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If Elon Musk’s Twitter is All About Free Speech Then What About its Second Biggest Investor?

Mark Frary and Nik Williams look at the perilous position of Saudi Arabia’s 25 million Twitter users, who face imprisonment or even execution for speaking out on social media For all that Elon Musk talks about his belief in free speech, he has chosen some “interesting” bedfellows when it comes to his $44 billion acquisition…

Salma al Shehab, sentenced to 34 years in prison for Tweeting criticism of the Saudi regime. Photo: Amnesty International

If Elon Musk’s Twitter is All About Free Speech Then What About its Second Biggest Investor?

Mark Frary and Nik Williams look at the perilous position of Saudi Arabia’s 25 million Twitter users, who face imprisonment or even execution for speaking out on social media

For all that Elon Musk talks about his belief in free speech, he has chosen some “interesting” bedfellows when it comes to his $44 billion acquisition of the social media platform Twitter.

When Twitter announced the proposed acquisition, Musk said: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

On the platform, Musk has described himself as a “free speech absolutist”, posting that he would not remove access to Russian news sources through his satellite internet company Starlink “except at gunpoint”.

Clarifying his position shortly afterwards, Musk tweeted, “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” What this would mean in reality is hard to pin down. In another instance, Musk stated that “if there are tweets that are wrong and bad, those should be either deleted or made invisible”. He does not define what ‘bad’ tweets are.

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But moving away from Musk, let’s take a look at Twitter’s second biggest investor, the Saudi billionaire and member of the country’s royal family Prince Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud.

On 26 October, a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission showed that the prince, his investment company Kingdom Holding Company (of which he owns 95 per cent of the shares) and Musk had entered into an agreement to remain as Twitter’s second largest investor, with a stake of around 4.6 per cent.

Prince Alwaleed and Kingdom made their first investment in Twitter in 2011, five years after the launch of the company. A small stake was bought for $300 million. In 2015, the same year that Jack Dorsey was named as CEO, the prince and his investment company doubled their stake in the company to 5.2 per cent.

When Musk made his desire to acquire Twitter public, the prince was quick to reject the offer, tweeting that “I don’t believe that the proposed offer by @elonmusk ($54.20) comes close to the intrinsic value of @Twitter given its growth prospects.”

Musk responded with his own tweet asking: “What are the Kingdom’s views on journalistic freedom of speech?”

A very good point and one which has not been resolved. 

According to Global Media Insight, there are 25 million Twitter users in Saudi, around 71% of the country’s population. Despite this widespread usage, Saudis using Twitter face enormous peril if they choose to tweet something that their rulers disagree with.

Take the case of Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old Saudi national and mother to two children. 

Salma was a student at the University of Leeds working towards a PhD in dental hygiene but was arrested while on a holiday home to Saudi Arabia in January last year. She was detained arbitrarily for nearly a year before being sentenced to six years in prison by the country’s notorious Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) which uses cybercrime to clamp down on free expression both online and off.

The SCC was established in 2008 to try those suspected of acts of terrorism but has since seen its remit widened to cover cases relating to cybercrime and is now frequently used to try those who express opinions on social media platforms which are at odds with the views of the country’s rulers. 

Salma fell foul of Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on free expression online. She was initially sentenced to six years in prison for “spreading rumours online” and for supporting prisoners of conscience, including activist Loujain al-Hathloul who had been jailed for driving a car in the country in defiance of a ban on women drivers, by retweeting their tweets.  

Salma appealed but shockingly the sentence was increased to 34 years with a 34-year ban on leaving Saudi tacked onto the end of her sentence.

The sentence is even longer than the maximum sentence suggested by the country’s anti-terror laws for activities such as supplying explosives or hijacking an aircraft and demonstrates the egregious and dangerous standard established both by the SCC and the Saudi regime to restrict free expression. 

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Salma is not alone in being targeted for her Twitter usage. The same day that al-Shehab was sentenced, the SCC sentenced another woman, Nourah bint Saeed Al-Qahtani, to 45 years in prison after using social media to peacefully express her views. 

Others who have exercised freedom of expression in the country have met worse fates. In March, the country held a mass execution of 81 people, including some who were arrested for simply “disrupting the social fabric and national cohesion” by expressing views, not in line with those of Saudi Arabia’s rulers.

Cloaked in the language of cybercrime, these disproportionate sentences, including the death sentence, have effectively criminalised free expression in the country and even beyond its borders in the case of Salma who was in the UK when she posted her tweet. 

The dichotomy between Musk’s view of Twitter as a platform for free speech – including potentially allowing back banned users such as former US President Donald Trump – and the company’s second-largest investor needs careful scrutiny.

US Senator Chris Murphy, who represents Connecticut, tweeted on 31 October, “We should be concerned that the Saudis, who have a clear interest in repressing political speech and impacting U.S. politics, are now the second-largest owner of a major social media platform. There is a clear national security issue at stake.”

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Following Senator Murphy’s comments, President Biden said: “I think that Elon Musk’s cooperation and/or technical relationships with other countries is worthy of being looked at. Whether or not he’s doing anything inappropriate—I’m not suggesting that. I’m suggesting they’re worth being looked at.”

Earlier this year, Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter manager, was convicted in the USA of spying for Saudi Arabia, for accessing private data on users critical of the kingdom’s government. According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, during the trial, Areej Al-Sadhan, the sister of political prisoner Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, was “shown a list compiled in 2015 by the crown prince’s aide, Bader Al-Asaker of ten Twitter handles that he wanted Abouammo to track. One of them was her brother Abdulrahman, and another was Omar Abdulaziz, a friend of [murdered journalist, Jamal] Khashoggi.” While this happened prior to the kingdom rolling over its shares to support Musk’s purchase of the platform, questions need to be asked as to whether protections are in place to prevent this being repeated.

Despite such concerns, Musk and the Saudis have clearly resolved their differences over free expression. Prince Alwaleed clearly views the social media platform as a good bet. Whether that is the case remains to be seen.

Musk has been quick out of the blocks in making changes at Twitter, including a clearout of top executives and shedding half the company’s staff. Musk also introduced a feature called Twitter Blue that allowed users to pay $7.99 a month to gain a verified user tick, something that was previously available free of charge to high-profile users, such as politicians and celebrities.

Twitter Blue only lasted a few days before Musk backpedalled on the idea amid a flurry of obvious and embarrassing issues with it. Many fake but verified accounts appeared on the platform, for example, including one purporting to be President George W Bush who tweeted “I miss killing Iraqis” to which another, supposedly former UK prime minister Tony Blair, responded, “Same tbh”. 

Concern over the new direction of Twitter has led to several leading advertising companies recommending to clients such as McDonald’s, Apple, and PepsiCo that they pause spending money on the platform for fear of recent developments reflecting badly on their brands.

What is certain is that irrespective of what happens to Twitter under Musk’s leadership, if anyone else follows Salma’s lead to realise their right to free expression online while being a Saudi citizen, they would have more to worry about than having their account blocked or whether they are verified. Nothing about Musk’s takeover has changed this fact and this must be music to the ears of his second biggest investor.

Mark Frary is associate editor and Nik Williams policy and campaigns officer at Index on Censorship

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