Saudi Arabia's whistleblower returns with more palace intrigues
Mujtahid, the anonymous but famous Saudi online source of information on Saudi palace intrigues, has returned to inflame social media with new revelations. Using his Twitter account, he discussed new security measures put in place by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and his aides, some of them foreign Egyptian advisors and consultants.
'Saudi Julian Assange'
Secret royal circles and the quest for more information about royal intrigues gave rise to a novel and unique Saudi Twitter phenomenon, namely Mujtahid ibn Harith ibn Hamam, dubbed a "Saudi Julian Assange", a mysterious "whistleblower", and "rebel tweeter". He has captured the imagination of international and regional media since he started his account in 2011.
Although there is no way to separate truth from fiction in his claims, many observers are convinced that he is an estranged member of the royal family and are engaged in a guessing game over his possible identity. Others think that Saudi London-based dissident Saad al-Faqih is the real Mujtahid.
I interviewed Mujtahid in 2015 as soon as King Salman started grooming his son to succeed him.
Mujtahid is a reflection of the global phenomenon that came to haunt established democracies in the last decade when Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and others employed in businesses turned into whistle-blowers
It is important to move away from the quest for the real identity of Mujtahid as this may prove to be a futile exercise. Instead, understanding the phenomenon and the content of his statements is more interesting.
Mujtahid is a reflection of the global phenomenon that came to haunt established democracies in the last decade when Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and others employed in the national security state and private businesses turned into whistleblowers.
The phenomenon is not a reflection of authoritarian rule per se, but is prevalent as a result of citizens' demand for greater transparency in an age when even well-established democracies have proved susceptible to secret intrigues.
However, Mujtahid does not often offer documents to support his whistleblowing; rather, he claims to be informed by anonymous sources close to the king and senior princes.
It is astonishing that he suddenly became so important, followed on Twitter by so many people not only in Saudi Arabia but outside it even without providing hard evidence in support of his commentaries and rumours.
As Saudi Arabia entered a phase of an increasing opaque, centralised and repressive government, the one-man show of the crown prince is bound to generate further rumours and conspiracy theories.
In a secretive monarchy with all powers concentrated in the hands of one person with no recourse to openness, transparency and the rule of the law, it is not surprising that the Mujtahid phenomenon will continue to attract interest and inflame the imagination of observers.
By April 2015 the king had placed his son in key senior posts such as the Ministry of Defence and the Economic Council, in addition to appointing him deputy crown prince.
Mujtahid was the first to announce the imminent removal of Mohammed bin Nayef from his post as crown prince and the promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to the position in June 2016. He also kept tweeting that the commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, Miteb bin Abdullah, was next in the line to be swiftly dismissed from his position.
In a secretive monarchy with all powers concentrated in the hands of one person,it is not surprising that the Mujtahid phenomenon will continue to attract interest and inflame the imagination of observers
Mujtahid was right. By November 2017, Miteb was not only removed from office but also detained with other princes for several weeks at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. At the time Saudi media dismissed Mujtahid's forecasts and attributed them to his fantasies and the wishful thinking of his over two million followers on Twitter.
A new storm
Mujtahid created a recent storm when he organised his thoughts in a series of tweets elaborating on the unprecedented domestic policies of Mohammed Bin Salman. According to Mujtahid, all security files are now in the hands of the prince, who is currently advised by a cohort of Egyptian security experts, especially on issues related to detentions and the personalities that need to be targeted.
Even Mohammed bin Salman's number Saudi one security adviser, Abdulaziz al-Huwairini, is rendered a mere secretary who has no initiatives of his own, apart from those coming from the prince and his foreign advisors.
Mujtahid points to an important new practice under the crown prince. In the past, the Ministry of Interior would indulge relatives of exiled dissidents, treat them lavishly and precipitate a rift within members of one family. This strategy aimed at dividing kin groups and turning their members against each other, a practice well rehearsed in repressive regimes like the Saudi one.
According to Mujtahid, the task of protecting the regime is now the responsibility of a consortium of foreign troops, recruited mercenaries, and others
In the past, exiled dissidents and activists got the sticks, but members of their families got the carrots. Family heads are asked to disown their dissident sons. In return they are rewarded by senior princes, especially those in charge of security in the Ministry of Interior and the intelligence services.
Sometimes such relatives are used as go-between, envoys who communicate with activists abroad with a view to returning them to Saudi Arabia, or merely reporting on them to the authorities during their visits.However, Mohammed bin Salman, accordiang to Mujtahid, has abandoned the co-option strategy in favour of top-down punishment of dissidents’ relatives who remain in the country.
Abdullah al-Ghamdi, an activist and a dissident, informed his followers on Twitter that his mother and other relatives were detained in an attempt to put pressure on him to return to Saudi Arabia. Mujtahid seems to allude to the fact that such practices are now the standard way of dealing with critical voices that had escaped abroad.
Anonymous but famous
The crown prince abandoned the semblance of paternalism and kindness towards those families whose dissident sons are regarded as having gone astray. Detaining a wide circle of relatives is now standard punishment.
The security of the regime and in particular that of the crown prince consumes a vast amount of money, thus reflecting the sense of insecurity in the palace and fear of a hidden revolt fermenting among disgruntled princes, some of whom had been seriously humiliated.
According to Mujtahid, the task of protecting the regime is now the responsibility of a consortium of foreign troops, recruited mercenaries, and others. It seems that the prince does not trust Arabs, in the past mainly Moroccans and Jordanians, or Pakistanis with this important job. Instead he chose to go global and recruited among those private security companies that have no loyalty to anybody apart from the one who pays the bills.
Mujtahid explains that his own popularity is attributed, first, to the obsession of Saudi society with royal secrets that he has fully exposed and, second, to the accuracy of his rumours, which subsequent events confirmed. His credibility rests, in his opinion, on disseminating information in respectable language, guided by strict moral and religious codes.
In addition to his linguistic skills, he avoids sensational and unwarranted stories that delve into the private lives of princes. In this respect, Mujtahid distinguishes himself from previous opposition figures whose discourse often degenerated into personal attacks on royalty.
Undermining regime legitimacy
Mujtahid says his main purpose is to help other more vocal opposition figures to use the information he provides with a view to undermining the legitimacy of the regime. He insists that he wants to contribute to the project of political change. His contribution consists of exposing lies and intrigues in order to undermine the mystique of monarchy.
In the context of controlled media and propaganda, the regime appears intact, powerful, and feared. Delving into behind-the-scenes information and exposing cracks within the royal household contribute to this project, according to Mujtahid. The regime has "a false and fabricated hayba [mystique]", that he tries to expose.
Mujtahid insists that several military units in the kingdom would refuse to be engaged in a struggle in support of one prince against another should the latent rivalry between the princes become public.
The popularity of Mujtahid among domestic and global audiences stems from his ability to spread rumours to anticipate certain royal reshuffles and expose corruption at all government levels. However, although Mujtahid does not openly call for the implementation of a specific political system, he is critical of Saudi liberals and Islamists, especially those loyal to the government.
He is also critical of official ulama, for example those who unquestionably accept and defend all government decisions. In his view, true Islam "requires one to reject injustice, repression, and corruption. I circulate information that exposes those hypocrites among state intellectuals, ulama, and also Islamists."
Mujtahid’s Twitter statements oscillate between predictions, facts, and rumour, thus pointing out a continuum between fact and fiction in the context of Saudi politics. He will continue to be followed as long as Saudi Arabia continues to be governed by the iron fist of one man and his foreign advisors and mercenaries.
- Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: A Saudi man prepares to login into his Twitter account on his laptop on 6 October 2013 at his office in Riyadh (AFP)