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CLOSE READING: The Saudis, A Twitter Investment, And The End Of Arab Spring?


By on Feb 2, 2012 (

Is Twitter (a) a leading vehicle for freedom movements, or (b) primed to control and shut down open discourse throughout the world?

This question emerged recently when  we learned that the global messaging service was planning to abide by the rules of each country in terms of content it carries. Here’s  New York Times:

This week, in a sort of coming-of-age moment,  Twitter announced that upon request, it would block certain messages in countries where they were deemed illegal. The move immediately prompted outcry, argument and even calls for a boycott from some users.

Twitter said it would also “give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.””

Now, you may be one of those people who very proudly have  not incorporated Twitter into your life, but this development is still of enormous relevance to you and your world. Why? Simply because Twitter, with its declared 175 million registered users (many of whom, it must be said,  are inactive ) has become one of the most powerful forces in communication today, arguably more relevant to more people than even traditional heavyweights like  The New York Times, CNN, and the BBC.

That’s why we at WhoWhatWhy use Twitter as one of our basket of social media tools. It allows individuals and groups to communicate directly with other individuals, in groups, on an instantaneous basis. As such, it was a vital tool for activists in Egypt and elsewhere (including the Occupy Movement in the United States) to quickly mobilize and have an impact.

Thus, Twitter is viewed as a tremendous opportunity by those who seek to regain the upper hand from the small elites that dominate the political and economic systems throughout most if not all of the world. To those elites, however, Twitter spells doom.

Unless they can neutralize it.


Enter the Saudi royal family.

The Saudi royal family has been very, very lucky. So far, none of the ferment in the rest of the world has yet manifested itself on their home turf to the extent to which this dictatorial, brutal, Western-backed extended clan has an immediate crisis.  A modest but significant uprising in their own country was dutifully ignored by the Western media, including the vaunted “alternative press.” Demonstrated  connections to the 9/11 hijackers, arguably the biggest story  in the world on the 10 th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, were again studiously ignored by the Western media, again including the “alternative press.”

So the Saudi One Percent have it pretty good. Except for Twitter. If Twitter were to become a powerful tool in the hands of ordinary Saudis, one can pretty quickly figure out the consequences. The royal family would have to scramble to their villas in the South of France or their Park Avenue aeries.


With this background, it was interesting to note the news item that Saudi prince Walid bin Talal had  invested $300 million in Twitter . Twitter, which is privately held, willingly chose to sell him this substantial stake.

Twitter’s market valuation is something like $10 billion (choose what huge number you prefer.) Given that, why would this company, which is all about empowering ordinary people to communicate unfiltered and thereby get control of their lives and their governments, sell a big chunk to a representative of one of the quintessential repressive forces—an element that has a stake in preventing exactly the sort of communication that defines Twitter?