William Bauer
Last updated: 20 August, 2012

How social media has transformed the silent kingdom

Today, with the advent of mass media and social networking, no country is an isolated island. Nowhere has this new maxim been truer than in Saudi Arabia.

Barely ten years ago, Saudi Arabia was an enigma. It was a silent entity, whose population had little contact with the outside world, beyond satellite television.  Yet, over the past ten years, this situation has changed. Now, the ownership of smart phones, and fast, largely unfettered access to the Internet is something the majority of people in Saudi Arabia enjoy.

Many Saudis use Twitter and Facebook penetration is quasi-universal amongst the younger segment of the population. It is both an appreciated luxury, and an undoubted necessity. In a country that imposes severe restrictions on the mixing of sexes and on public entertainment, this emerging social media sphere presents a critical lifeline to Saudi youths.

On Facebook, for example, young Saudi girls are active – under pseudonyms and heavily disguised photos – and so, inevitably, are Saudi young men. In my time teaching in the Kingdom, I would be frequently approached by my students to gaze upon their ‘girlfriends’.

On one such occasion, I was approached by Abdul-Rahman in my Institute’s cafeteria. With a mixture of pride, suffused with excitement, he pulled out his Blackberry, fired up Facebook and said: “Teacher, this is my girlfriend. What do you think?” I made the expected mutterings of approval, as I looked over the veiled face – in Burberry, no less – of his Saudi amore.

I was instantly struck by the incongruity of this scene. Where else in the world would it be considered a highly surreptitious activity, akin to drug smuggling, to be shown a picture of a veiled woman? This whole scenario, however, was only possible due to the widespread penetration of social media and Internet in Saudi Arabia. The country has changed in barely ten years, beyond all recognition.

Unlike in Iran or Syria, Saudi Arabian authorities would appear on the surface to have a laissez faire attitude to the use of the Internet. There are few filtered sites, other than those that fall into obviously salacious or sexual categories. Certainly, nothing is overtly restricted beyond sites dedicated to the nubile and under-dressed. This is, however, a mirage.

Indeed, the immediate laxity around filtering sites masks a very dangerous fault-line. It is unofficially tolerated for the citizens of Saudi Arabia to use the Internet for personal reasons. Yet, where these veer into domains of religion or politics, extreme caution must be exercised, as the consequences can be very serious.

On many occasions, talking to Saudi Arabian acquaintances, it was striking how difficult it was to engage in profound political or religious debate on social media without crossing one of the invisible ‘red lines’.

Saudi social media relies not on an army of moderators and censors; nor does it rely on outright filtering of the Internet to restrict content. Instead, Saudi Arabian authorities rely on the users themselves.  

Therefore, the user is writer, editor, and censor, all at once. Consequently, this means that – generally speaking – Saudi social media toes the major government liners fairly efficiently, whilst appearing open.

One can, for example, critique the way the Majlis al-Shoura (Council of Advisers) has requested or advised certain policies. But actively criticising any of the King’s own policies, the inherent corruption of the royal family, or its place within Saudi Arabia, is not allowed. The same goes for religion – in a state that has a strictly enforced, intensely dogmatic form of Islam, criticising the clerics or the clerical establishment is a dangerous game.

A case that clearly reflects how dangerous it is to cross these invisible, yet dangerous red lines is that of Hamza Kashgari. His name may ring a bell to seasoned Middle East watchers, because in February 2012, he was at the centre of a socio-religious storm that originated on Twitter. As an activate Twitter user, Kashgari used the opportunity presented by the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed – known as the Mawlid – to publish three short verses of his own poetry on the social media site.

His verses were esoteric, philosophical, and heavily inspired by Sufi poetry. This could not have been any more offensive to the Saudi clerical establishment. His verses addressed the Prophet Mohammed directly: “On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.”

These three short verses unleashed a storm of cleric driven, vituperative and dangerous anger. Many called for his immediate trial, and ensuing execution. In fear for his very life, Kashgari – a moderately well known liberal intellectual – fled for New Zealand, but was stopped and arrested in Malaysia. He was then deported back to Saudi Arabia.

Kashgari now languishes in prison. He will likely never be tried, nor executed. But he remains there as an example to other social media users in Saudi Arabia, about the dangers of overstepping those famous red lines. It caused an almost palpable national rethink on Twitter about what could, or could not be said, and what risks were incurred in doing so. Many have since muted their tweeting, and steered cleared of debate on controversial topics.

Kashgari’s case brought home two elements: firstly, that despite the initial impressions, Saudi social media is highly regimented, controlled, and censored, but most of this censorship comes from within oneself or other users of the same site. Secondly, Saudi social media has the power to drastically change Saudi society – in some ways for the better – but at the same time may be used by both the royal family and the clerical establishment to tighten controls on an increasingly restless, youthful population.

How this will all play out in the next few years, is anybody’s guess. There will most likely be a clash between users of social media, seeking to widen their freedom of speech, and government seeking to restrict it.

One thing is certain beyond doubt: that Saudi Arabia can never return to being the silent kingdom.