Science

Saudi Arabia’s support for Elon Musk makes waves in Washington

The US government is concerned that a firm controlled by a member of the Saudi royal family is among the main shareholders of Twitter after the acquisition of the company by businessman Elon Musk.

Posted at 6:00 am.

Mark Thibodeau

Mark Thibodeau
Press

The administration of President Joe Biden fears that this situation will give the regime of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman access to sensitive information that will help identify and prosecute dissidents.

Elected officials are also wondering if Riyadh will now find it easier to run propaganda campaigns or censor information deemed contrary to its interests on a social media platform, amid total shock.

We should be wary that the Saudis, who clearly want to stifle political speech and influence American political life, are now the second largest shareholder. [de Twitter].

Chris Murphy, Democratic Senator

The Connecticut MP said it was critical that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which brings together a dozen government agencies, look into the Twitter sale to determine if it poses a national security risk.

Another Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, said it was critical for the government to protect Americans’ data from “bloody foreign governments”, noting in passing the alleged role of the CIA in orchestrating Mohammad bin Salman and the despicable assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Over the past few days, the Treasury Department has been contacting Twitter for more details about the new corporate structure and the existence of confidential agreements linking Mr. Musk to the foreign investors who backed the deal, according to the Washington Post.

The most important of these investors is Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who a few days ago congratulated himself on becoming Twitter’s “second shareholder” by transferring a pre-existing $2 billion stake held by Kingdom Holding to a new private company.

Structure change

According to Thomas Juneau, a Middle East scholar attached to the University of Ottawa, it is not illogical for the US to be alarmed by the situation, even if Saudi capital was already present through the funds spent in the company.

“The Saudi presence hasn’t changed, but Twitter has. Will the new structure increase the risk of slippage? Asks an analyst who is particularly concerned that Elon Musk wants to cut staff significantly.

Will the Saudis have formal or informal access to more sensitive information about Twitter users? If there is less rigidity in the structure, control is likely to be less effective, and this opens the door for Riyadh’s covert operations.

Thomas Juneau, Middle East scholar at the University of Ottawa.

A former Twitter employee with US and Lebanese citizenship was found guilty in the US in August of providing information about anonymous accounts of dissidents to a close adviser to Mohammed bin Salman. Another former employee who was subjected to similar practices fled to Saudi Arabia with his entire family in 2015 and was given a position with a foundation linked to the Crown Prince.

Al-Waleed bin Talal is less powerful than before

Existing ties between al-Waleed bin Talal and Riyadh are likely fueling American fears, Mr Juno said.

The wealthy Saudi citizen had long led a colorful life, multiplying investments and trips abroad, before being targeted by the Saudi regime five years ago in an anti-corruption purge that stripped him of much of his wealth.

“He has much less freedom of action compared to Mohammed bin Salman than in the past,” the scientist emphasizes.

Sara Bauerle Dantzman, an associate professor at Indiana University who is familiar with how CFIUS works, notes that it can consider deals that target strategically important companies even if the foreign investor doesn’t become the controlling shareholder.

President Biden emphasized in a recent executive order that the committee should pay particular attention to acquisitions that could affect the privacy of the American public.

While blocking the sale of Twitter is theoretically possible, committee members are likely to recommend limited measures to ensure that Saudi investors cannot gain unauthorized access to the data if needed, Bauerle Dantzman said.

Small foreign investments from Qatar and firms of Chinese origin can also be valued in the process.

These questions about the national security impact of the Twitter sale come at a time when relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia are particularly strained.

The American president, who vowed to make Mohammed bin Salman a “rogue” over the Khashoggi affair, reneged on his promise and met with him over the summer in the vain hope of persuading him to increase the country’s oil production and lower the price of gasoline.

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