Saudi Arabia’s Struggles With Social Media: Twitter Clowns and Facebook Fatwas

In this aerial image made from a helicopter and released by Saudi Press Agency, shows a night view of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo)

Yet again Saudi Arabia seeks to suffocate self-expression. Saudi Arabia’s latest dilemma centers on ‘WhatsApp’, ‘Skype’ and ‘Viber’ – programs allowing face-to-face real-time communication that escape surveillance. It’s a predictable move for the absolute theocratic monarchy anxious to deter escalation of Shia protests in the Kingdom’s restive Eastern region. Some of these protests in the Kingdom, which have elicited severe reprisals and crackdowns against  Shias, have been organized across open social media platforms.

Within the last decade Saudi Arabia has grown increasingly isolated. This has extended not only in the severity of the Kingdom’s restrictions on women, for which it is notorious, but also in its quashing of personal freedoms of every type – movement, expression and religious observation. Increasingly an aberration from the rest of the world (including the Muslim world), Saudi Arabia is finding this isolation more and more difficult to maintain.

The Saudis themselves, jaded from years of restrictions, aren’t worried. Accustomed to the continuous litany of impediments to communication, they are confident they can find new solutions when the need arises. After all, restrictions on BlackBerry’s BBM messaging in 2010 prompted Saudis to quickly bypass the block and find alternative platforms for instant communication.

But that was before the beginning of the Arab Spring. The stakes are now significantly higher. While the Kingdom has been buoyed by the relative security of the Saudi economy and incentives monies to buy domestic peace, the Arab spring remains a constant worry. The Kingdom has coped by introducing political pseudo-freedoms as tokens of progress: the arrival of the first women in to the Shura fools few -one Saudi woman snapped to me “what difference does it make? The men have been there for years and they don’t have any power!”- the first Saudi women Olympians and enormous government gasoline and property subsidies which have lowered the cost of living. All these measures had one overarching goal: purchasing Saudi complacency.

It’s a strategy that has worked. When asked if she worried about an Arab awakening in the Kingdom, a Saudi female surgeon colleague observed to me “We don’t have the kind of desperation they had in Egypt and Tunisia. When the Arab Spring began they had nothing to lose. Here in Saudi Arabia, we do.”

But unquestionably, the most serious threat to the Kingdom’s stability is the growing power of the vox populi. The Arab spring revealed the uncorked public voice to be truly the new weapon of mass destruction. Like the proverbial genie, it cannot be corked back into the bottle. Saudi autocrats know this. Social media tools ushered in an unprecedented entry of the Saudi voice, not only domestically, but globally, a development for the which the Kingdom was entirely unprepared and to which it now struggles to adjust.

In geopolitical terms, the stakes only climb higher: escalating conflict in Syria which unnerves all in the region, an increasingly unstable Iran which might rattle its sabre any moment as it gets closer and closer to the infamous ‘red line,’ and even more imminent, a Saudi monarch pushing 90 who lacks clear succession- all frightening scenarios for the behemoth of the Sunni crescent.

The Kingdom is losing its Promethean grip. How long it can hold on is anyone’s guess, including theirs. But the converging forces of a socially-networked population buffeting an aging Kingdom surrounded by unremitting Arab Spring turbulence emphatically challenge the core identity of the Kingdom.

It’s not only the Saudi woman who is finally rendered visible in the new ‘socially-networked-borderless’ world order, but every Saudi dissident, every disaffected Saudi and every Saudi political activist.

Internationally renowned social media guru (follow him @Sree) Professor Sree Sreenivasan Chief Digital Officer at Columbia University’s  School of Journalism in New York and Blogger at CNet  observes some measures show Saudi Arabian social networks growing faster than anywhere else:

“In a one-week period in recent months, Saudi Arabia had the world’s largest percentage increase in number of citizens joining Facebook than any other country – more than 250,000. Imagine how that impacts a society and culture like theirs and how much harder it is for the royal family to control their people when communicating happens on Facebook.This is both the promise and peril of social media.”

Yet as fast as Saudis citizens gain a social media foothold, their efforts are thwarted by an increasingly socially-networked religious establishment which, lumbering beast that it is, recognizes Saudi Arabia to be closer to profound change more than at anytime prior.

A recent study commissioned by the Foundation of the Defense of democracies (FDD) published its findings examining the extent at which the Saudi clergy maintains a social network presence and how their Wahhabi ideologies are promoted on line. Their fascinating report,  ‘Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media’ makes for compelling reading. It shows how Saudi clerics with radical views are in fact among the earliest adopters of social network media. Holding prayer beads in one hand and a smartphone in the other, these clerics are as fast to master these technologies as they are to condemn them.

In short decades, these same clerics have gone from calling the telephone ‘the instrument of the devil’ and the internet ‘a corruption’  to having the largest presence on Twitter. No sooner had they learned to  ‘friend’ and ‘poke’ than they began issuing ‘Facebook Fatwas.’

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh denounced tweeters during a speech to Saudi Arabia’s most senior religious scholars dubbing them ‘a Council of Clowns’ -ironic given its his own ranks -religious clerics – who are  among the  most influential Twitterati.

While the establishment continues to confine Saudi women through legislated gender apartheid, containing their voices and those of the men who support them–or other minorities–is far more difficult. This makes it hardly surprising that the Kingdom is considering ending anonymous use of Twitter, proposing access only to those registering with national identity, as reported by Al Jazeera citing the English language daily Arab News. What’s surprising is that this hasn’t happened sooner.

Today an estimated three million Saudis are active Twitter users – almost 11% of the 28 million population -in one of the most controlled public spaces in the world, the appetite for self-expression couldn’t be greater. Saudi Arabia not only leads the Middle East in twitter use, but, with a 300 percent year over year growth, the Kingdom is the fastest-growing Twitter nation. It is Saudi Arabia that has made Arabic one of the most common languages used on Twitter, and Riyadh among the most active Twitter cities globally.

An added twist in Saudi Arabia’s struggle with social media in the eternally schizophrenic Kingdom, techno-billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, affectionately known as the Warren Buffet of the East, holds one of the largest stakes in Twitter’s investment –a $300 million slice of the pie. That’s quite some clout, making it difficult for Twitter to decline official Saudi pressures if it is to retain its primacy in the Saudi social media market.

For sure, the voices of Saudi women and girls, dissidents and minorities now ring loud. I firmly believe these are the first steps to bringing the Kingdom’s misogynistic and intolerant policies into sharp focus. But these very forces also redouble the authorities’ commitment to contain the beast that is a socially networked public. This is a losing battle and all stakeholders in the struggle know this. Only one certainty remains: the battleground is widening as the struggle to control the narrative, whether between cleric and public, monarchist or anarchist, Sunni or Shia, conservative or progressive continues to intensify.

 

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