Global Opinions

Saudi Arabia is suffocating the Arabic public sphere

(Brian Stauffer for The Washington Post)

Iyad el-Baghdadi is an Arab writer and activist. He is the founder of the Kawaakibi Foundation, an Oslo-based organization.

After Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul a year ago, the Saudi online propaganda engine on Twitter went into hyperdrive. Saudi government trolls pushed hashtags, disrupted conversations and mobbed dissidents — all with the goal of misinforming the public and stifling criticism. My team at the Kawaakibi Foundation had been monitoring their output for months and had come to expect high volume, high agility and high coordination, strongly suggesting centralized control. Given the opacity of dictatorships, we thought closely tracking their propaganda output could give us insight into their priorities. But I cannot claim this idea as my own. It was brought to me by Jamal himself.

The idea was as simple as it was brilliant. After all, if there’s one thing autocracies can’t stop doing, it is producing propaganda. Jamal shared the idea with me during a phone conversation in August 2018, and I developed the idea even further over the next two months with another associate. But Jamal’s death on Oct. 2 changed everything.

Jamal is seen primarily as a journalist, but he was more. He was a public sphere entrepreneur who was deeply concerned about the health of public discourse in the Arab world. It’s no wonder that his final op-ed in The Post was about free speech. He understood the direct link between a healthy public sphere and citizens’ ability to liberate themselves from imposed narratives. Crucially, he also understood that, in the Arabic context, the public sphere no longer existed in city squares, newspapers and television stations.

After the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the Arab public sphere shifted online. Faced with a tightly controlled traditional media landscape, Arabs, particularly youths, took to social media in droves to express their newfound freedom. I was one of them. Twitter quickly became the most important of these online spaces — the heart of a dynamic, hopeful and youthful Arab public sphere. On the platform, I eventually got to know Jamal.

The authoritarian governments that control most of the Arab world were unprepared for this explosion of free expression. For decades, they had invested in traditional media, only to have social media make it largely irrelevant. Their initial attempts to address this were rather crude — creating “online armies” of automated accounts that they deployed like online riot police. Then, after 2013, they resorted to arresting and disappearing prominent online voices. It was in that context that, in 2014, I was arrested and later expelled from my country, the United Arab Emirates.

But what other Arab dictatorships did crudely, the Saudi regime did with ruthless sophistication. When Jamal chose self-exile in the summer of 2017, it was a few weeks ahead of a wave of mass arrests that targeted dissidents and intellectuals. There was one thing many of the victims had in common: large social media followings. More than targeting the dissidents themselves, the arrests were part of a plan to degrade and conquer the last remaining open, inclusive Arab public sphere.

Saudi Arabia’s plan seems to have involved two steps. In the months ahead of the arrests, dozens of verified accounts gradually became dedicated propaganda mouthpieces of the government. Some belonged to well-known personalities who seem to have joined the government’s propaganda efforts either willingly or under duress; others were previously unknown, gaining thousands of followers and a verified badge in record time. For each of these influencers, there were hundreds of smaller accounts, seemingly human-run, operating as foot soldiers in a well-coordinated online army.

The mass arrests of independent voices soon followed. Once they were silenced, the state-controlled propaganda engine immediately cranked up its output to fill the vacuum. By the end of 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his then-adviser Saud al-Qahtani had largely succeeded, and our primary tool of free expression became their primary tool of repression and social control. Few dissenting voices in Saudi Arabia dared share critical messages — and most of those who were outside Saudi Arabia chose silence, fearing for the safety of their families.

There was a notable exception: Jamal. Not only was he still free to tweet, but he also quickly gained an even bigger and more prestigious platform at The Post. And he did more with his freedom than write op-eds and engage in debates on Twitter. From his position of relative safety, he started to think structurally about how to reclaim the public sphere that we had lost.

This brings me back to his ideas. In private conversations among Jamal’s friends, perhaps one thing is discussed most bitterly: A lot has been said about the brutality of his murder, but not enough about his vision for the Arab world. To honor Jamal’s legacy is not only to ask for justice; it’s also to continue his work. Jamal, unfortunately, did not live long enough to watch most of his ideas see the light. But he inspired us enough to continue pushing for his vision.

Read more about Jamal Khashoggi:

A missing voice, a growing chorus

Tawakkol Karman: We need justice for Yemen — and justice for Khashoggi

David Von Drehle: Hollywood loves triumphant journalism stories. This isn’t one of them.

Hala Al-Dosari: Saudi Arabia’s monarchy has left the country fragile and unbalanced

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Turkey will continue its efforts to shed light on Khashoggi’s murder

Asli Aydintasbas: The liberal world order crumbled a year ago. We’re still reeling.

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