Backed by a broad regional alliance, the Saudi military intervened in Yemen in the early morning of March 26, 2015. The purported reason for the intervention was to protect the legitimacy of the Yemeni government and prevent the Houthis from taking over the state.
The event triggered global reactions on Twitter, with users in different countries reacting to the news. In this global digital space, the nation state was a common frame of reference. Even though people from around the world discussed the intervention, these discussions often revolved around national politics.
At the same time, Twitter also served to connect like-minded people across borders, enabling the emergence of transnational spaces of solidarity for those with a particular perspective on the Saudi intervention.
Fault Lines and Solidarities in the Arabic Twitter Debate
Out of all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the Saudi Twitter community is the largest. With 2,414,000 users, the Saudi population is one of the most active users of Twitter worldwide. The United Arab Emirates, with 502,000 users, is the third largest Twitter community in the region, followed by Kuwait, with 344,000 users. While Yemen (128,000), Qatar (112,000), Oman (80,800), and Bahrain (62,200) have smaller absolute user numbers, together, they have the highest Twitter penetration per capita in the region.
With few exceptions, since the intervention began, Arabic-language tweets have supported the Saudi intervention. The most retweeted Arabic tweets came predominantly from users based in Gulf countries, with the most influential individuals being TV personalities, diplomats, athletes, and journalists.
Most Gulf Twitter users adopted a domestic lens on the Saudi intervention. Sectarian language was accompanied by (Arab) nationalist references and underpinned with geopolitical arguments. For example, many Gulf users identified as Arabs and referred to Yemenis as their brothers.
These users excluded the Houthis from their expressions of brotherhood, addressing them only through a sectarian prism in which they (the Houthis) were Shiites, enemies of Yemen, occupiers, terrorists, and traitors associated with Iran and (Shiite) Hezbollah. Because the Houthis had purportedly betrayed the Arabs, Gulf users supported the intervention to protect the “Arabness” of Yemen. Denying Shiites their Muslims identity, some users explicitly hoped for a Muslim (Sunni) victory over the Houthis.
Given the prominent place of Saudi Twitter users, a pro-Saudi discourse dominated Arabic-language tweets. Users offered prayers and support to the soldiers of the Saudi military, often referring to them as the Eagles of the Peninsula or the Eagles of Islam. Saudi Arabia was described as the land or people of tawhid (the oneness of God, a central principle of Wahhabi Islam) and the leader of the Sunnis. Some viewed victory over Iran as the victory of God.
These pro-Saudi users hailed the intervention, including the Saudi role, as bringing stability to the region and defending the Saudi nation and all Sunni Muslims. Users spoke of the military intervention together with past Saudi interventions in Kuwait (1990) and Bahrain (2011), as well as its economic intervention in Egypt (since 2013). Others called for Saudi Arabia to intervene in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
Opinions expressed in the Arabic-language Twittersphere largely reflected traditional Gulf media. This was no doubt also a product of Saudi Arabia’s media strategy, which was to ensure its narrative dominated media discourses on the conflict in Yemen and internationally.
The Saudi news channel, Al-Arabiya, for instance, devoted overwhelming amounts of airtime to the war, providing details about battles, while continuously emphasizing the coalition’s progress. This news was picked up and spread by many Twitter users, thereby amplifying its impact. Gulf media outlets, in turn, pointed to Twitter as proof of popular support for the military intervention, publishing articles on positive attitudes expressed on the social media platform.
Taken together, these discourses produced a transnational Sunni space of solidarity, between anti-Houthi Yemenis and Gulf users. This transnational solidarity is exemplified by two Sunni accounts, claiming to be based in Sanaa with more than 100,000 followers. In April 2015, these accounts began influencing the Arabic debate over a sustained period of time. They tweeted anti-Houthi, pro-Saudi messages and were able to drive the debate through their overwhelming following and manipulation of Twitter. Judging by user names and profile pictures, users retweeting these accounts were primarily based in the Gulf. Some of these accounts have since been suspended; others appear to be bots, automatically retweeting tweets to influence the overall discourse.
“Shiite” Twitter Voices Against the Saudi Intervention
The Saudi presence in the Arabic-language Twitter debate dwarfed Yemeni and non-Yemeni supporters of the Houthis.
In the Gulf, fear likely prevented many critics of the intervention from speaking out and retweeting messages critical of the Saudi-led coalition. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait immediately cracked down on critical voices and protests against the intervention.
On Twitter, the most outspoken, distinctively Shiite, Arabic-language, anti-intervention voices came from Lebanon, where proponents and critics on either side could speak out without fear of persecution. Beginning in late April 2015, the hashtag #sayyid_alyemen (سيد_اليمن#) created a space for Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah, and later Yemeni Houthi supporters, to speak out against the war. Some in Yemen acknowledged and welcomed the hashtag as a symbol of solidarity coming from Lebanese users.
Alluding to the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, who as a sayyid is a descendent of Prophet Muhammad, the hashtag immediately connected the Houthi leader with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, who is often referred to as Sayyid Hassan.
With pictures of Abdulmalik al-Houthi photoshopped to appear with Nasrallah and Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, these users sought to create a transnational Shiite space of solidarity. Although Yemeni Zaydis have not historically identified very strongly with other Shiite groups, such as Hezbollah, Yemenis increasingly used photos of Nasrallah as their profile pictures on social media to express a regional and sectarian alliance.
Using the #sayyid_alyemen hashtag, users cursed Saudi Arabia, shared pictures of child victims of Saudi air strikes, and expressed their support for the Houthis, cheering them on and expressing their hope for victory. Saudi Arabia was described as the gateway for Western political influence in the region and associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Not all anti-interventionist voices framed their arguments in sectarian language, however.
Egyptian social media users highlighted President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s allegedly hypocritical role in the conflict. Viewing the developments from a domestic and often cynical perspective, these users pointed out that Sisi, who supported the intervention and offered military assistance to Saudi Arabia, had forcefully toppled Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi, but was now protecting a government that had been overthrown. Other users from Egypt reminded their followers of Egypt’s traumatic experience in Yemen in the 1960s, when the Egyptian army supported Yemeni fighters in their quest to establish a republic in Yemen.
Other critical users from both Egypt and the Gulf, albeit in very small numbers, referenced Saudi Arabia and the United States’s hypocritical actions in the region, particularly regarding Iraq and Palestine, asking, for instance, why the Saudis were bombing Muslims in Yemen after doing nothing while Israel waged a brutal war in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
Notwithstanding the robustness of this debate, when compared to tweets in support of Saudi Arabia and the massive number of retweets made possible by the size of the Saudi Twitter community, as well as bots, voices speaking out against the military intervention remained marginal in the Arabic-language discourse.
Human Rights and Domestic Concerns in the English Twitter Debate
In terms of nationalities and themes, the English-language debate was more diverse than its Arabic counterpart. Generally, English-language Twitter users were more outspoken against the war, though national groups still viewed the intervention through a domestic lens.
In India, users began tweeting about the intervention in relation to the Indian military’s large-scale evacuation of Indian nationals and others from the Gulf. In early April 2015, India transported 4,640 Indians as well as some 1,000 nationals from forty-one other countries out of Yemen, as a result of the war.
In Pakistan, users tweeted mostly about whether their country should militarily support the intervention, with most users opposing any involvement. Pakistani opposition leader, Imran Khan, took to Twitter to reject direct Pakistani participation in the Yemeni war and, later, reportedly claimed credit for the unanimous parliamentary vote against intervention.
In the United States, the conflict was viewed in the context of the War on Terror. Since President Barack Obama had frequently praised Yemen as a model for U.S. counter-terrorism strategy, American Twitter users took the opportunity to highlight the strategy’s failure and questioned, often sarcastically, how Yemen could possibly serve as a model, in light of the crisis.
Among Iranians participating in the Twitter debate, a Fox News interview with Maryam Rajavi, leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a dissident Iranian group, was a popular subject. In the interview, Rajavi spoke of Iran’s destabilizing role in the region. The interview was shared hundreds of times by Iranians in Iran and the diaspora, with many proponents declaring regime change in Iran to be their explicit goal.
In the English-language Twitter arena, a transnational space of solidarity also crystalized around human rights concerns. This discourse connected individuals who were against both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. Here, users from Yemen, the Yemeni diaspora, influential Arab users across the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, political analysts, journalists, and human rights activists and organizations often discussed the intervention from a humanitarian perspective. In particular, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam, along with Western newspapers (including The Guardian, The New York Times, the Intercept, Middle East Eye and The Washington Post), informed the discourse taking place within this network.
Spearheaded by a Sanaa-based media activist group, users in this network promoted the hashtag #KefayaWar (kefaya means “enough” in Arabic), in the intervention’s early days. Because of influential users in this network, including international journalists and analysts, the hashtag received much attention.
In its early stages, #KefayaWar was often attacked for having a pro-Houthi bias. This critique usually came from opponents of the Houthis, many of whom were based in south Yemen or the diaspora. To counter the more dominant, anti-Saudi voices in this transnational network, some Yemeni activists launched the hashtag, #HouthiCrimes, to promote an anti-Houthi discourse in the English-language sphere.
As these trends suggest, a North-South, pro- and anti-Houthi divide was prominent in this transnational network of Yemeni and non-Yemeni users. Those associating closely with the North were more outspoken against the Saudi intervention, focusing on Saudi airstrikes on Houthi dominated Sanaa. Those connected with the South, where the Houthis were aggressively expanding and the Saudi intervention was widely supported, were less critical of the Saudi intervention.
Regional Solidarity, Domestic Prism
The various Twitter debates on the Saudi-led intervention exemplify the dynamics involved in global discourses on the Yemen conflict.
The dominant frame of reference was a domestic one. Twitter users viewed events through their respective domestic prism even when they occurred elsewhere. This prism was determined by their government or society’s historical and political involvement or position vis-à-vis those events.
At the same time, Twitter served to connect like-minded people, thus enabling the emergence of spaces of solidarity that transcended national boundaries. These spaces were still based on national interests, however, expressing a solidarity that was self-serving in the end, with conversations often directed more toward national enemies than transnational friends.
*This article is based on a report written by Mareike Transfeld and Isabelle Werenfels for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) in Berlin: #HashtagSolidarities: Twitter Debates and Networks in the MENA Region.