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.
Also, it’s just his personal opinion…
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)
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…
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’.
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.
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.
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
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:
- 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.
- Twitter trends in Qatar can obviously be gamed in such a way as to be influenced by those not in Qatar
- 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
- 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)
- Saud’s tweets are simply a reflection of his personal opinion
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if sectarianism itself was more dominant in one place than an other, at least online? Are some countries/cities more sectarian than others? Is sectarianism a localised phenomenon, despite what we might see in the news? If we knew this, we could then highlight where to prioritize tackling it.
In order to do this, I conducted an preliminary experiment. Firstly, I would require some way of trying to determine where a piece of sectarian discourse came from. I decided to locate sectarian tweets, as often Twitter accounts come with information about location.
I thought I’d approach ‘anti-Shia’ sectarianism, as the terminology is familiar, and more prevalent (See Alexandra Seigel’s work). I will be doing the same with ‘anti-Sunni’ Tweets too. (I should add, for the record, that I find the terms somewhat grotesque, as the nature of sectarianism cannot be reduced to a binary). Hopefully though, locating the geographic prevalence of specific discourses challenges the problems of essentialising sectarianism as a monolithic and ubiquitous muslim-wide global issue.
Anyway, to test/experiment with this method, I extracted approximately 10,000 tweets that ranged over a four day period (8th – 12th May 2017). These tweets contained at least one of the following, commonly used derogatory terms referring to Shia.
Twitter Search Rule: “ابناء المتعة” OR “روافض” OR “رافضة” OR “اولاد المتعة” OR “مجوسي” OR “المجوسي” OR “صفوي”
The terms largely relate to religious-sectarianism, such as Rafida, Awlad/Ibna al-Muta’, Majusi and Safavid (although this one could be more contested). The archiver, theoretically, takes an ‘almost’ random sample of Tweets from Twitter (see Wang et al for sampling info).
To determine the location of the Tweeter, I did not use the geodata (as this is rarely used by ppl), but information input by the user themselves on their Twitter account. Of course there is no way of knowing if this is accurate or not, but for the sake of this analysis, we must assume a significant amount are true. After filtering out erroneous names, such as people who claim to live in Hogwarts, we were left with around 4500 usable tweets from the original 10,000 tweet sample. I then ran these tweets into Tableau, filtering out duplicate entries (i.e. multiple tweets from the same account). This resulted in about 3,640 unique tweets from unique accounts.
Using Tableau, I first created a cloropeth map that shows the prevalence of sectarian tweets across the region. In the below map, red means a higher prevalence. As you can see, Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear the reddest, and are the places with the highest number of sectarian tweets in this sample.
Yet the above map suggests Egypt and Saudi are alike in terms of tweets. However, the below diagram gives a breakdown of the numbers of tweets, while the surface area of each block represents the proportion of Tweets emanating from each country. As we can see, Saudi Arabia takes the crown with 1,656 Tweets. It is followed by Egypt (420), Kuwait (111), Iraq (71), UAE (56), Yemen (50), Syria (38), Bahrain (36) and Qatar (25) and then Lebanon. (It is worth noting that all countries returned positive hits).
These figures haven’t been controlled for population, or Twitter penetration, the latter of which is difficult to determine (furthermore, figures from the Arab Social Media reports are perhaps distorted by a large number of bots). Nonetheless, if we are to use these figures from the Arab Social Media Report 2017, we can see that in Egypt that for every 3089 Twitter users, there is one sectarian tweet. In Saudi, there is one sectarian Tweet for 1570 Twitter Users. For Kuwait, as another example, there is one sectarian tweet for every 4504 Twitter users. Thus crudely speaking, the results do not balance out when considering Twitter users, meaning that according to this data, the country with the larger amount of tweets are still the ‘more sectarian’.
Where possible, I added latitude and longitude points for location input by users. This allowed me to create a map that shows a more detailed breakdown of Twitter users. As you can see from the below map, Arabic, anti-Shia sectarian Tweets are focused on the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, with the majority occurring in Saudi, specifically Riyadh, Jeddah, and clusters along the Eastern Province. Northern Egypt is also particularly interesting with regards to the amount of discourse.
Indeed, it would appear from this map, that sectarian discourses online radiate outwards from the middle of Saudi. Of course Riyadh and Jeddah are Saudi’s most populace cities, so it may not be significant in this regard, yet it is interesting to see that Saudi appears to be the centre of this discourse. Also, the rhetoric is almost non-existent across the rest of North Africa and Sudan. It is also not very common in Oman.
The data then, could suggest a number of things:
Online anti-Shia sectarianism are most prevalent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Such discourses originated in the Gulf and have traveled abroad
Such discourses are much less common outside the Arabian Peninsula, where there are mixed populations with different histories of national struggle
Of course some potential caveats:
Lexically speaking, the terms used for this study may just be a preferred choice used by those Arabic speakers in the peninsula. Sectarianism in other languages other than Arabic would be interesting to explore in a similar way. Similarly, Arabs in others parts of the ME may use different terms, although I am not sure this is the case.
As yet it’s not sure whether long term analysis would yield similar results. Short term, similar sized samples I have done on individual words or phrases leading up to this blog have returned identical results. Inevitably, a longer sample would mostly likely return more and more sectarian tweets from every country outside the Gulf. As these would also likely increase across every country, the proportionality of sectarian tweets would still likely stay the same.
Similar ways of finding other platforms to analyse would be useful, e.g. Instagram and FB. (Although not sure if people would be inclined to be less or more sectarian on different platforms).
To be clear this is not stating sectarianism does not occur everywhere, just maybe that it is more common in some places than others.