Something more than ‘reform’ is going on in Saudi Arabia: Twitter employee spied on users for Saudi government

Is Saudi Arabia actually reforming? A closer look presents a different picture, one that is not without complexities. The article “Ex-Twitter employee sentenced to over 3 years in prison for spying for Saudi Arabia,” by Kevin Collier, NBC News, December 14, 2022, exposes a troubling trend, one of many, that escapes sustained media attention.

A former Twitter employee found guilty of spying on users on behalf of the Saudi royal family has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

Ahmad Abouammo, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen who helped oversee media partnerships for Twitter in the Middle East and North Africa, was part of a scheme to acquire the personal information of users, including phone numbers and birth dates, for a Saudi government agent. He was sentenced Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The Justice Department has said it believes that another former Twitter employee accused of accessing user accounts and a man accused of helping the Saudi government with the scheme have fled to Saudi Arabia to evade American authorities.

The Saudi government severely penalizes anti-government expression on social media sites like Twitter. In April, courts sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi citizen and 34-year-old mother of two children, to 34 years in prison for tweets protesting the government….

Last year, Saudi authorities arrested 200 people in a so-called “anti-corruption purge,” a phrase authoritarian regimes often use to describe crackdowns on dissidents. More than 460 people were also mysteriously investigated “on allegations of corruption, abuse of authority” and fraud.

Last month, Saudi Arabia was also reportedly cracking down on dissent, “including targeting its citizens who live abroad…. for what they post online and even say in private conversation. They’ve been arrested when they return home and are given harsh prison sentences, sometimes as long as 30 years.”

Saudi Arabia’s treatment of dissidents throws a monkey wrench into the claim that the country is reforming. The truth is that many Westerners analyze foreign nations (and individuals as well) within the framework of Western mores. This is a costly mistake, rooted in egocentrism and ethnocentrism, and is insensitive to those who are the targets of foreign oppressors. At the most elementary level, it is still inconceivable to most Western politicians and analysts that normative Islam might not be a religion of peace. Despite 1400 years of jihad, the current persecution of Christians, which has reached genocidal proportions, historic efforts to keep Jews out of their ancestral homeland, and the longstanding Palestinian campaign to obliterate Israel from the River to the Sea, etc., the prevailing Western view of Islam hasn’t changed.  Yet core Islamic texts and the Sharia, which is considered divine law, support conquest, human rights abuses and the supremacy of Muslims.

Saudi Arabia views itself as the keeper of Sunni Islam, and is established on Wahhabi ideology. Take into consideration these reports about Saudi Arabia:

  • The Saudis condemned “offensive” cartoons in the wake of the public murder of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty, but not his beheading.
  • “When it comes to beheadings, ISIS has nothing over Saudi Arabia.” The Saudis set a new record for beheadings last year, beheading over 180 people. There is nothing wrong with this barbaric practice as far as Saudi authorities are concerned; it is in accordance with Sharia (cf. Qur’an 8:12; 47:4).
  • Last May, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, Saudi Arabia summoned the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to an emergency summit in support of the Palestinians.
  • Saudi Arabia was reported in Foreign Policy Magazine as “fighting for a dangerous monopoly on Islamic thought.
  • The Bridge Initiative, which aims to shut down free speech regarding Islam, jihad and Sharia, is “sponsored by the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding” at Georgetown University. It conducts a “multi-year research project on Islamophobia.” Although it claims its goal is dialogue, the Bridge Initiative viciously attacks those who scrutinize Islam. It comes as no surprise that Robert Spencer is listed as an “Islamophobe” on its “Fact Sheet.” I am also included, as the Bridge Initiative covers Canada as well as the U.S.; Georgetown University works with Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. The Liberal government of Canada is also a sponsor of the smear report. The Bridge Initiative project began with a $20,000,000 from the Saudis, and it’s still going strong.
  • According to the Guardian, Mohammed bin Salman’s affair with MIT and Harvard is no fluke: Saudi Arabia is a skilful player of the PR game. Jewish Virtual Library was more explicit: “Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought ties with prestigious American universities to promote his image as a progressive leader who is modernizing his country…Harvard’s Grif Peterson observed that a financial relationship with institutions like MIT and Harvard ‘allows Mohammed bin Salman to project an image of being a Western-leaning progressive leader’ and gives ‘legitimacy to this growing power base that he’s creating.’”

In an article seven months ago, Saudi Arabia: Remerging as the leader of the Islamic world?, Mohammed Sinan Siyech discussed the Turkey-Saudi Arabia rapprochement and asks whether it marked “the end of the Islamic world’s multipolarity–for now?” He described the real agenda of Saudi Arabia: to survive the “debilitating effect of the pandemic across the Muslim world’s economies.” The world is undergoing a megashift, and economic survival is linked to influence. Throughout history, taqiyya (dissimulation) has been key to Muslim survival. Mohammad Fadel, an expert on Islamic law at the University of Toronto, states: “The Qur’an permitted Muslims in that situation, who were fleeing death or torture or other bad treatment, to dissemble about their true beliefs. And as long as they were faithful in their hearts, they would not be considered sinful.”

Indeed, American and Israeli interests benefit greatly from friendship with Saudi Arabia, particularly given the mutual enemy, Iran. Consider the following statements in recognition of that fact:

  • Paul Ryan once stated: “The strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia is based on mutual interests and a longstanding commitment to facing our common threats together.” 
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham said (as the Senate backed selling weapons to Saudi Arabia in 2016): “I think Saudi Arabia is a valuable partner in the war on terror. If you want to lose Saudi Arabia as an ally, be careful what you wish for.” 
  • The question was once posed to Barack Obama: “Aren’t the Saudis your friends?” Obama smiled. “It’s complicated,” he said. “My view has never been that we should throw our traditional allies” — the Saudis — “overboard in favor of Iran.”

Friendship with Saudi Arabia is maintained on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum, understandably so with regard to Iran. Still, it is one thing to engage in strategic alliances, and quite another not to know the character of one’s allies.

It is prudent to remember that short-term sacrifice for long-term gain is nothing new in Islam. One must keep in mind that Sharia is regarded in Islamic theology as the infallible law of Allah, and it includes violent jihad as a religious duty.

The Saudis are adept at promoting and keeping Sunni dominance, often under the radar of more positive and appealing headlines about its alleged reform. But its persecution of dissidents and its foreign funding in promotion of Islamic interests are perilous to ignore, as they are detrimental to free societies. A Huffington Post article: WIKILEAKS: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Funds and Logistically Supports ISIL stated:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is evidently a clear sponsor of terrorism. According to Western Intelligence, U.S. Intelligence and Intelligence from the region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia clandestinely funds and logistically supports ISIS.

The Saudis are undeniably adept at public relations. Waving around huge amounts of cash doesn’t hurt, either. As Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on its dissidents, severely penalizes “anti-government expression on social media sites like Twitter,” and employs Twitter spies to help them do it, it is safe to say that something more than reform is going on in Saudi Arabia.

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