He’s been tweeting for less than a year but has already amassed more than 740,000 followers, becoming a household “name” in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s royal family, headed by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz have fallen under the gaze of Saudi activist and blogger @mujtahidd. Dubbed the “Saudi WikiLeaks”, the person known only as @mujtahidd has posted more than 5,000 well-informed messages and documents, leaking explosive information about state corruption and the excesses of the Saudi elite. His tweets have elicited white-hot fury – and direct rebuttals – from members of the royal family themselves.
His tweets, about crooked tenders and shady military deals, are often written in installments, forensic in detail and steeped in sarcasm. According to English language reports and translations, the wealth of material exposed by @mujtahidd points to a highly placed insider, a person so well connected that some analysts believe he could even be part of the Royal House of Saud. For Saudi Arabia – which has been internally untouched by the Arab Spring – such overt criticism until now has been taboo. But during the past year, Saudis have thrown themselves into social media, particularly Twitter, opening an unprecedented new chapter in national debate. The cyber world has offered protection and safety in numbers, leading to wide-scale accusations and discussion about state corruption, open disparagement of the royals and even rebellion among women about limits to their freedom.
According to estimates, there are more than three million Twitter users in the Saudi kingdom, a figure that is increasing every day. Saudis are said to be the fastest growing national group on Twitter, which probably explains why the Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (the richest man in the Arab world) bought a £300m stake in Twitter, giving him 3.75 per cent of its shares. “Twitter for us is like a parliament,” Faisal Abdullah, a 31-year-old lawyer told the New York Times this week. “But not the kind of parliament that exists in this region, it’s a true parliament, where people from all political sides meet and speak freely.”
And yet Saudi Arabia has one of the toughest, internet firewalls in the world. It is also amongst a bloc of nations – including China and Russia – which supports stringent new controls on the internet proposed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a little known arm of the United Nations. The plan, contained in a raft of amendments to international telecommunications regulations, is scheduled for debate by ministers representing 193 signatory nations in Dubai next month. “Believe it or not, Yemen and Jordan had the internet a few years before SA [ed. note: Saudi Arabia granted public access to the internet in 1999]. . . the main reason the internet was admitted late was to guarantee proper filters,” @Mujtahidd told Equal Times. “The regime claimed it is for pornography but actually it is more about political stuff. For example most of the documents I publish cannot be read in Arabia.” @mutjahidd says that the building which houses the Saudi filters and firewalls is “huge with hundreds of personnel.”
Formally it is controlled by the Ministry of Media but in reality it is “totally” controlled by the Ministry of the Interior. He is adamant that any moves by repressive regimes to clamp down on the internet will fail, but he expresses skepticism about the American push for free speech and an open internet in the context of the forthcoming World Conference on International Communications (WCIT). “The US is aware that Saudi Arabia is not only controlling the net, but that it is actually using technology licensed by the United States to trace activists and round them up,” he said.
Asked if he faced constant attempts to shut him down, he answered “of course” but added that he now believed there had been a strategic decision to leave him alone. “I assume they know where I am but they do not want to announce [or] be embarrassed by the consequences. . .CIA facilities are on their service. I am aware of that and I am using political means to prevent them from announcing my identity and location.” Asked by Equal Times if this meant that he is someone who “could seriously embarrass them if identified” he answered in the affirmative. « Yes but it is difficult to explain. . .it is quite complex and cannot be understood without understanding the mentality of the Saudi Royal family.”
But he does concede that “giving any hint about my person would almost be an admission by the regime it is completely exposed security wise.” @mujtahidd says there is no definitive translation of the word he uses as his hashtag although he told http://www.owni.eu earlier this year that it is a reference to “one who does his best with responsibility and sincerity in the issue he is dealing with.” “@Mujtahidd is a symbol of an aggressive fight against corruption,” he continued. “A fight which starts with exposure of those who are corrupt and ends with their removal. “@Mujtahidd does not need to declare his identity in order to achieve this goal. Indeed it may be an advantage to stay anonymous, for many reasons.”
The next round of information being prepared for publication, he told Equal Times, is about the succession battle inside the House of Saud, a royal family that – he insists – would make the kings of Europe in the Dark Ages “appear “filled with piety and frugality” in comparison. The timing of postings, he says, always depends on the material he has amassed. First he verifies the accuracy of the information, before deciding whether it is genuinely a matter of public interest and when and how to make it public. His next story, however, will be something big. “I have been up and down in intensity of material up to my time circumstances and readiness of sources. Now I am concentrating on warning people of the impending dispute within the royal family which might turn violent.” To date, his biggest target has been Abdul-Aziz bin Fahd, the youngest son of the late King Fahd, a man he alleges is “definitely the worst in terms of financial corruption”.
At the beginning of November, the whistleblower made global headlines with a story about an extraordinary militia/security-for-cash deal between ‘democratic’ Jordan and Kuwait, which has seen nearly two years of protests calling for government reforms. Over a 24 hour period, @Mujtahidd posted a series of tweets alleging that an agreement between the Kuwaiti government, Jordan and other Gulf countries had helped to suppress popular uprisings in Kuwait. In return for 16,000 militia, @Mujtahidd accused Jordan’s King Abdullah II of promising a US$6 billion ‘thank you’ to the Kuwaitis. The veracity of his information cannot, of course, be checked. But it is clear from political reaction – and the Saudi Royal Family’s regular, heated and detailed denials – that whoever he is, @mutjahidd is taken seriously. Very seriously indeed.