Alarm on Capitol Hill over Saudi investment in Twitter
Possible access to users’ data could pose national security risk and could be used to target kingdom’s dissidents
It has been five years since Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who has been known for decades as among one of the richest Middle East investors, received a phone call summoning him to the royal court in Riyadh.
The prince – who together with his investment firm has emerged as the second-largest investor in Twitter after Elon Musk’s takeover of the social media platform – became a prisoner.
According to his own account, the prince was holed up in Room 628 of the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh for 83 days. At the time, the round-up of Saudi royals and other businessmen was hailed inside Saudi Arabia as an anti-corruption purge led by the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also Alwaleed’s cousin.
Little is known about the prince’s prolonged stay at the Ritz, but the harrowing episode is key to understanding some of the power dynamics that are now at play behind one of the world’s most powerful social media platforms.
It also raises questions about how much influence Alwaleed or Prince Mohammed may wield in their new relationship with Musk as part of what Alwaleed has publicly said would be a long-term investment in Twitter.
Alarm bells are already ringing on Capitol Hill, where two US senators – Democrat Ron Wyden, who chairs the finance committee, and Chris Murphy of Connecticut – have called for a “thorough vetting” of the Twitter deal on national security grounds.
In a statement, Wyden said: “Given the Saudi regime’s history of jailing critics, planting a spy at Twitter, and brutally murdering a Washington Post journalist, the Saudi regime must be blocked from accessing Twitter account information, direct messages and other data that could be used to identify political opponents or to suppress criticism of the royal family.
“I’ve long argued that the United States has a national security interest in protecting Americans’ data from murderous foreign governments, and this Saudi regime absolutely fits that description.”
Press reports that emerged after the Ritz purge detailed how rich Saudi prisoners were tortured and coerced during their detention there, and stripped of their fortunes after accusations of corruption, though there were never formal charges, evidence, or trials.
Alwaleed, who reportedly looked “underfed and haggard” during his Ritz stay, discussed his confinement with Bloomberg in March 2018, seven weeks after he was released. In the interview, Alwaleed denied any maltreatment or torture, but acknowledged he had reached an “understanding” with the kingdom that was “confidential and secret between me and the government”.
He claimed his relationship with Prince Mohammed had grown “stronger” after his imprisonment and that they talked or messaged one another multiple times a week.
He also said he would be permitted to travel, though observers have noted that Alwaleed – whose firm also has significant investments in Uber, Citibank, and Lyft – has not been seen outside Saudi Arabia or its ally the United Arab Emirates since his confinement.
In April, after Elon Musk first made his audacious bid to takeover Twitter, it was rejected by Alwaleed in a tweet. “I don’t believe that the proposed offer by @elonmusk ($54.20) comes close to the intrinsic value of @Twitter given its growth prospects. Being one of the largest & long-term shareholders of Twitter, @Kingdom_KHC & I reject this offer,” he wrote, referring to his investment company, Kingdom Holding, which first invested in Twitter in 2011.
But just a few weeks later, Alwaleed appeared to have changed his mind. In a tweet on 5 May, he wrote: “Great to connect with you my ‘new’ friend @elonmusk. I believe you will be an excellent leader for @Twitter to propel & maximise its great potential.”
Later that month, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, which is chaired by Prince Mohammed, acquired a 17% stake in Kingdom Holding for $1.5bn.
This week, Alwaleed congratulated “Chief Twit” Musk on closing the Twitter transaction this week, saying the two would be “together all the way”.
The Twitter investment does not appear to offer either Alwaleed or the Saudi government any formal control over Twitter. Musk is now the company’s sole director. But the kingdom’s known use of the platform as a propaganda tool, and its harsh crackdown on dissidents or others who use the platform, are areas of concern for human rights experts.
“I think it’s worth asking questions about what Saudi investment means for the security of Saudi dissidents and debate around Saudi issues. Will requests for actions against users be filtered through Alwaleed? Requests for user data, or for the promotion of some networks?” said David Kaye, a law professor at UC Irvine.
A top official in the kingdom is also alleged to have masterminded the 2015 infiltration of Twitter by spies who were working for the Saudi government and were indicted by the Department of Justice.
The infiltration allowed the Saudi government to identify individuals who were criticising the kingdom’s government from anonymous Twitter accounts – leading to at least one arrest of a young man, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who is serving a 20-year jail sentence in Saudi Arabia for using a parody account to mock the Saudi government.
Two of the men who were indicted are still sought by the FBI after they were able to escape the US before they were arrested. Last month, as top US and other executives went to Riyadh to celebrate the Future Investment Initiative, known as “Davos in the Desert”, one accused Twitter spy wanted by US authorities – Ahmed Almutairi – posed videos on his personal Snapchat account of a party he was attending to celebrate the conference, and boasted that he would be attending six parties held that night.
It is far from clear whether demands by some US senators for a national security review will be taken up by the Biden administration. Rules surrounding such reviews by the US Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS), which has the power to unwind transactions if they are deemed to threaten US national security, have usually been triggered when the foreign entity (in this case, Saudi Arabia) has assumed control of a company or asset. This is not the case in the Musk deal.
The Washington Post reported this week that US officials were weighing whether to open a formal investigation into Musk’s purchase and, citing a person familiar with the matter, said the Treasury Department had contacted Twitter to learn more about the confidential agreements Musk had struck with foreign investors.
One attorney familiar with the process and who spoke on the condition of anonymity said any risk assessment by the US government would probably show that the Saudis have had the capability and intent to “compromise” the platform in the past. That said, the attorney added: “Are there sanctions and other levers to use? I doubt they would sanction Alwaleed or MBS.”
A lawyer for Musk did not respond to a request for comment.