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Twitter User Airs Saudi Arabia's Dirty Laundry

ARUN RATH, HOST:

In Saudi Arabia, a political activist is stirring up conversations and controversy, exposing the lavish lifestyle of royals, bad military deals, and other offenses in the kingdom. And he's doing all of this on Twitter. In a recent piece for the online magazine Ozy, Laura Secorun Palet writes about this Twitter whistleblower. Laura, welcome back to the program.

LAURA SECORUN PALET: Thanks for having me.

RATH: So who is this individual and what are they tweeting about?

PALET: Well, you say individual, but we don't even know if he's one person.

RATH: Or if it's a he.

PALET: Exactly. He claims to be an Arab male, but for all we know he could be a group of women. And what he's been doing since 2011 is divulging and tweeting about all these very secret information, whether it is state secrets or dispute within the royal family - even the health of the monarchs - all issues that the Saudi's are thirsty to know about, because freedom of expression is really limited in the country. He thinks the royals are hoarding power. He thinks they are only looking after themselves and they should be ousted and there should be a change of regime. And he hopes that bringing transparency will eventually lead to hopefully a popular uprising. And he's been gaining a lot of followers. He now has over a million and a half.

RATH: Wow. And are these tweets mostly - are they in Arabic?

PALET: Yes. They are all in Arabic. Most of them are quite cryptic. What he does is that he tweets straight to princes or members of the royal family asking for explanation. So for example, Prince Abdul-Aziz, who is said to be the favorite of the King, received a tweet from @mujtahidd saying is it true that your house in Jedda cost $1 billion but you charged $6 billion and pocketed the rest? To which the royal, you know, answered him calling him a slanderer and a hired tool.

RATH: Got a response, though.

PALET: So many of them are like that. He throws some big bombshells. Most of them, however, are very hard to verify. So that's the problem. His legitimacy is in question very often because nobody knows who he is.

RATH: And do we know anything about who this person is behind the Twitter handle?

PALET: Well, we don't but we can guess. He certainly knows what happens within the gates of the royal palaces. So he has to have contacts on the inside. A lot of people speculate - say he might actually be part of the royal family or he might have been close them.

RATH: And you were, though, able to have an interaction with him - electronic interaction.

PALET: I was actually surprised by how easy it was. He publishes his email address, which is actually a Gmail address, on Twitter, asking people for tips. So I contacted through this email and we actually did a chat. He did refuse to answer any questions regarding, of course, his identity other than saying he was an Arab male. And also when I asked if, you know, people around him knew what he was doing or if anybody had suffered as a consequence of what he was doing, he wouldn't comment on that. But otherwise, he seems surprisingly open.

RATH: There have been social media activists in Saudi Arabia who have been sentenced to prison. And the state has a very robust internal security apparatus. How has he managed to avoid run-ins with the authority?

PALET: Well, first he said - when I started interviewing him, he said that he took precautions so that he was confident that he was doing everything safely. But then again, you know, it's hard to believe that when you're having a conversation over Gmail chat. Then he went on to say that he actually does think that the royal family knows who he is or may have an idea, which is more believable. His theory is that they are not saying who he is because it would be too embarrassing. So he went on to say that actually would be the equivalent of the White House admitting that their Chief of Staff was a Russian spy. He may have been someone close to the royal family if he's making statements like that. But then again, maybe he's just trying to throw everybody off track.

RATH: Laura Secorun Palet writes for the online magazine Ozy. Laura, thank you.

PALET: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.