Not more than two years ago, the concept of reform in Saudi Arabia would have been as much an oxymoron as business ethics or airline cuisine. In recent months, however, the Arab Spring’s uncertain winds of change have finally begun to sweep into the world’s last forbidden kingdom. Finding themselves alone in a crowd (of revolution) in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s monarchs are quickly realizing that their secret police and petrodollars may be no match for their citizens’ technology-driven empowerment.
On March 1, 2013, Saudi security forces cracked down on a woman-led protest in the city of Buraidah, known as the nerve center of Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative Wahabbist ideology. Over 160 people, mostly women and children, were arrested after erecting a tent camp to pressure the government to free their imprisoned husbands whom they claim have been detained for years without visitation or access to legal counsel. The Saudi government claims that the detainees are part of a “deviant group,” a term given to suspected Al Qaeda sympathizers or Islamist political opposition groups across the Gulf.
News of the arrests spread like wildfire. Protests in support of the Buraidah women were called for by activists from the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province and liberal reformists in Riyadh and Jidda. The mobilization of Saudi conservatives, liberals and minorities against the government’s repressive policies bore a dangerous resemblance to the red-green alliances that toppled governments from Cairo to Tunis. While turnout at the demonstrations was limited due to the government’s ban on political gatherings, the Saudi Twittersphere was teeming with anger.
Two weeks later, the government-sponsored Arab News daily published a cover story condemning what it deemed “abusive” actions by Saudi Twitter users. The story mentioned that the authorities were mulling over a plan to link Twitter accounts with their users’ identification numbers. Soon after, the story was pulled from the online version of the newspaper without explanation.
For one of the most Internet-privy societies on the planet, any move to link Twitter accounts with personal ID numbers would result in a mass exodus to other online forums that are not monitored. Saudi Arabia ranks number one in the world for Twitter users per-capita, with an estimated 51 percent of all Saudi Internet users maintaining an account with the social media network. Analysts suggest that any such move would result in a 60 percent reduction of Twitter usage in the country — a true window onto how many Saudis are voicing dissent against their government.
Still, on March 31, the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission instructed Skype, WhatsApp and Viber to comply with local regulations or risk being shut down. These applications are Internet-based communications services that are both free of charge and not subject to the kingdom’s telecommunications regulations.
The Saudi government has a strong interest in limiting social media and online communications services. Protests are being increasingly organized through use of the WhatsApp messaging application. Political dissidents are able to use Skype to communicate with human rights organizations and foreign media networks without fear of government monitoring. Some government employees and those with ties to the royal family have begun to exploit Twitter to disseminate information regarding corruption in the kingdom.
The Saudi government is, however, becoming increasingly hesitant about limiting social media and other communications because of the potential for a political backlash. Freedom of speech and communication were a hallmark demand of popular uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, with attempts to cut online activity serving to fuel discontent rather than mitigate unrest. Saudi Arabia is already a favorite target for civil rights activists across the globe, and a ban on social media would only add to a long list of reasons for further divestment and isolation campaigns.
As an alternative, the Saudi government has begun encouraging loyalists to condemn and pursue those suspected of online dissent rather than close the outlets altogether. In recent weeks, a Shura Council member filed a lawsuit against a critical Twitter user, while the government-appointed imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca dedicated his Friday sermon on April 5 to condemning the social network, calling it a “threat to national unity.”
As the government remains confounded by its inability to control online dissent, there is no doubt that the rising tide of anger across Saudi cyberspace has begun to spill over into physical reality. Unwillingly, the government has been forced to wrestle with undertaking previously unimaginable reforms with regard to women’s rights and employment opportunities for millions of young, educated citizens. With social media as their vehicle, Saudis are threatening to take control of their country’s destiny for the first time in history, and there may be nothing their government can do about it.
By Daniel Nisman
Source: The New York Times