Contrary to Saudi Arabia’s self-proclaimed image as a reform-minded state gradually opening to the world, the country’s human rights situation is worsening, according to both activists and the family members of imprisoned dissidents. “Saudi Arabia is carrying out more repression” than ever, said Areej Al Sadhan, whose brother Abdulrahman, a 37-year-old aid worker, was abducted by Saudi security forces in 2018 for running a satirical Twitter account. “They are ruthlessly going after anyone who exercises their freedom of speech.”
This week, a counterterrorism court in Saudi Arabia sentenced Abdulrahman Al Sadhan to 20 years in prison, with a subsequent 20-year travel ban. Accused of running a pseudonymous Twitter account that parodied members of the Saudi government, Al Sadhan had violated the country’s stringent prohibitions on political speech that allow authorities to arrest (and sometimes torture and execute) virtually anyone showing public dissent. While Al Sadhan has 30 days to appeal his sentence, absent pressure from Western governments (which has so far been meager), his prison term is likely a fait accompli.
Al Sadhan’s family has had only two brief phone calls with him since his arrest in 2018, and they fear for his future. Though he is not Saudi Arabia’s most famous political prisoner, Al Sadhan is emblematic of the treatment meted out to anyone who challenges the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Completely intolerant of dissent—with mockery holding a special place of scorn—MBS has had critics harassed, kidnapped, and killed all over the world. The gruesome murder of former Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is perhaps the best known instance of MBS’s penchant for brutality, but he was merely one victim of a larger crackdown that has seen thousands of people, including some of MBS’s own family members, rounded up and sent to prisons and black sites, where torture is routine.
“The level of human rights abuses are continuing on a high scale,” said Areej Al Sadhan. “People should not be fooled by the recent release of [women’s rights activist] Loujain Alhathloul.”
This crackdown began, in part, on Twitter, which is used by approximately 10 million people in Saudi Arabia, making it the service’s largest Middle Eastern market. For many citizens of autocracies, social media provided a welcome entree to a public square where issues of societal concern could be discussed—openly—like never before. In Saudi Arabia, where independent media is nonexistent, social media at first appeared to be “a great equalizer,” said Ali Al Ahmed, a Saudi analyst living in Washington, D.C., who is suing Twitter for failing to protect his account from Saudi spies. “That did not last.”
After a brief honeymoon of unfettered speech, pro-regime trolls and surveillance emerged on the site. Now as popular with members of the Saudi ruling family as the public, Twitter is no longer a place where ordinary Saudis feel comfortable speaking freely. Much the same could be said of Saudi dissidents and exiles, who talk of constant harassment, death threats, and attempts to hack their accounts. In their view, Twitter bears some responsibility for how its service has been abused. “There was no real step taken by the company to take care of and protect these activists,” said Al Sadhan.
Saudi Twitter has since become a place for the government to propagandize, track dissident thought, and identify victims for MBS’s personal team of enforcers. Regime officials are even known to chat with their future targets. Ali Al Ahmed told me that after he’d exchanged some direct messages with MBS’s adviser Saud Al Qahtani, someone who claimed to be Al Qahtani sent Ahmed a phishing email, attempting to steal his login information. (Al Ahmed messaged Al Qahtani, who was later banned from Twitter after being linked to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, but he received no response.)
The story of MBS’s renewed crackdown on dissent is not as simple as combing Twitter for anti-regime statements, but Twitter plays a major role in the savage turn that’s occurred since MBS rose to power. In June 2014, a Saudi official named Bader Al Asaker—the secretary general of MBS’s personal charity, the Misk Foundation, and head of the crown prince’s private office—took a tour of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. The tour was jointly arranged by a man named Ahmed Almutairi, who operated a social media marketing company that contracted to members of the Saudi royal family and MBS’s foundation, and a Twitter employee named Ahmad Abouammo. Abouammo, who worked on media partnerships in the Middle East, would soon be groomed to spy directly for Al Asaker. In the months to come, Abouammo would receive more than $100,000 in cash and gifts as he gathered information—including email addresses, phone numbers, and private messages—relating to Saudi dissidents, journalists, and other accounts of note.
In 2015, Abouammo got a new job at Amazon, but the Saudi regime found a worthy replacement in Ali Alzabarah, a Twitter engineer whose position and technical skills gave him access to more user data than Abouammo. Soon enough, Alzabarah became an even more productive spy for Al Asaker and the Saudi regime, allegedly tracking dissidents across borders and providing IP addresses that could reveal people’s locations.
In December 2015, an FBI agent visited Twitter headquarters in San Francisco to tell them they had a Saudi espionage problem. While Abouammo was gone, Alzabarah was still siphoning data from thousands of accounts and passing it to his handlers. The FBI asked that Twitter refrain from taking immediate action but, reportedly suspicious about the intentions of government security agencies, which are known to pressure tech companies for private user information, Twitter decided to confront Alzabarah and suspend him. According to a federal indictment against Alzabarah, the engineer turned spy then frantically called Al Asaker, who, along with the Saudi consul general of Los Angeles, helped spirit Alzabarah to Saudi Arabia. After finding refuge there, Alzabarah was named the CEO of the Misk Foundation. (He was present at the infamous touching of the glowing orb event.) Alzabarah remains on Twitter—where his account is locked for privacy—and on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Over the years, Saudi investors, chief among them Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, the country’s most famous business mogul, have bought up shares in U.S. tech companies like Twitter. By 2015, the prince owned an estimated 5.2 percent of Twitter—more than Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey himself. In November 2017, bin Talal was arrested and confined to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh as part of a sweeping “anti-corruption” purge that forced numerous wealthy Saudis and members of the royal family to sign over their assets to MBS. That well may have included bin Talal’s Twitter shares. “Since late 2017 or January of 2018, MBS has exercised control over more Twitter stock than is owned by Twitter’s founder,” according to a civil complaint filed against Twitter and McKinsey by Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi exile who says that the consultancy helped finger him as a prominent online dissident, leading to his Twitter account being hacked. (Last year, Canadian authorities warned Abdulaziz that he may be a target of a Saudi kill team.)
According to Abdulaziz’s original complaint, “Because of the tremendous wealth of key figures in [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], major corporations have enabled, collaborated with, and turned a blind eye to KSA’s efforts to suppress, torture, falsely imprison, terrorize, and murder dissenters both within Saudi Arabia and around the world.” Other exiles have expressed similar thoughts, saying that Twitter gives the Saudi government a long reach well beyond its borders—and that Twitter has a responsibility to do more to protect its users from harassment and hacking.
“Instead of these tools being used to enable freedom of speech, [they are] being used by dictators to oppress freedom of speech and to track their personal information and target them personally,” said Al Sadhan.
Ali Al Ahmed has been the target of numerous hacking and phishing attempts, some of which he’s detected before they were able to succeed. But as he states in his lawsuit against Twitter, he believes the company failed to protect him and—more importantly—failed to protect the dissidents and other sensitive figures he had communicated with via Twitter direct messages. Among those people was Abdulrahman Al Sadhan, whose satire Al Ahmed appreciated. It’s not certain whether Abdulrahman was unmasked through the Twitter spy ring—sources close to the investigation believe his name was on an FBI list of surveilled accounts—but Al Ahmed believes that the spy ring definitely outed other friends, who were then disappeared, tortured, even killed.*
“It made me decide to do something about it, at least for the friends who were lost,” said Al Ahmed, who said he hopes his lawsuit will “force the truth to come out.”
More than five years have passed since the FBI told Twitter it had a Saudi spy problem. The company has since promised tightened procedures and access controls. But for many dissidents, it’s too late. Put another way, a murderous autocratic government abused its close relationship with Twitter to cultivate spies who provided information that then got innocent people thrown in jail. That government remains one of Twitter’s largest outside shareholders and continues to harass and monitor its citizens via the micro-blogging service. MBS has yet to suffer so much as a public warning, while people like Bader Al Asaker—who spoke multiple times with the Khashoggi hit squad on the day the journalist was murdered—use the site to propagandize to a huge audience.
On Twitter, Al Asaker appears like just another member of the global elite, mingling with royals, politicians, and business executives. He has 1.8 million followers—including Jack Dorsey. The U.S. tech CEO and the Saudi royal fixer appear to at least have a passing relationship, and in June 2016, six months after Twitter’s management learned about the spy ring from the FBI, Al Asaker tweeted a photo of Dorsey meeting with MBS in New York.
For Al Ahmed, the relationship, and Twitter’s passivity in the face of Saudi aggression, is difficult to explain.
“If somebody was spying on my company, would I be his friend?” Al Ahmed asked. “This is very serious. People died, people are in jail. Abdulrahman, this beautiful young man, is going to spend 20 years. This is sick, honestly.”
* This article originally provided sourcing on the FBI list of surveilled accounts that has since been clarified.