William Bauer
Last updated: 19 March, 2013

Exclusive interview with Mujtahid – Saudi Arabia’s most controversial voice

His name means “The Diligent”, and Mujtahid is certainly so in his opposition to the Saudi Arabian establishment and political classes.

“Question: What challenges does Saudi Arabia face?

Answer: Political, of course. The problem is the royal family which is immune to reforms. A dramatic course of events ending with violent removal of the family is unavoidable.”

Outspoken, controversial, and vocal, are some of the terms that can be used to describe his Twitter account. Yet, these views – which he expresses frequently, if anonymously – have led to widespread fame in Saudi Arabia, and to over 1,2 million Twitter followers.

He tweets about almost all sensitive, and traditionally taboo, subjects in Saudi public life. These range in scope from the royal family’s business undertakings, official corruption, the activities of the religious police, and Saudi foreign policy. If not anonymous, he would almost certainly have been imprisoned long ago.

Interviewed for Your Middle East, Mujtahid acknowledges that Twitter is the best forum for him to air his comments on politics, economy, and society in Saudi Arabia:

“Twitter is not controlled and cannot be controlled. It is very effective as a tool for the opposition. Its advantage is its simplicity and flexibility. People also take it more seriously than Facebook.”

Saudi Arabia has seen a surge of over 3,000% in the growth of its social media network during 2012, specifically with regards to Twitter. The country has an estimated 3 million Twitter users, with tweets generated by Saudi users topping 50 million a month. As a result, Saudi Arabians are exposed to ever-increasing sources of news, debate, and information in a public sphere, and in Arabic.

Mujtahid could not have publicly make his comments before the anonymisation offered by social media and the entailing ability of almost all Saudi Arabians to access his feed. He believes that Twitter can be a medium for change in Saudi Arabia.

“(It) brings people closer to the point of real action for change. Because the regime relies on secrecy, exposure of sensitive secrets makes it vulnerable.”

It is his desire to break open the ‘sensitive secrets’ of the Saudi state that has led him to tweet ferociously. One such tweet recently referred to the Saudi Arabian royal succession – a key topic of conversation amongst many Saudis. Many young Saudis fear the ageing King Abduallah’s choice of crown prince, Prince Muqrin, because of his authoritarian and conservative reputation.

DON’T MISS The five must-follow Saudi Twitter accounts

However, with the proposed accession of Prince Muqrin, Mujtahid tweeted that Muqrin will not be anointed. Clarifying his tweet, Mujtahid argues:

“I’ve published a few tweets about Muqrin. In summary the King jumped the line of his brothers to the youngest and weakest. He will first remove Salman (the current crown prince) because he has Alzheimer’s and appoint Muqrin crown prince and appoint his own son as Second-Deputy Premier. He will then remove Muqrin, promoting his son to crown prince.”

However, Mujtahid’s most regular Twitter theme is corruption in Saudi public life, which is estimated to cost the country’s private sector over $20 billion a year. Saudi Arabia routinely experiences corruption in official government contracts, specifically ones linked to arms sales.

Mutjahid feels that the past ten years have brought little change to this status-quo:

“From the public side there has been tremendous change in political awareness, feeling of responsibility and breaking the taboos. From the government there’s only been more corruption and more arrogance.”

He considers the challenges that Saudi Arabia currently faces as typified by “oligarchy, despotism, secrecy and the immunity of the regime.” Yet, although he is undoubtedly outspoken, it is this very combative and assertive style that can lead to mistakes, or in making predictions that do not always come true.

This can be seen in the summer of 2012 when rumours were rife of the possible death of the King. Mujtahid alleged this was true and that the country was on high alert. However, it turned out to be incorrect, with the King eventually making a recovery.

The fact that his identity is also secret makes it hard to verify or evaluate any potential agenda. Unlike other Saudi Twitter users, Mujtahid has a veil of anonymity. Some believe he is a disgruntled member of the establishment, with access to high circles. Others point to a famous Saudi-exile in London.

His need to stay anonymous is understandable, in a country with severe punishments for outspokenness. Even when asked to provide a hint of who he really is, he curtly replies: “Whoever reads my tweets can make clear impression about my access to information, my talent, my education and my agenda. Then they can then make their assumption.”

Although Twitter has proved a force in bringing together new and different voices, it is still a dangerous forum to be ‘too’ open in. Recently, the arrest of Turki al-Hamad has shown that the Saudi regime is above arresting its critics, silencing them with fear. When asked if he fears retribution or is attacked for his tweets, Mujtahis states:

“An avalanche of verbal attacks from the government agents. I ignore them all. Of course hundreds of attempts are made to hack my account.”

Mujtahid’s tweets are often not necessarily groundbreaking news, nor readily decipherable to non-Saudis; however, they are sometimes insightful, often analytically spot-on, and very outspoken. In a country where many are denied very basic information on how they are governed, or a say in its exercise, Mujtahid offers a Twitter account that leaks information the government would rather not have in the public domain.

When asked to describe his mission, the answer is simple:

“My job is not to tell the people what to do. My job is to expose the filthy truth and people can decide.”

In that respect, Mujtahid succeeds.

Extra reporting for the article provided by Khaled al-Saad.