Saudi Royal Court Advisor Saud al-Qahtani is Using Bad Science to Inflame Tensions with Qatar

Saud al-Qahtani, is no stranger to controversy. Nicknamed Dalim by some, he is the Advisor to the Saudi Royal court and General Supervisor of the Center for Studies and Information Affairs. He was recently in the news claiming that Saudi had unearthed thousands of fake, pro-Qatar Twitter accounts, despite providing no evidence in the former instance.  Now he appears to be using social media trends and polls as a means of insinuating popular Qatari opposition to Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s ruler. 

While his profile states that his opinions reflect only his personal point of view, it’s still the point of view of an advisor who specialises in information. Perhaps it should be surprising, given his expertise, that his recent Twitter activity has reached Trump-levels of antagonism. كوففيف. His latest Tweets have ranged from potential reveals about Saudi’s role in the assassination of Talal Al Rashid in 2003 (something he denies), to obtusely encouraging peaceful anti-regime protests in Qatar.

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Also, it’s just his personal opinion…

His Tweets

Yet this post concerns al-Qahtani’s apparent and worrying use of Twitter as a barometer and litmus test of public opinion in Qatar. Specifically, al-Qahtani appears to be suggesting that what’s trending on Twitter in Qatar reflects public opinion there, and, more importantly, that public opinion in Qatar is against the current Qatari regime.  On 21st August al Qahtani tweeted the following:

‘The top trend in Qatar now is #LeaveTamim

(Slogan of the Arab Spring)

The second highest trend is Abdullah is the future of Qatar

(the name of his highness Shaykh Abdullah bin Ali)

 

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The first trend is fairly self explanatory, it means Go Tamim (Go as in Leave, not Go as in Tamim you da man). It would certainly fit the anti-Qatar rhetoric to make  people believe that Qataris are dissatisfied with Tamim, and wish for regime change. After all, this suits the Saudi-led coalition. Also, it is extremely noble of al Qahtani to care about the democratic will of the Qatari people, and to encourage peaceful protest. But, as we know, that’s just personal point of view…

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The number 2 trend in ‘Qatar’ that al-Qahtani mentions, is ‘Abdullah is the future of Qatar’. As al-Qahtani clarifies, the Abdullah here refers to Abdullah bin Ali al Thani. Shaykh Abdullah was put under scrutiny recently after  he visited Saudi, reportedly in a personal capacity. He has now become somewhat of a cause celebre, with some asking whether he is being groomed as a potential new leader to replace Tamim. One Saudi news account on Twitter  that al-Qahtani retweeted claim that Abdullah’s son was ‘captured’ by the government of Qatar and forced to take an oath of allegiance to Tamim and share it on social media. Another commentator posited ‘are they worried about his father’s (Abdullah) popularity’. Bloomber reported:

Al Bayan, a Dubai-owned daily, described Sheikh Abdullah on its front page as “the voice of reason to whom the hearts of Qataris have opened.”

Clearly this rhetoric is designed to drive a wedge within  the al-Thani family.

If we assume that al-Qahtani was not simply bemused by Qataris overt outpouring of their dislike of Tamin on Twitter, we can assume al-Qahtani is engaging in an aggressive form of subtweeting. His following tweets, which I should remind everyone, are simply a reflection of al-Qahtani’s personal opinion, seem to suggest that he believes these trends reflect the will of the Qatari people. He proceeds to make some veiled threats about Qatar’s treatment of any potential insurrection.

Al Qahtani then tweets and retweets some other things that corroborate this result. The top tweet below states, ‘Qatar (Gaddafi of the Gulf) should know that any attempt to repress a peaceful movement of the brotherly Qatari people by foreign forces shall be punished severely, it is a war crime’.

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He also retweets the results of a dodgy, Al Jazeera style-poll set up by a Twitter user to see what Qataris wanted with regards to their royal family. The results in the poll indicate that the majority who voted want Tamim to go. 

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Again, this would contribute to the idea that Tamim is an autocrat whose continued rule is very much against the will of the Qatari people. We don’t actually know who voted in this, although it is perhaps more likely to be non-Qataris if the following analysis are to go by.  

The Trends

While both trends  #LeaveTamim (#ارحل_تميم ) and #AbdullahIsTheFutureOfQatar (#عبدالله_مستقبل_قطر) are clearly selected by al-Qahtani because they seem to fit some sort of narrative about the Qatari regime suppressing the genuine wishes of the Qatari people, an analysis of around 40,000 tweets suggests most of the accounts operating on the hashtags are located in Saudi. On the Leave Tamim hashtag, which brought back 10,600 tweets from unique accounts, approx 5,300 accounts had the ‘location’ field on Twitter filled in. Without cleaning up the data you can see in the below chart that the largest segment is ‘the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’, with most of the other significant chunks being cities or areas  in Saudi or the UAE (e.g. Riyadh etc). Again, without tidying up the data, if we filter the results for Saudi and Qatar (in Arabic) highlights the following:

Number of unique accounts in sample located as Saudi: 1576

Number of unique accounts in sample located as Qatar: 141

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While we must always take with a pinch of salt user input fields of location on Twitter, that same rule applies equally to all accounts, whether in Qatar or Saudi, so in theory the potential error would be the same across all fields. It is also important to note that Al Qahtani does not mention anything of the fact that a lot of the tweets, particularly those located in Qatar, are expressing support for Tamim, not a desire for him to leave.

So, important points to summarise:

  1. The trends in Qatar mentioned by Saud Al Qahtani that lend potential legitimacy to Qatari a desire for Tamim to go appear to be created mostly by  Twitter accounts where people input their location as somewhere in Saudi.
  2. Twitter trends in Qatar can obviously be gamed in such a way as to be influenced by those not in Qatar
  3. Al Qahtani using Twitter trends as a veiled attempt to claim that Qataris oppose Tamim are underscored by his other tweets that issue veiled threats to the Qatari government about opposing the will of the people
  4. It could be that population discrepancies mean a smaller number of hashtags are required by Qataris to create a local trend (without knowing too much about Twitter’s trending algorithm hard to know for sure)
  5. Saud’s tweets are simply a reflection of his personal opinion
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