Gatekeeper To Saudi King Abdullah Takes To Twitter

Saudi Arabia's chief of the royal court has tweeted for the first time since activating his account in 2012. Kelly McEvers talks to Ahmed Al Omran, who covers Saudi Arabia for The Wall Street Journal.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Saudi Arabia's royal family has a reputation for being secretive, especially when it comes to how the country's decisions are made. Big decisions, like who will be next in line for king. So it was surprising when one of the most important figures working for the royal family took to Twitter last week. Khalid al-Tuwaijri is known as the gatekeeper to Saudi King Abdullah, kind of like the chief of staff you never see.

To explain why it matters that Tuwaijri is now online, we talked to Ahmed Al Omran. He covers Saudi Arabia for The Wall Street Journal.

First, can you tell us who is Khalid al-Tuwaijri?

AHMED AL OMRAN: Khalid al-Tuwaijri's official title is the Private Secretary of the King and Chief of the Royal Court. He controls a lot of the agenda that the king sees, what he decides on, and he is seen by many people as one of the main powers behind the throne in Saudi.

MCEVERS: But he's a secretive guy, right? I mean you don't see him very often.

OMRAN: No, that's another interesting thing about Khalid's Twitter is that he's a very private man, very secretive. So the fact that a few weeks ago he decided to go to Twitter and start tweeting was very interesting because it was very unusual for a man like him to take a very public approach and talk directly to people.

MCEVERS: What was his first tweet?

OMRAN: He basically was asking people to send him direct messages about their problems and if they complain about something. Traditionally, people could go to the royal court in person and give a paper with their complaints and their problems to the king or the chief of the royal court. But it's also not easy for everyone to go to Riyadh, the capital, and go to the palace themselves and try to do that. So now he's basically trying to do that over Twitter, asking people to send him their complaint as a direct message on Twitter, and he will try to deal with them.

MCEVERS: This might not be a big deal in some countries, but it's a pretty big deal in Saudi Arabia. A lot of people in Saudi Arabia use Twitter, right?

OMRAN: Twitter is very popular. Saudi Arabia has the highest Twitter penetration in the world. Thirty-two percent of Internet users in Saudi Arabia use Twitter actively, based on research by a company called PeerReach in the U.S., and more than four million people in the country are using it.

MCEVERS: 'Cause on the one hand, I think, you know, King Abdullah is seen in some way as is being kind of a reform-minded king, compared to the rest of the royal establishment. But on the other hand, are Saudis kind of cynical about this? Do they see it as just a, you know, publicity move to kind of make people get behind the new succession plans?

OMRAN: I mean, it's very hard to tell because Khalid al-Tuwaijri himself is kind of a controversial figure. Conservatives in the country see him as one of the main forces behind the liberalization that happened in the country recently, including the big scholarship program that sent over 100,000 Saudi students to the U.S., for example. So, you know, for someone like him to be out like that it's very interesting but also controversial, because he's not exactly a figure that everyone agrees on.

MCEVERS: And what are other Saudi saying? What are people tweeting about this, his emergence?

OMRAN: What we have seen so far is that there is a lot of people sending him complaints and problems. And some of these problems actually have been solved. There was a group of female graduates of some colleges that complained that they could not find employment. And actually, Khalid Tuwaijri, a few days after that, said the king decided that all these female graduates will get government jobs. So some results are actually happening.

MCEVERS: Ahmed Al Omran from The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

OMRAN: Thank you, Kelly.

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