Hand-in-hand against the traitors: Saudi social media support the Crown Prince and the arrest of the princes

Gilad Shiloach examines the upsurge in popular support for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, following the recent wave of arrests of senior officials in the kingdom.

Poster disseminated by the official Saudi Arabia Ministry of Culture
Poster disseminated by the official Saudi Arabia Ministry of Culture and Information Twitter account, depicting Mohammed bin Salman with the caption, “No one involved in corruption will be saved, whatever comes to pass.”

The extraordinary wave of arrests in Saudi Arabia in early November, including the arrest of dozens of senior officials in the kingdom on suspicion of corruption, received widespread support from Saudi users of social networking sites (SNS). This was expressed in the demand to increase and intensify the fight against corruption in many areas of the country, along with sweeping sympathy for the leader of the struggle, the 32-year-old Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, which has approached the level of a personality cult. Despite the widespread claim among many commentators that the purpose of the arrests is to fortify the power of bin Salman, many in Saudi Arabia have chosen to adopt the narrative that it is a courageous step that will contribute to the state, especially to its younger generation.

On November 4, Saudi Arabia announced the establishment of a special Anti-Corruption Council led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.[1] In what many called a “purification campaign,”[2] eleven princes were arrested, including the renowned businessman Walid bin Talal, four cabinet ministers, and dozens of other senior Saudi officials, whose assets were frozen. Many assume that these arrests were intended to strengthen the power of the Crown Prince, who in any case was perceived as Saudi Arabia’s “de facto ruler” and the “living spirit” in recent years behind many moves made in the kingdom. These include the war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen that erupted in 2015, the severing of relations with Iran, the Saudi-led Gulf boycott of Qatar, and the historic social reforms that the kingdom has seen in recent months, such as the lifting of the ban on women drivers.

Just minutes after the reports of the wave of arrests emerged, Saudi Twitter users began to discuss the issue by using the hashtag “The King fights corruption” (#الملك_يحارب_الفساد). This quickly topped the international list of most popular hashtags,[3] and there were reports that it appeared in approximately 1.4 million tweets within a few hours.[4] Although the wording of the hashtag attributes the struggle to the King, the posts themselves included pictures of the Crown Prince as, for example, the image at left, which includes a quote wherein bin Salman promises to fight corruption even at the cost of harming ministers and princes.[5] In the hours and days following the wave of arrests, additional hashtags where introduced, some explicitly presenting the crown prince as the leader of the struggle: “Fans of Mohammed bin Salman” (#محبو_محمد_بن_سلمان), “Mohammed bin Salman shakes up the World”(#محمد_بن_سلمان_يبهر_العالم) , “Revolution of November 4” (#ثوره_4_نوفمبر) and more.

The SNS discourse that followed the wave of arrests shows that many Saudis are convinced that the steps taken by the Crown Prince, including the arrest of other princes, are indeed intended to combat the corruption that plagues in the kingdom. The users tweeted that they wanted “Saudi Arabia without corruption”[6] and that “their country would serve as a role model” for the fight against corruption[7] and asked “to return the homeland’s money to its citizens.”[8] Others took advantage of the opportunity to raise other problems they encounter daily, such as corruption in the Saudi construction industry,[9] “theft of land” by businessmen,[10] the low salaries of teachers,[11] Saudi media companies that “deceive the citizens,”[12] car prices in Saudi Arabia,[13] and the situation of pensioners in the kingdom[14] .

It was found that Saudi government Twitter accounts, including one belonging to the Ministry of Information, were part of the campaign and also promoted the popular hashtags in posts uploaded in the hours after the arrests. The official account of the Saudi National Council for Combating Corruption issued a call for citizens to be “key partners” in the fight against corruption in the country, and published a telephone number they could use to report cases.[15] The establishment press was also recruited to demonstrate support, and went above and beyond in its efforts to praise the moves and the “courage” behind such moves, as well as bolstering the image of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed.[16]

In addition to unqualified support for the fight against corruption, admiration and sympathy for the heir apparent was palpable. He was portrayed as a hero who took a historic step, by daring to confront powerful princes such as Walid bin Talal and others. Thus, he defended the homeland while fighting the “corrupt traitors” who “looted the wealth of the country.”[17] Users promised to work with bin Salman “hand-in-hand against the enemies and traitors in the homeland,”[18] and tweeted loving posts about “the young prince whom history shall remember forever, and the Saudi people will never forget, because he did what others could not do.”[19] Many tweeted: “Proceed, we are behind you,”[20] and “30 million people under your command.”[21] Other users uploaded posters in which bin Salman appeared alongside his grandfather, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud,[22] with the aim of presenting him as the successor of the founder of the kingdom. In other pictures, the youthful figure of bin Salman (some of them without a kaffiyeh)[23] appeared together with pictures portraying him as an authority figure commanding the military.[24] The excitement over Salman’s moves was so great that the users even published a hashtag asking others to upload the “most beautiful picture of Mohammed bin Salman” (#اجمل_صوره_لمحمد_بن_سلمان).

Negative, though quite marginal, criticism was also expressed. The most prominent voice among these users was Mujtahidd, a mysterious but very popular Saudi Twitter user who has gained a reputation for “revealing corruption” and publishing exclusive stories from the Saudi royal family thanks to his covert sources. A few hours after the developments, Mujtahidd told his two million followers that the purpose of the arrests was not to fight corruption but rather to enable Mohammed bin Salman to take control of the many assets of the arrested businessmen.[25]

bin Salman, who was appointed deputy crown prince and defense minister in 2015 with the coronation of his father, Salman bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz, took another step towards the throne in June 2017 when his father ousted Mohammed bin Nayef from the post of crown prince and appointed bin Salman to the post, despite his young age. The latter is considered a popular figure among the younger generation in the country, where the majority of the population is under the age of 30.[26] With these measures to fight corruption, despite harming the old Saudi elites, bin Salman fortifies his status among his generation, and strengthens support for his future as King of Saudi Arabia, the first from the “grandson generation” of the kingdom. These moves should be examined in light of the demographic and economic context of Saudi Arabia. Some consider the wave of arrests, as well as the reforms led by bin Salman, as a significant message to the younger generation that these are necessary steps for dealing with the future and with a challenging economic reality in which oil revenues are diminishing parallel to a rapid rise in the size of the population.[27]

[1]  Reuters, “Factbox: Saudi Arabia detains princes, ministers in anti-corruption probe”, Reuters, November 5, 2017.

[2] Kim Sengupta, “Saudi Arabia royal purge: Why it matters so much to the world beyond its borders”, The Independent, November 7, 2017.

[3] @Racha93halabi, Twitter. November 4, 2017. 

[4] Yolande Knell, “Young Saudis weigh up crown prince’s crackdown”, BBC, November 7, 2017. 

[5] @moci_ksa, Twitter. November 4, 2017. 

[6] @dr_zayedalamri, Twitter. November 5, 2017. 

[7] @DRFALAHALAMER, Twitter. November 5, 2017.  

[8] @dr_zayedalamri, Twitter. November 5, 2017.   

[9] @hhrr05545, Twitter. November 5, 2017.  

[10] @S1AJ1H1, Twitter. November 7, 2017.  

[11] @saud1980_, Twitter. November 4, 2017. 

[12] @miss9009, Twitter. November 5, 2017.  

[13]  @ab98sa, Twitter. November 7, 2017. 

[14]  @faff1436, Twitter. November 7, 2017.  

[15] @nazaha_gov_sa, Twitter. November 18, 2017.  

[16] @moci_sa, Twitter. November 5, 2017.  

[17] @bassamh02, Twitter. November 4, 2017. 

[18] @1134Crystal, Twitter. November 13, 2017. 

[19] @I_SaMi707, Twitter. November 13, 2017.

[20] @waleyss133, Twitter. November 8, 2017. 

[21] @Aameda_a1, Twitter. November 9, 2017. 

[22] @nargasyah3, Twitter. November 8, 2017. 

[23] @saad676767111, Twitter. November 8, 2017; Peter Waldman, “The $2 Trillion Project to Get Saudi Arabia’s Economy Off Oil”, Bloomberg, April 21, 2016.

[24] @a900587, Twitter. November 9, 2017.

[26] CIA World Factbook, "Saudi Arabia," cia.gov. Last accessed November 21, 2017. 

[27] Brandon Friedman, “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: Between Transformation and Confrontation?”, Tel Aviv Notes, November 27, 2017.