The Twitter-jitters: 140 Characters That Shake a Kingdom

Saudi Arabia may have watched smugly as Turkey's Erdogan was attacked on Twitter, but the deepest secrets of the Saudi royal house are now coming out as well.

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Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns a 4-percent share of Twitter.
Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns a 4-percent share of Twitter. Credit: Bloomberg

When the Turkish government blocked access to Twitter last week, it surely did not forget that one of the social media company's largest shareholders is Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who back in 2011 bought $300 million in shares - chump change, more or less, for the globally diversified billionaire investor and nephew of King Abdullah.

It's a good guess that Alwaleed was quite pleased that it was the microblogging service in which he has a 4-percent share that exposed the deepest secrets of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when an anonymous Twitter user uploaded an audio recording purporting to be of the Turkish prime minister instructing his son to dispose of large sums of money. Saudi Arabia's relations with Turkey are thorny, due to Erdogan's unreserved support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. If anyone wants to hurt Erdogan, Saudi Arabia and Alwaleed certainly wouldn't stand in their way.

But what Alwaleed did not expect, and could not have been pleased about, was the publication on Twitter of the deepest secrets of the Saudi royal house. The same month that the prince acquired his stake in Twitter, a Saudi blogger known as Mujtahid Bin Hareth Bin Hammaam opened a Twitter account that has been rocking the kingdom ever since with its details about corruption in the Saudi royal family. The account, @Mujtahidd, has more than 1.5 million followers.

In Saudi Arabia, where rumors are fact - the facts as reported in the conventional media are whitewashed, and of course royal corruption is off-limits - Twitter has become a substitute for investigative journalism. It was from Mujtahidd's tweets, for example, that Saudis learned of the dirty deals that went alongside the appointment of the country's deputy interior minister, of the grounds for the appointment of the culture minister, of the business rivalry between Prince Khalid al-Tuwaijri and Prince Khaled Bin Salman (son of Crown Prince Salman), of a $4 billion missile deal for which Tuwaijri backed a Dutch supplier and Bin Salman preferred a French firm, and also of the family's preparations for the eventual death of King Abdullah, who is 90.

Twitter, which is poking holes in the walls of the fortress the kingdom has built against the media through years by acquiring control of Arab media outlets, has already led to a number of religious decrees recommending that devout Muslims avoid its use. But there are also those who advise religious figures to tweet their beliefs in order to be relevant to the young.

For now, Twitter has not placed any restrictions on its use in Saudi Arabia. Mujtahidd now has a serious competitor in the neighboring United Arab Emirates. He calls himself "Mohalas al-Amarat" ("faithful to the emirates"), and while he isn't yet as popular as the Saudi, his scoops and stories are no less thrilling. He has, for example, tweeted colorful details about the sexual exploits of Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim during a visit to Turkey, details that were confirmed in the Turkish media and that rocked relations between the two countries. Last week he tweeted details about Tamim's cooperation with the CIA in the January 2010 assassination in Dubai of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. According to the tweets, Khalfan gave the CIA detailed information about Mabhouh's movements that was passed on to the Mossad and was instrumental to planning the hit.

Another story touches on the secret relationship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. It alleges that U.A.E. Foreign Minister Anwar Mohammed Gargash, who owns a number of media outlets, is in charge of the U.A.E.'s unofficial ties with Israel and serves as a kind of "interest office" in place of Israel's Qatar office, which was closed. Other tweets have claimed that Knesset member Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al) is the contact person between Gargash's office and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Every week Israeli businessmen come to the emirate, as though Israel isn't occupying Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque," the U.A.E. blogger tweeted. He claims Gargash was also responsible for funding last summer's military coup in Egypt, through the auspices of Egyptian businessman Ahmad Abu Husheima, owner of the Al Yawm Al Sabah daily, who received more than 120 million Egyptian pounds to promote the military regime.

In a country in which the traditional media are prevented from reporting the truth about foreign relations and the financial connections of its leaders, Twitter has become an alternative source of information that is perceived as reliable even when that is clearly not the case. It is interesting that until now, none of the figures mentioned in these tweets has bothered to issue a denial. Apparently simply ignoring the reports is the weapon used against these rumors, especially when "the suspects" know that no one will investigate their conduct. The Twitter journlist has promised to publish additional details about the dirty deals and wide-reaching ties of U.A.E. leaders with its enemies, and then the U.A.E. will presumably join the club of Twitter-blockers unless it can get its hands on the bothersome blogger. Suddenly Al Jazeera seems like an innocent media outlet, when compared to the 140 characters that can shake up governments.

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