A court case unfolding in California reveals just how far the Saudi government is willing to go to watch its critics and silence them.

Two former Twitter employees have been charged with acting as Saudi agents back in 2015 and working with the authorities in Riyadh. Given Saudi Arabia's treatment of dissidents, the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi being a notorious case in point, those Twitter agents may well have exposed other Saudi activists to real danger.

Unlike China and Iran, Saudi Arabia allows Twitter to operate on its territory, partly because Twitter is a surveillance tool, a hunting ground that the authorities use to find, suppress and prosecute voices they disapprove of.

"Mohammed bin Salman is trying to show that Saudi Arabia is a modern country. If he bans Twitter, he will appear as a dictator. And remember, the outside world is extremely important for his Vision 2030. Because part of that vision is to attract global investors," Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, tells Al Jazeera.

Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor at the Hamad bin Khalifa University, argues: "They would not allow Twitter to exist in Saudi Arabia if they could not control it. What this allows the Saudi government to do, rather than censor, is to co-opt and influence the information space. The Saudi government have somehow been able to weaponise Twitter as a platform that allows them to spread their influence, hegemony. Yes, these tools allow for freedom of speech and criticism. But if you want, you can use those tools equally as a method of surveillance and propaganda."

However, this story is not just about Saudi Arabia. It raises serious issues about Twitter working with questionable political actors, sacrificing its stated principles, for the sake of its bottom line.

Two of the company's employees - Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, and an American, Ahmad Abouammo - are charged with acting as agents for a foreign power, Saudi Arabia, while inside the United States.

The accused were well-positioned to get access to Twitter's internal systems, allowing them to see the email addresses, phone numbers and IP addresses of Twitter users critical of the Saudi government.

By allegedly furnishing the Saudi authorities with that information, they exposed those account holders, ending their anonymity and according to the charges, putting thousands, including Saudis and Americans, at serious risk.

"Twitter suspended my account permanently in 2017 without any cause or warning. And I was told not to try to create another account. And I believe that was part of that operation," Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, says.

He adds: "I think that spying operation which is larger than what the United States has revealed. It's not only two people. We're talking about a greater, a larger operation."


Ali al-Ahmed - director, The Institute for Gulf Affairs

Madawi al-Rasheed - visiting professor, LSE Middle East Centre

Marc Owen Jones - assistant professor, Hamad bin Khalifa University

Source: Al Jazeera News