Fear of MbS' online enforcer lingers after his sacking
As pressure continues on Saudi Arabia to release credible information about who was behind the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the world is slowly learning more about the inner machinations of the crown prince's court and how he conducts business.
Being someone of little experience prior to coming to power, MbS surrounded himself with a clique of enthusiastic aides to try and help him deal with ruling the country and enforcing his vision on the people of Saudi Arabia.
Saud al-Qahtani, one of MbS' key aides with a fondness of spending hours on his iPad going through Twitter, looking at profiles and hashtags, has been instrumental in showing the crown prince only favourable news by engineering trending topics and false discussions to smooth his ego.
The New York Times described these behind-the-sceens efforts as Twitter farms. They are more like battery farms - in that paid workers are crammed into computer-packed halls creating fake accounts and personalities through which they attack government critics or praise MBS and his reforms. To the average Saudi, who is taught to trust his government fully, looking at Twitter after Qahtani-engineered campaigns would show thousands of tweets from a variety of accounts saying how glorious the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is (sic) and how charismatic and intelligent the crown prince is.
This earned al-Qahtani one of his nicknames; Mr Hashtag. Operating with total independence from any other government entity, he was answerable only to the crown prince.
|Documents obtained by Wikileaks and other sources last year show a trail of correspondence between al-Qahtani and hacker groups based in Italy and Russia|
There was, however, a far darker side to his role - that of intelligence-gathering and creating lists of people for MbS to jail. Given the almost open budget at his disposal, al-Qahtani was able to contact and contract private hacker companies to send malware/spyware to dissidents and critics both inside and outside the kingdom.
Documents obtained by Wikileaks and other sources last year show a trail of correspondence between al-Qahtani and hacker groups based in Italy and Russia. Numerous dissidents and political asylum seekers have subsequently suffered from the hacking of their emails and mobile phones.
The second role al-Qahtani played was as a government whip to control media. His infamous WhatsApp groups were for newspaper editor in chiefs, journalists and correspondents. He would direct them to cover, attack, post and tweet as per directives and even the most junior of journalists would have received at some point a missive from Saud al-Qahtani telling them what to write.
Al-Qahtani wrote fake news in abundance, with the sole aim of ensuring MbS was painted positively in every sector of Saudi society.
Profile: Who are Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmad al-Assiri?
Within conservative Islamic Wahhabi circles, the crown prince would be portrayed as a pious leader with pictures of him praying, chatting with hardline clerics or attacking Shia Iran. For the liberals and anti-religious elements of society - those closest to MbS, including Al-Qahtani, were of this school - he was an avowed secularist who emancipated women and was about to end Islamic influence over politics in the country. For young people worried about their future, here was someone who was planning ahead and bringing in investment to the country in the billions - and also building theme parks in which they could play until that investment came to fruition.
Al-Qahtani almost literally whipped media personalities into compliance. Through direct orders from MbS, he would swear, coerce and blackmail journalists and media personalities into doing whatever was required. The fear this struck into media workers was enough to create an environment of self-censorship and taking the initiative to propagandise without being asked to do so.
Social media users called these people Mutabileen or Tobool ["drummers"/"drum beaters"], referring to Arab customs of beating drums in praise of people. In almost any TV or newspaper article, mentioning MbS was a must. Football commentators, chefs, fashion designers, anyone on TV or writing in newspapers would find a way to thank MbS.
Al-Qahtani also maintained an infamous blacklist full of people who had criticised or were criticising anything to do with MbS - or even shown sympathy to those who were. These names were immediately handed over to intelligence services who hauled them to jail, torture cells - or both.
|In addition to his domestic media manipulation and purges of opponents, the third role al-Qahtani played was to inflame and manage a huge media campaign against Qatar, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood|
This role actually had its origins during the rule of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, when al-Qahtani worked for the then-head of the royal court, Khalid al-Twaijri. Al-Twaijri had set up a "Centre for Media Monitoring and Analysis".
The centre's mission was essentially to spy on all of Saudi Arabia's social media stars and monitor online trends. Al-Qahtani reported directly to al-Twaijri at the time, yet was also subjected to rather poor treatment. Many witnessed him being referred to as "Abu Makwa" - slang for "fat-ass".
In addition to his domestic media manipulation and purges of opponents, the third role al-Qahtani played was to inflame and manage a huge media campaign against Qatar, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
For those who couldn't digest the nonsense from his other campaigns, "It must be the Qatari/Iranian/Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy that has caused all of this mess" makes for a convenient scapegoat. Unfounded in any form of reality, the longer the campaign goes on, the greater growing conviction there is that such a campaign is necessary and that an anti-Saudi conspiracy actually exists.
While he was "excused" from his post as adviser to MbS as part of Riyadh's attempts to shore up the Khashoggi murder, no regret was to be found on his official Twitter account - in which he defiantly continued his ultra-nationalist, anti-Qatari tone. The hoodwinking of news agencies in reporting how he led the operation in order to draw them away from MbS was also his doing.
While some journalists in Saudi Arabia have said they feel safer sleeping now al-Qahtani is out of the picture, most remain apprehensive as to whether this means he will simply monitoring them from the shadows - or that the person replacing him will be far worse.
Given his state-sanctioned role in covering up the murder too, al-Qahtani's disappearance from the royal court will also be of little consolation to journalists.
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