Social Media Revolution Hits Saudi Arabia

January 26, 2011

Deborah Amos

There is a social media revolution in Saudi Arabia.

Ten million Saudis are online, 3 million belong to Facebook, and Twitter feeds are up more than 400 percent.

Recently, many tweets and posts have been focused on the uprising in Tunisia. In fact, Saudi's social media activists spread videos and news updates at the peak of the street protests — and the interest has stayed high ever since. And, now, Saudi bloggers have added the unrest in Cairo to the topics receiving much attention.

What Now?

Will the Saudi government clamp down on this free-wheeling speech after Tunisia's social media movement helped to bring down a government?

"It's a good question," says Hatoon Al Fassi, a political activist and a history professor at King Saud University. "Everybody, politically speaking, is on their nerves," she says, "and they are not happy with anything that goes on in the media."

Fassi says she felt the chill firsthand when she delivered her weekly column to Al-Riyadh newspaper. Fassi's comments on the Arab government response to events in Tunisia were rejected at first.

She says she told her editor, "Everything I've written was actually from the news; I haven't put anything new." But, she says, her editor pointed out that she had put all the information together and cited reforms in neighboring Gulf states.

New Rules In Effect

While Saudi Arabia still can control the domestic media, it's harder to block out international news, with Arab satellite channels and constant updates on blogs and Twitter feeds.

But for the first time, the Saudi government has published new regulations for the electronic media, which includes bloggers. All users are encouraged to register with the government and the new rules, in effect since Jan. 1, prohibit criticism of Islam or anything that compromises public order.

The new rules have spurred an outburst of criticism online.

"I believe this is an ugly tactic of censoring freedom of expression," says Mohammed Qatani, the head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, an unofficial human-rights group. SCPA published provocative challenges to the government, including calling for the resignation of the interior minister. The association has registered the site outside the kingdom.

"They do censor our website," says Qatani. "Over the past year it has been blocked more than 15 times. ... Every two weeks, they shut it down. But we figure out how to [get around it]."

But the Saudi government has harassed and jailed critics, according to Human Rights Watch. In a new report issued this week, Human Rights Watch warns that the new regulations are likely to suppress electronic communication after Saudi Arabia's Web users have opened a space for a lively exchange of views on the Web.

However, Prince Turki al Faisal, a former head of intelligence and diplomat, insists that this is no clampdown.

"If you want to get to a certain website, who can prevent you? You can hook your phone to a provider in Ukraine or Timbuktu," he says. "It is not a means to clamp down, but simply to regulate them."

An Alternative News Source

The Saudi blogosphere has become an alternative source of news and opinions in the kingdom. Even government officials check on blog sites as a source of information.

In 2009, postings on YouTube about a devastating flood that killed 70 people alerted government officials to the extent of the crisis.

Robert Lacey has lived in Saudi Arabia for decades and wrote a best-selling book about the royal family.

"The young Saudis I've spoken to about this plan to get bloggers registered just laugh," he says. "There are all sorts of technical ways that I don't quite understand — blogging under an assumed name."

Lacey says the Internet poses a challenge for this conservative, mostly religious society.

"It's one of the big questions ahead for Saudi Arabia," he says. "How this authoritarian regime will live with the freedom and chaos that the Internet represents." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.