Twitter’s unmatched platform for public opinion is emboldening Gulf Arabs to exchange views on delicate issues in the deeply conservative region, despite strict censorship that controls old media.
The authorities have been attempting to limit the damage by handing out jail terms to some whose tweets have been deemed offensive in the Muslim states, including in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
But the popularity of the microblogging website has even extended to princes, ministers and other high-profile officials who are eager to express their opinions, sometimes even upsetting their own governments.
“Twitter is being used by the governments and elites (in the Gulf) as much as it is used by ordinary people,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, an academic in the United Arab Emirates.
An avid tweeter himself, the professor of political science said the site “provides a wide platform for free expression without any restraints,” acknowledging such space “could cause a headache for the authorities” who control most other media.
Islamists and liberals — especially in Saudi Arabia — exchange blows over a plethora of subjects in the virtual arena, while some tweeters who use pseudonyms have become popular for their insights into the ruling class.
Prominent among these is @Mujtahidd, or The Diligent, whose tweets about developments in the Saudi royal family have attracted his account more than 912,000 followers.
Mujtahidd’s identity remains secret.
One of his latest tweets was a claim that Saudi Arabia was “backing the French military campaign in Mali (against Islamists) with $6 billion in the form of an arms deal”.
Saudi Arabia has not made any official comment on the situation in the African nation.
High profile Dubai police chief, General Dhahi Khalfan, also has used Twitter to mount a fierce campaign against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Through his @Dhahi_Khalfan account, which has more than 362,000 followers, he accused the party of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi of plotting against his country.
The opposition also used Twitter and Facebook extensively to mobilise anti-government protests in Bahrain, where a month-long uprising in 2011 was initiated by the February 14 Revolution cyber group.
Activists provide real-time Twitter feeds on clashes with police during protests that continue in the archipelago despite a heavy-handed crackdown in March 2011 that quelled huge rallies.
The Bahraini interior ministry responds with its own statements on Twitter.
“The level of freedom of expression furnished by Twitter is not available anywhere else,” said Abdullah, the professor.
But using this margin of freedom has landed some tweeters in jail as authorities do not take criticism lightly.
Kuwait has jailed two Twitter users for two years, while dozens are being tried over messages deemed insulting to the emir, while imprisoned Saudi tweeter Hamza Kashgari awaits a trial that could send him to the gallows over postings seen as apostasy.
Abdullah said the “huge number of offensive and obscene tweets” had upset many people — and not just governments.
Kuwaiti commentator Saad al-Ajmi, who previously served as a minister of information, said governments should not panic over the impact of social media networks and should use them as a “gauge for public opinion”.
“Such windows (of freedom) opened by new channels of expression can’t be closed,” said Ajmi, also an ardent tweeter.
In figures, three million people in Saudi Arabia, representing 12 percent of the kingdom’s population, have Twitter accounts, according to a report by The Social Clinic, a Jeddah-based consultancy.
Women represented 45 percent of tweeters in the ultra-conservative kingdom where women face strict social constraints, are not allowed to drive and have to cover themselves from head to toe in public.
Activists found in Twitter an open platform to promote women’s rights, with the hashtag #women2drive and Facebook group of the same name giving a huge publicity boost for a campaign to allow women to drive.
Similarly, many prominent Saudi preachers are active tweeters with one cleric, Mohammed al-Arifi, attracting 3.8 million followers — the most in the Gulf region.
Tweeters in Saudi Arabia post about 50 million messages on the network each month, helping Arabic to become the fastest-growing language on the blogging site.
“It is permissible to demand rules that regulate (Twitter) because there are many offences,” said Abdullah, adding that “laws should not be rashly prepared, nor be tough, and should go through parliaments”.
Elected parliaments enjoying strong legislative powers hardly exist in the Gulf monarchies and sheikhdoms, where most councils are either fully or partially named by the rulers, and their powers are limited.