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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Iranian-backed pages spread fake news of a Saudi coup 

Twitter account falsely claimed Saudi religious establishment and former Crown Prince involved in plot

Iranian-backed twitter accounts falsely reported that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman survived an assassination attempt (AFP)
Iranian-backed twitter accounts falsely reported that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman survived an assassination attempt (AFP)

An Iran-backed twitter account, with tens of thousands of followers, spread sensational fake rumours that a coup against the Saudi Arabian monarch was taking place near the capital in late April.

The twitter handle Sahat Al-Balad, which claimed to be based in Saudi Arabia and had nearly 30,000 followers, said multiple people were killed and injured in late April as forces loyal to the former crown prince attacked the royal palace. It even suggested that the crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, had survived an assassination attempt.

The same account also sparked an urgent investigation in Canada after sharing images that claimed to show Saudi civilians being targeted by Canadian-made security vehicles – allegations later proven to be false.

Read more: Revealed: Iran's 'clumsy' troll army pushed one million tweets in effort to destabilise region

Another account closed by Twitter over its ties to Iran, known as Eqlimolsharq, appears to have been registered in Saudi Arabia too based on investigations by the social media company. It still maintains a page on Facebook-owned Instagram under the same name that also has a link back to its original, now defunct, Twitter and largely publishes messages supportive of Iranian foreign policy.

On the 21 April 2018 at 7.50pm social media was ablaze with videos capturing at least 30 seconds of gunfire outside the Riyadh palace of King Salman, sparking fears of political unrest.

Sahat Al-Balad tweeted that officers loyal to former crown prince Mohamed bin Nayef had tried to murder his successor and cousin in an effort to seize power.

Furthermore, it was said that that religious hardliners, angered by the crown prince’s attempts to change Saudi’s ultra-conservative image, were supporting the coup attempt.

Initially Saudi officials did not release any public information, further adding to the confusion and allowing anti-Saudi accounts to stoke the tension. Saudi security forces later said they had shot down a recreational drown that strayed too close to the royal palace in Riyadh and that no one was hurt.

The Sahat Al-Balad account, quoting “high-level sources,” claimed the drone had actually been sent from the palace of the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh, to provide support for the coup plotters.

The claims were likely an attempt to drive a wedge between Mohamed bin Salman and the religious establishment in the context of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 reform programme. The Grand Mufti has previously denounced Iran’s leaders of being Zoroastrians, the ancient pre-Islamic Iranian religion.

The incident was later seized upon by pro-Iran outlets such as government-owned Press TV, which falsely reported that Mohamed bin Salman had been shot in the late April attack.

The same account was picked up by officials in Canada after it published footage purporting to show a Canadian-made vehicle being used in a crackdown in the city of Awamiyah in August 2017.

Images appeared to show at least one armoured personnel carrier made by Terradyne Armoured Vehicles, a private company based in Ontario. The video stills were then widely used and rebulished by major Canadian media outlets

"I have instructed our department and my officials to very energetically and very carefully review the reports and review the information, and research what is happening," foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said at the time.

"We are absolutely committed to defend the human rights and we condemn all violations of human rights. We also are very clear that we expect end users of any and all exports to abide by the terms of our export permits."

However, an investigation later cast doubt on the allegation that civilians were deliberately targeted.

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"There is no credible information that Saudi Ministry of Interior forces committed serious human rights violations in the conduct of that operation, with Gurkhas or otherwise," Ms Freeland told the Canada’s House of Commons in October. Despite this, the incident remained a major talking point among Canadian politicians and commentators and helped contribute deterioration of ties that led to the recent diplomatic dispute between Riyadh and Ottawa.

The Instagram account known as Eqlimolsharq also criticised Saudi Arabia’s security measures at Hajj, echoing Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has accused Riyadh of “murdering” pilgrims during a 2015 stampede on the outskirts of Mecca. There are examples appearing to show support for Houthi rebels, with unsourced claims the UAE’s economy would nosedive as a result of its involvement in the Yemen civil war and that the Saudi-led coalition would fail.