Outrage after Yemen's Houthis 'attack Mecca' – but how real is it?

Outrage after Yemen's Houthis 'attack Mecca' – but how real is it?
There was outrage on Twitter after two missiles were reportedly shot down near Mecca, but previous Saudi government use of social media suggests that not everything is as it seems.
5 min read
22 May, 2019
Twitter hashtags said that the Houthi's targeted the Ka'abah, Islam's most sacred site [Getty]

Saudi media organisations, religious leaders, and social media users have reacted with outrage this week to reports that Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi movement targeted two cities in Saudi Arabia's Mecca region with ballistic missiles.

On Monday morning, Saudi media reported that the kingdom's air defences shot down two ballistic missiles, one over the city of Taif, 65 kilometres east of the Muslim holy city of Mecca, and another over the port city of Jeddah, 65 kilometres to the west.

The attack happened just as people were having suhur, the pre-dawn meal which precedes the dawn-to-dusk fast of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan. More than two million Muslims visit Mecca in Ramadan every year to perform a minor pilgrimage known as Umrah.

The popular Saudi newspaper Okaz, which follows the editorial line of the Saudi government, reported on the event in jingoistic terms: "The air defence forces thwarted [the Houthi missiles] with extreme precision, exposing the truth about Iran and its servants' use of true terrorism and their targeting of Muslims and pilgrims heading for God's Sacred House [a reference to the Ka'abah] during the nights of Ramadan."

One week before the shooting down of the missiles over Mecca, the Houthi movement, who are also known as Ansar Allah and are made up mainly of followers of the Zaidi school of Shia Islam, claimed responsibility for a drone attack on a pipeline running from the oilfields of eastern Saudi Arabia to the port of Yanbu on the Red Sea. The day after the missiles were shot down, they claimed responsibility for a drone attack on an airport in the southwestern Saudi city of Najran which contained a military base. The Houthis also announced that they have a list of 300 military targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE that they plan to target.

However, as far as the Mecca attack was concerned, the Houthis strongly denied responsibility. Their military spokesman, Brigadier Yahya Sari said on Facebook, "The Saudi regime is trying, through these allegations, to rally support for its brutal aggression against our great Yemeni people."

The Houthis disavowal of responsibility didn't stop the outrage. The Imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca, Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, said, "This act, from whichever party it comes, is a cowardly and unsuccessful assault, while we are in the month of grace and blessings, the month of Ramadan, showing the dishonour and servility of its perpetrators."

But it was on Twitter where the reaction to the attack was really visible. The English-language hashtag #Houthis_Strike_Mecca was used approximately 12,900 times on Twitter in roughly 48 hours, with Twitter users blaming Iran.

Some of the tweets used imagery that verged on sectarianism, while others praised and glorified Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Arabic equivalent of this hashtag was more specific about what the alleged target of the Houthis was. Its literal translation is #Houthis_Target_The_Kaaba_of_the_Muslims and it was used 111,000 times in the 48 hours after the attack.

The theme and language of the tweets were very similar – an emphasis on the idea that the holiest site in Islam and millions of pilgrims were targeted, that this was a horrific sacrilegious act, that Iran was responsible, and that the Saudi army deserved all praise for protecting Mecca, shooting down the missiles, and standing up to the Iran-sponsored Houthis generally.

The high volume and similarity of the tweets, with phrases like "Great thanks to Saudi Air Defense for making us feel safe" [sic] and "thanks for making us feel safe thanks our soldiers" accompanied by the same generic picture of a soldier raising the Saudi flag suggested that the reaction to the attacks was not spontaneous.

This was more evident when considering that the shooting down of the missiles did not actually take place over Mecca or anywhere near the Great Mosque and the Ka'abah, but in two cities more than 50 kilometres away.

The Houthis were quick to claim responsibility for last week's oil pipeline attack and Tuesday's attack on Najran airport, but denied any responsibility for the attacks on Taif and Jeddah. Regarding this attack, it was the Saudi media, religious leaders, and pro-Saudi social media users who amplified and spread the news.

Marc Owen-Jones, an assistant professor of digital humanities at Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa University, has previously demonstrated how Saudi Arabia has used Twitter to amplify its propaganda, a process which has involved the hijacking of the Twitter accounts of living and dead Americans.

In his study, Automated Sectarianism and Pro-Saudi Propaganda on Twitter Owen-Jones demonstrates how suspicious Twitter accounts have churned out thousands of near-identical tweets in support of Gulf regimes in response to events. For example, Bahraini Shia cleric Isa Qasim was deprived of his citizenship and made stateless in 2016 hundreds of tweets appeared, emphasising his Shia faith, calling him a terrorist and accusing him of conspiring to "annihilate Bahrain's security forces".

The response to the attacks in the Mecca region shows that a similar process is at work. Saudi Arabia has been bogged down in an inconclusive war in Yemen which has killed nearly 70,000 civilians since 2015. It has been unable to achieve victory over Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi movement whose attacks on the kingdom's territory are becoming increasingly brazen.

Saudi Arabia is now under fire internationally for the human cost of its war on the Houthis, as civilians die in its indiscriminate airstrikes and famine threatens millions of people in Yemen. A series of events, from the imprisonment and torture of women's rights activists, to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the public execution of 37 people last month has tarnished the Saudi ruling family's reputation, perhaps irrevocably.

Meanwhile tensions are increasing between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US on the one hand and Iran on the other. While a full-scale conflict seems unlikely, there doesn't seem to be any end in sight to the proxy war in Yemen.

The amplification of the alleged Houthi attacks on cities in the Mecca region seems like a desperate attempt to gain justification for a war which has killed thousands of civilians and restore the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia's rulers and its military as protectors of Islam's sacred sites.