Saudi Dissident Arrest Raises Questions About Twitter Collaboration

Spies have breached the site for information on dissidents

Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in 2016. / Instagram
December 21, 2021

Saudi Arabia jailed a dissident after linking him to anonymous Twitter accounts, raising alarms about the social media giant's relationship with the authoritarian state.

The Saudi government sentenced Ali Abu Luhum, a Yemeni citizen, to 15 years in prison for promoting "apostasy, unbelief, and atheism" on Twitter. Saudi officials linked anonymous Twitter accounts to phone numbers connected to Abu Luhum, according to Human Rights Watch. It is unclear how they made the connection, since the phone numbers were not publicly displayed.

But Saudi Arabia has a history of paying spies to gather information on dissidents from the site, in which the Saudi government owns a major stake. In 2015, the FBI warned Twitter it had a "Saudi espionage problem." In an email to the Washington Free Beacon, a Twitter spokesman declined to comment.

The arrest comes as Twitter faces criticism for inconsistently applying its free speech policies. The site claims it is a staunch defender of free speech but has blocked conservatives and restricted discussion of politically sensitive topics. Twitter also allowed major Taliban accounts to broadcast propaganda as the terror group captured Kabul.

Saudi officials claim Abu Luhum's since-deleted tweets promoted "that which prejudices public order, religious values, and public morals." The Saudi government often uses vague language of this sort to justify silencing dissent.

Twitter has long had a problem with Saudi infiltration. In 2014, the Saudi government paid a Twitter employee named Ahmad Abouammo more than $100,000 to collect information about Saudi dissidents. The following year, the FBI warned Twitter that more than one employee had been compromised by the Saudis.

Two sources at Twitter tell the Free Beacon that the company will take pains to maintain friendly relations with Saudi Arabia. The Arab country is the largest Twitter market in the Middle East and has the highest Twitter users per capita of any country other than the United States and Japan.

The Saudi government owns a major stake in Twitter, one that is allegedly larger than the stake held by former CEO Jack Dorsey. Six months after Twitter was informed of Saudi espionage, Dorsey was photographed meeting with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

High-ranking Saudi officials who appear to have been involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi have kept their Twitter accounts. Saudi influencers say the government has forced them to tweet propaganda or risk having private information about them shared on Twitter.

Defense witnesses were not provided the chance to speak at Abu Luhum's trial.