What do Saudis want (from Muhammad bin Salman)?

Two weeks into an fierce diplomatic dispute with Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia again sent resident journalists scrambling to cover the news in the early hours of June 21st – Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) had (finally, suddenly, but not entirely surprisingly) jumped the royal succession queue ahead of his cousin, former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN).

Headlines ensued.

(Below – “Saudi of Tomorrow – Young Men of the State for the State of Young Men”)

For those of you following along in the US, UK, or elsewhere outside the Gulf, Bloomberg does some of the best reporting in the region these days, from on-the-ground reporters such as Zainab Fattah, Vivian Nereim and Alaa Shahine.

Your best one-stop-shopping for getting up to speed on MBS is therefore the aptly named “What do we know about Muhammad bin Salman?”and attendant links, though also have a look at the latest reporting from Simeon Kerr (Dubai) and Ahmed al-Omran (KSA) for the FT.

Local coverage ranges from dramatic to ecstatic, with Okaz’s “THE YOUNG, STRONG KINGDOM” serving as a decent stand-in for the rest. Op-ed commentators have taken a break from slamming Qatar and its myriad foreign entanglements (see ongoing dispute) to laud the youth, strength, vision and leadership imparted by MBS’s leadership.

For those looking for broader analysis, Greg Gause at Texas A&M (or at least an editor) beat everybody to the obvious pun-chline with the “A Saudi Game of Thrones,” emphasizing the quick moves of King Salman to reshape the Saudi ruling family around the career of his son Muhammad. More recently, Madawi al-Rasheed fleshed out how this process has played out, with various cabinet shakeups and crackdowns aimed at boosting MBS’s coalition within the Saudi elite while marginalizing his no-longer-the-Crown-Prince cousin Muhammad bin Nayef (who still probably has a large portfolio of contacts and favors owed within the Saudi state, but let’s not get carried away).

And so, as now-Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman settles in and leafs through his many cables of congratulations – including one from the Emir of Qatar, no less – the rest of us are left to sift through a deluge of think-pieces and op-eds trying to assess just what the (long-expected yet still sudden) accession of the 31-year-old royal means.

There’s little point in adding more scattered speculation to the pile, so let’s see what I can show you that’s new…

What I Can Show You That’s New

Not long after the announcement, the hashtag نطالب_في_العهد_الجديد# (“In the new age, we demand…”) fired up, calling for a wide range of changes in the brave new era MBS’s even more all-encompassing leadership. While the tag was kicked off (see below – I think) by a demand for greater women’s rights, a whole host of other concerns soon got sucked into the wave.

Gauging Saudi public opinion is a fraught task, given the state’s role in shaping media narratives, harsh penalties for dissent that strays beyond various red-lines, the near-complete dearth of meaningful elections and the absence of anything approaching reliable, credible opinion polling.

Digging through tweets is an incredibly crude substitute for this – think of how badly Twitter would proxy realities in America – but it is still (maybe) better than nothing. At least a sizeable chunk of Saudi citizens seem to be on the platform, even if more sensitive conversations are probably reserved for the relative privacy of Whatsapp or Snapchat. Plus it does seem like sometimes governments in the Gulf pay attention to what folks say online – or at least the people trying to get hashtags together think so.

So along with Alexei Abrahams – a researcher at Harvard on his way to Princeton – I downloaded as many tweets on the hashtag as I could and dug into just what Saudis seem to be asking for.

So here we go:

Out of around 170,000 tweets in the past 36 hours…

About 15% are junk – ads for Rivoli watches, football games or extermination services, requests for people to “retweet this tweet and get baraka” etc. → discarded. Marc Owen Jones has done plenty of outstanding work identifying twitter-bots roaming the Gulf – suffice to say I’m just crudely sweeping out what I tell are adbots, while assuming the majority of what is left is generated by real people (watch this space).

The rest look like this (light blue = retweets):

tweet

Out of the remaining 149,000-odd tweets, I was able to find meaningful topics for about ⅔ of the demands (see the appendix for boring methodology stuff):

  • Immediate payment of promised bonuses, new handouts, loans or land
  • Jobs, jobs, jobs
  • Empowering the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice
  • Women’s driving and guardianship laws, both for and against
  • Ending the Entertainment Authority
  • Commenting on Muhammad bin Salman as أمير الشباب or the “Prince of Youth,” and the bright future he will/may promise
  • Qatar (of course)

The breakdown looks something like this (fraction of total):

Qatar_bar_plot_orig

Tweets can contain multiple references at the same time and there are plenty of tweets I couldn’t categorize – c’est la vie (at least for now).

To see what tends to go with what, I put together a correlation matrix of the different topics. A black circle means the two terms tend to show up together, a white term means the opposite; an “X” means there’s not enough data to tell either way.

corrplot_MBS

 

Most of this make sense, with the correlations put into somewhat arbitrary groupings (the black squares) by my programming:

  • Calls to end the Kingdom’s guardianship laws, grant women the right to drive, support for women’s rights
  • The opposite
  • Greater education and economic development
  • Address poverty, increase handouts, provide “good” jobs
  • A bright future with the young Prince
  • Religious conservatism and railing against the Shia

A few interesting groupings worth noting:

  • People really don’t seem to like the Entertainment Authority, though not for purely religious reasons (a lot of twerps seem to view it as a waste of money)
  • Many (but not all) of the same folks that want to increase the committee’s powers are the same folks that want the Committee back in action – a reminder that folks of more liberal and conservative strands alike have family and friends in prison
  • A few relationships appear off-the-line, like Jobs and Foreigners (i.e. stop giving jobs to them), as well as Women’s Rights and Poverty (i.e. address both)

At this point I should include a thousand caveats about how conclusive this is or isn’t. Still, as Vivian Nereim noted:

Opinions for and against expanded rights for women seem about evenly matched in this online sample (not that this is anything close to representative), while there is a lot of support for bringing back a live and reloaded version of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

At the same time, demands for more jobs and direct handouts dominate many of the other topics mentioned – reinforcing the sense that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has his work come out for him as the focal point for soaring expectations and aspirations about the transformation of the Saudi economy and Saudi Arabia’s role in the region.

Apropos of Something

Worth checking out:

 

Appendix (i.e. boring methodology stuff)

Tweets were collected on the نطالب_في_العهد_الجديد# hashtag using the TwitteR package for R.

Anything referencing Rivoli watches, Ramadan offers, the Portugal-Russia match, or wayyyy too many hashtags to be real was cleared out.

Using the NLP package, I ceated 2- and 3-word ngrams of the tweets to see what words went together and figure out some initial topics. Decision rules went something like this:

  • Look at the ngrams
  • Take chunks of words from the ngrams (to avoid differences between ة and ه, say) and find all words where the right combination exists
  • Create somewhat arbitrary divisions between mutually exclusive positions (being both for and against women driving, for example)

End results is probably far from perfect, but should do for now. Incidentally, things don’t look extremely different if you strip out the retweets (see below).

Qatar_bar_plot

corrplot_MBS_2

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