annual G20 Leaders' Summit in Riyadh
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 22, 2020. Bandar Algaloud / Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

Big into social media, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman has become an expert at wielding Twitter to consolidate his popularity, squash his critics and manipulate the conversation. In this final part of our series, we look at how he conquered social media.

This is part 6 of a 6-part series

As early as his teenage years, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was an obsessive social media user. He was especially drawn to Twitter, the Saudis’ go-to platform and one they have long preferred over Facebook.

‘Twitter is like the country’s parliament’

In the early 2010s, Saudi Arabia’s Twitterverse even seemed “like the country’s parliament”. Anything and everything could be discussed and criticised on the platform, and almost no topic was considered off limits, from Saudi foreign policy to women’s rights and religious reforms.

An account opened in 2011 under the Twitter handle Mujtahidd with more than 2 million followers and became a top source of information on the latest palace intrigues.

Mujtahidd has claimed that most of his information comes from anonymous sources, including princes, with whom he communicates verbally. His assertions are rarely proven false, so much so that some suspect him of belonging to the royal family.

At a time when no news had yet been released about certain Arab states establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, the Twitter user revealed a scoop that Saudi Arabia’s policy towards the Jewish state was set to go in a new direction and that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), was an influential force behind the shift.

The country’s old guard of leaders, however, do not appear to fully grasp the role social media platforms played during the Arab Spring and continue to play in spreading dissident content.

High stakes

MBS understood very early on that he could use Twitter to increase his profile and boost his popularity.

In Saudi Arabia, where the median age is about 29 years old, controlling social media is a very high stakes affair. But for the royal family’s top-ranking princes, who are generally the oldest of the lot, influence still mainly boils down to tribal networks and ties with equally elderly religious dignitaries.

MBS understood very early on that he could use Twitter to increase his profile and boost his popularity. In 2014, Mohammed became concerned when rumours started to spread on the platform that his father, Crown Prince Salman – who was about to inherit the throne – had dementia.

The young prince tasked his loyal aide, Bader al-Asaker, with finding a way to unmask the anonymous critics spreading the rumours.

In June 2014, Asaker travelled to Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco to meet with the platform’s head of Middle East partnerships, Ahmad Abouammo, an Egyptian-American. Without naming MBS specifically, Asaker told Abouammo that he worked for a Saudi prince who was big on using Twitter.

During a second meeting at a later date, Asaker gave the Twitter employee a $20,000 Hublot watch. Shortly after this rendezvous, Asaker asked Abouammo to find the email address and phone number of Mujtahidd by accessing the platform’s internal systems.

Abouammo continued to receive requests from the Saudis. Meanwhile, Salman became king and MBS one of the most powerful men in the country. Abouammo would receive more than $300,000 in compensation, deposited in a Lebanese bank account, for the information he divulged. As time went by, Asaker wanted to have more than just one mole at the US social media giant, especially since Abouammo’s technical skills were lacking.

A Saudi mole inside Twitter

Funnily enough, Twitter had recently hired a young Saudi software engineer, Ali Alzabarah, who was educated in the United States but deeply patriotic. In charge of systems maintenance, he had access to Twitters users’ information, including their IP addresses, which reveal a person’s location.

After meeting with Asaker in Washington, DC in February 2015, the engineer set to work combing through more than 6,000 Twitter accounts. He primarily targeted Mujtahidd, who continued to post embarrassing revelations about the royal family, and managed to find his phone number and IP address.

Another target was Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi man living in exile in Canada after the kingdom cancelled his scholarship as punishment for openly criticising the government online. He would go on to become close friends with journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Twitter promoted Alzabarah a few months down the line. “As much as I am happy for the position, I am happier with and very proud of my work with you,” he wrote in an unsent letter to Asaker.

Intimidating dissident voices

In the meantime, Saud al-Qahtani, another faithful MBS aide, who would later be implicated in Khashoggi’s killing, developed a strategy to silence his boss’s critics on Twitter, teaming up with an American programmer who had worked in the past at Lockheed Martin.

Qahtani set out to do more than just boost MBS’s popularity on the platform, putting in place a highly aggressive approach of confronting every MBS critic. This involved mobilising a team of social media specialists and establishing an office for their activities at the royal court in Riyadh.

The group was tasked with creating thousands of fake Twitter accounts in which they posed as young Saudis and posted messages showing support for the future crown prince.

Turki bin Abdullah, a son of King Abdullah (who died in January 2015) and one of MBS’s main competitors for the crown, also understood that he stood to gain something by manipulating Twitter and posting messages critical of his cousin MBS.

Qahtani retaliated with the help of hundreds of fake accounts from abroad. Some belonged to real people, including a late American meteorologist and an Olympic ski champion whose account had been hacked.

Qahtani pinpointed accounts that were critical of MBS and deployed an army of bots to harass their owners. He also was in negotiations with the Italian outfit Hacking Team to purchase offensive spyware and surveillance tools.

Before long, US intelligence officers caught on to Alzabarah. Late in 2015, an FBI agent paid a visit to Twitter’s headquarters to notify company lawyers that a Saudi mole was in their midst. Right away, the agent asked that the company refrain from telling Alzabarah about the investigation. The lawyers ended up suspending the employee, but did not inform him of the FBI’s investigation.

Concerned about his situation, Alzabarah immediately contacted the Saudi consul in Los Angeles, which arranged for the young engineer’s emergency extraction.

A few hours later, he boarded a flight bound for Riyadh with his wife and daughter. Once in Saudi Arabia, he joined MBS’s social media manipulation team.

After being infiltrated, Twitter unintentionally helped an employee in the wrong escape the FBI’s net.

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