LONDON, July 20 (Reuters) - Saudi Twitter users have sent thousands of tweets accusing the kingdom's former crown prince and his long-time aide of corruption, in what two Saudi sources said was a campaign to discredit him ahead of a possible indictment, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman moves to sideline rivals to the throne.
The tweets against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was ousted and replaced as heir to the throne by the crown prince in a palace coup in 2017, began on Friday and also targeted his aide, ex-intelligence official Saad al-Jabri.
The Twitter storm comes as King Salman, 84, was admitted to hospital in the capital Riyadh on Monday, suffering from inflammation of the gall bladder, according to state news agency SPA. The government's media office declined to comment further on his condition.
The two Saudi sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the campaign by apparent pro-government Twitter users was aimed at swaying public opinion ahead of an expected announcement of corruption charges against bin Nayef.
"They have been preparing documents against him since March," said one of sources, who is familiar with the matter, adding that those behind the Twitter campaign wanted to "smear his image domestically".
The second Saudi source said the campaign clearly had government backing since prominent Saudis close to the crown prince -- known by the initials MbS -- were amplifying the tweets.
Prior to his ouster, bin Nayef was seen as the most significant rival for the throne. He controlled the country's security forces, developed close ties to Western intelligence agencies, and remains popular among conservatives sidelined by the crown prince.
The Saudi government's media office did not respond to a request for comment.
Reuters could not reach bin Nayef, his lawyers, or Jabri for comment.
Saudi authorities detained bin Nayef in March and he is being held along with two other senior royals in an undisclosed location. Jabri is in exile in Canada, while his two adult children were also detained by Saudi authorities in March.
Jabri's son Khalid said in a text message to Reuters that the Twitter campaign was a "deflection from the actual story: hostage taking of my brother and sister, unlawful persecution and false allegations".
In June, well-connected Saudi sources told Reuters that MbS was seeking to press charges against bin Nayef relating to allegations of corruption during his time at the interior ministry and wanted documents to which Jabri had access. Saudi authorities did not respond to Reuters requests for comment at that time.
The moves against bin Nayef are the latest in a series of measures seen aimed at consolidating MbS’s strength within the ruling Al Saud family and removing perceived threats to his power ahead of an eventual succession upon the king’s death or abdication.
"ACCELERATING THE CAMPAIGN"
Several influential Saudi newspapers on Sunday carried a Wall Street Journal report published on Friday that cited Saudi officials and government documents as saying Jabri led a network of officials who misspent $11 billion in government money from an interior ministry fund during bin Nayef's time there.
Jabri's son Khalid strongly denied the Journal report, saying in a text message that his father never controlled the fund and that bin Nayef "had the sole and full discretion" over it "with a clear and undisputed mandate from King Abdullah."
Reuters could not independently confirm who controls the fund.
Thousands of Twitter accounts used the Arabic hashtags "the fugitive Saad al Jabri" and "Saad al Jabri's corruption" over the weekend.
One high-profile account which frequently tweets pro-government content and has more than 1.2 million followers, Al Radaa al Saudi, tweeted: "Mohammed Bin Nayef allowed the corruption network run by al-Jabri to operate."
A well-connected diplomat said the tweets paved the way for the Saudi authorities to accuse bin Nayef of involvement in Jabri's alleged corruption.
The first Saudi source said MbS's aides were "accelerating the campaign" against bin Nayef and Jabri ahead of November's U.S. presidential election in case President Donald Trump, who has publicly voiced support for MbS, loses.
Trump's opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has taken a tougher stance towards MbS, promising to make him "pay the price" for the killing in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and vowing to end arm sales to Saudi Arabia.
Twitter has been a favourite tool of Saud al-Qahtani, a former top aide to MbS, who ran the royal court's media center and formed an electronic army tasked with protecting the kingdom's image and attacking its enemies online. (https://reut.rs/3fMAoSS)
Qahtani was fired in 2018 for his alleged involvement in the killing of Khashoggi and was investigated but not charged. Several sources have told Reuters that he remains in the crown prince's inner circle.
(Editing by Nick Tattersall)
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