“Bots,” arrests and the connection between them: the Modus Operandi of Mohammed bin Salman’s regime in Saudi power struggles

Nachum Shiloh analyzes the modus operandi on social media of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his allies and opponents.

חשבון הטוויטר של "עצורי הדעה"
From the “Prisoners of Conscience” Twitter channel.

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, which did significant damage to the international standing of the kingdom, revealed interesting aspects of the current power struggles now taking place in Saudi Arabia. The struggles pit the heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his allies, against competing forces within the kingdom, primarily rivals within the royal family and religious leaders from the “Purity” (“Sahwah”) movement, and those beyond the country’s borders, particularly Iran, Qatar and Turkey. These struggles are also playing out online, where both sides use a range of tools and manipulations, and work incessantly to undermine the other’s standing in social media discourse.

At the present time, it seems that the supporters of Mohammad bin Salman are prevailing in the struggle playing out on social networks. In addition to the fact that the young heir apparent is a member of “Generation Y,” which has grown up in an advanced technological environment and for whom social networks are the preferred arena of action, he has the resources of the state at this disposal, largely due to wide-ranging orders and appointments signed by his elderly, ailing father, King Salman. These instruments gave Mohammad bin Salman control over all economic and military systems in the country, and by doing so broke with the prior practice of the House of Saud, which had maintained checks and balances between its various branches.

Among other methods, bin Salman has adopted the use of “bots” on social networks. Bots are software designed to collect information or take action online by imitating ordinary users.[1] Reportedly, the Saudi government is investing huge sums in the development and acquisition of bots that generate fictitious accounts on social networks, for the purpose increasing support for the Saudi government, attacking its foreign rivals (including Iran, Turkey and Qatar), and to win adherents for the Vision 2030 program of reform, which is considered a prized project of the Crown Prince.[2]

Some Twitter bots can tweet more than 100,000 times a day.  Because of this capacity, their impact on Saudi cyberspace is so great that experts believe that half of Twitter users in Saudi Arabia today are artificial.[3] The New York Times has even claimed that the Crown Prince has an “electronic army” operating on the social networks, to locate members of the opposition, like Jamal Khashoggi, and to recruit supporters for Vision 2030. According to the newspaper, one of the Crown Prince's loyalists, a computer engineer named Ali A’al Zabara, who was associated with the Saudi intelligence apparatus, infiltrated the Twitter company as an employee, which enabled him to track down Saudi opposition activists, and obtain their phone numbers and IP addresses.[4]

The importance of the online sphere and social networks in the struggle between Mohammad bin Salman and his rivals is also evident on another level: the arrest of several dozen clerics, princes and businessmen, as well as the restrictions on movement that have been imposed mainly on clerics. Reviewing the lists of clerics who in the past year have been arrested or whose movement has been restricted on the instructions of the Crown Prince shows that they do not include the members of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars (Hay’‎at Kibar al-’‎Ulama) who are in their eighties and nineties and relatively not active on social networks. In any case, they do not endanger the standing of the heir apparent. On the other hand, the lists do include religious leaders in their forties, fifties and sixties, who are very active in social networks and have many followers. For example, the Twitter accounts of Sheikh Muhammad al-‘Arifi (born 1970) and of Sheikh Salman al-‘Ouda (born 1956, one of the leaders of the Islamist faction) have about 15 million followers.

It goes without saying that Mohammad bin Salman’s rivals do not sit idle, rather they work tirelessly on social networks. For example, they run a colorful Twitter account called “Prisoners of Conscience” or “Detainees of Opinion” (“Mu’aqtali al-Rai”), which tweets every few minutes, to inform the public about the situation of clerics, writers and journalists who have been detained in Saudi Arabia, especially those held since November 2017. Their tweets include information about the worsening of detention conditions, torture and the reasons for arrest.[5] Sometimes these accounts are used to organize virtual campaigns designed to raise awareness of specific issues, such as protests against the conditions in isolation cells.

The struggle between Mohammad bin Salman and his rivals on social media is reflected not only in criticism of the arrests and reforms, but also in censure of the personal conduct of the Crown Prince. In July 2017, for example, a Twitter account called “Advisor to Prince Muhammad bin Nayef” was launched, directing sharp criticism at the Crown Prince, on matters ranging from the huge sums of money for which he is allegedly responsible, to discussions of “who might replace Mohammad bin Salman” if and when he is rejected by the royal family. It is quite clear that Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who was deposed as heir apparent in June 2017 and replaced by Mohammad bin Salman, is not the owner of this Twitter account. However, the account owner’s use of his name and image indicates that the opposition is taking a step up in an attempt to expand the rift that has developed within the Saudi royal family in recent years.[6]

In short, social networks reflect the power struggle in Saudi Arabia, between the supporters and opponents of the heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, especially following the wave of arrests that began in November 2017. While the latter wields the power of state, even in cyberspace, the former are not burying their heads in the sand. Rather they demonstrate ingenuity and sophistication in the struggle for public opinion in Saudi Arabia and abroad. As we have shown, the virtual world and the real world are intertwined and inextricably interconnected. As the rifts between the sides deepen, we can expect to see further upsurges in the struggle, both in the social networking arena and on the ground in Saudi Arabia.

[1] "Internet Bot", Technopedia. Last accessed 18 December 2018.

[2] See for example: Elias Groll, “The Kingdom’ s Hackers and Bots”, Foreign Policy, 19 October 2018. Last accessed 18 December 2018.

[3] "Saudi bots use ‘hashtag poisoning’ to spread propaganda", The Peninsula, 5 February 2018. Last accessed 18 December 2018.

[4] Katie Benner, Mark Mazzetti, Ben Hubbard and Mike Isaac, "Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider", The New York Times, 20 October 2018. Last accessed 18 December 2018.

[5] @m3takl, Twitter.com.  Last accessed 18 December 2018.

[6] @nayfcon, Twitter.com. Last accessed 18 December 2018.