Judging Anonymous Tweets: The Case of @Mujtahidd
This post about the Saudi tweep Mujtahidd is contributed by Nathan Field, who has lived several years in Saudi Arabia. Here's an interview with Mujtahidd for more background.
An important ongoing development in the Arabic Twittosphere is the surging followership of a Saudi user known as @Mujtahidd. With daily tweets ranging from sensational rumors and gossip about the Royal Family to credible-sounding inside information about the Kingdom’s politics, he has quickly gained 925,000 followers – nearly half during the last six months, and is becoming one of the most followed feeds not just in Saudi Arabia, but increasingly the wider Middle East.
The caveat, however, is that Mujtahidd operates anonymously and there is no way to verify the accuracy of many of his dramatic claims, which poses a challenge for commentators looking to Twitter to glean insights into the region’s politics.
While some may dismiss the information coming from such a site as unreliable --- social media’s version of the National Enquirer -- a close survey over time shows that, in balance, they can offer good insights into the politics of closed and heavily censored countries like Saudi Arabia.
Some of Mujtahidd’s tweets suggest access to clear insider sources. This occurred on 10 July, when he published a sting of negative information about the climate inside the Saudi Intelligence Agency. According to his sources, the Director did not understand the intel trade, employee morale was low, and the quality of the analysis being produced was frequently poor:
تتابع فشل جهاز الاستخبارات السعودي في مصروالعراق وإيران وقضايا أسهل مثل قضية سارة فطلب الملك مسائلة العاملين من وراء مقرن فتوصل للتالي— مجتهد (@mujtahidd) July 10, 2012
Shortly after, the Royal Court announced a change in leadership at the top. Whether his description of the situation inside the agency was accurate or not, the timing appeared to indicate advance knowledge of a major cabinet shift well before it happened.
Moreover, Mujtahidd seems to have good sources inside King Abdullah’s entourage and frequently provides credible information about his health and travel schedule. For example, when Crown Prince Nayif died in early June of last year, Mujtahidd decisively predicted that the King would be too sick to attend the funeral, something that also proved true:
وينوي الملك تحاشي المشاركة في مراسم العزاء بسبب وضعه الصحي وسوف يتوجه مباشرة بعد صلاة الجنازة إلى قصره في الحوية في الطائف ويبقى هناك اسبوعا— مجتهد (@mujtahidd) June 16, 2012
On the other hand, while Mujtahidd’s anonymity offers him a layer of protection from both the embarrassment of being wrong and lawsuits from the targets of his trash talk it also encourages at times sensationalism.
Take a series of tweets last Fall claiming that the Ministry of the Interior knew about certain planned terrorist attacks, yet did not stop them because Prince Mohamed bin Nayif, then Deputy Minister and responsible for counterterrorism, wanted to increase his influence within the Royal Family. When readers asked for supporting evidence, the all-too-convenient response was that doing so would put his sources in jeopardy:
وردتني أسئلة عن تفاصيل أكثر عن خطة محمد بن نايف فيالتفجيرات لتبرير سيطرة أجهزة الأمن والحقيقة أن ذكر التفاصيل يضر مصادري فليعذرني السائلون— مجتهد (@mujtahidd) October 14, 2012
Frequent exaggeration also undermines his credibility on certain issues. One area where this occurs is on the issue of economic inequality. The gap between the super rich and average Saudis is in fact huge and no one disputes the stratospheric wealth of the most senior Royals but according to Mujtahidd’s “inside” information, the late Crown Prince Sultan left over $200 Billion to his heirs, which would have made him the richest person in the world:
مجموع ما تم حصره (نقد وعقار وغيره) 816 مليار: نصيب كل واحد من الأبناء 28 مليار وكل واحدة من البنات 14 مليار وكل زوجة من الزوجتين 51 مليار— مجتهد (@mujtahidd) June 29, 2012
Another is the issue of land ownership. It is true that the accumulation of large chunks of land in the hand of a small group of elites over the last several decades is a factor in causing the lack of affording housing for average Saudis. Yet Mujtahidd’s tweets gives the impression that it is merely a few greedy Royals hoarding the best land and engaging in land speculation. The reality is that there are many factors causing the problem as the often highly nuanced discussions on Saudi television shows indicate.
Overlook the Sensationalism and Understand the Agenda
The key to analyzing the information in publicity-seeking Mujtahidd-style social media accounts is to put everything in the context of the broader political agenda. My guess is that Mujtahidd is a lawyer or perhaps a group of lawyers, who hope to push the Kingdom through their Twitter activity towards a more institutionalized, non-personality-centric system of government, in the form of a constitutional monarchy.
This is probably the purpose of the constant broadcasting of detailed descriptions of the luxurious lifestyle of Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, a son of the late King Fahd and a minister without portfolio in the Saudi cabinet, covering everything from the size of his entourage to his Yachting schedule. Yet there are plenty of wealthy Saudis -- both Royals and commoners -- who live in similar luxury and are never the target of Mujtahidd’s wrath. Why the intense focus on one person?
Upon closer look, the point seems less about the travel per se, and more an indirect critique of the political system. What he really seems to be angry about is that the Prince is a member of the Saudi cabinet who (according to Mujtahidd) neglects his duties by spending so much time abroad. By focusing on the lifestyle details he is trying to get people to think more about what good governance entails. See this telling tweet where he basically says the scandal is more about a system where the King and Crown Prince are unable to remove an (allegedly) non-performing official:
والفضيحة ليست عليه بل على الملك ونايف العاجزين عن اتخاذ قرار بشأنه حيث لا يزال عضوا كامل العضوية في مجلس الوزراء وهو في هذه الحالة البائسة— مجتهد (@mujtahidd) June 14, 2012
The Ugly Truth about Saudi Political “Analysis”
It may be easy to dismiss Mujtahidd as a rumor-monger, but the simple fact is that nearly everything written about Saudi high politics is based on speculation.
Saudi Arabia does not have established institutions with centuries of precedent that provide rough guidelines for commentators to make reasonably accurate predictions about political trends. Instead its highest politics is effectively dictated by a small group of insiders who often have little interest in sharing their thoughts with outside academics or journalists. Unless one is part of that group, definitive statements about the Kingdom’s high politics are at best guesses.
Mujtahidd, however, seems to be close to members of the Saudi elite and because he is willing to broadcast the information he obtains, is one of the best public sources on the Kingdom’s politics, even if everything he says has to be treated with extreme skepticism.
Also, the account’s analysis on less sensational topics often seems reasonable and can be a good window into the thought process of Saudi political insiders.
An Insider or An Outsider?
Nor should Mujtahidd automatically be viewed as a hard-core opponent of “the system.” In some ways he even serves a useful purpose for the government.
Most Saudi policymakers view the adoption of global standards of transparency and openness as critical to achieving the Kingdom’s ambitious long-term economic reforms. Certainly this is necessary for attracting the foreign partnerships and technology needed for large-scale projects like the Economic Cities or the development of manufacturing clusters. And on that basis, Mujtahidd’s is probably seen by many elites forces as helping foster a climate of an increased expectation of transparency and openness at the higher levels of business and politics.
And Mujtahidd frequently encourages people to email him on an open Gmail account. If he were truly a rebel despised by the status quo, does anyone doubt that the authorities couldn’t shut him down?