Saudis use social media to vent frustrations with the Kingdom

More than half population now online as regime tolerates greater freedoms after 2011 Arab Spring

Riyadh

When Saudi Arabia announced a programme to provide people with affordable homes last month, only a few hours passed before online critics started attacking the performance of the Housing Ministry.

A man wrote on Twitter that the agency “is all promises but we have yet to see them implement anything”. Another said the ministry should solve problems with previous projects before starting new ones. The ministry defended its plan the same day, in a rare government response to public discontent in an absolute monarchy.

Saudis, with the world’s largest proportion of internet users accessing Twitter, are turning online to avoid the censorship of traditional media, and to question government in a way that’s transforming their relationship with the ruling Al Saud family. While that might in the past have resulted in a jail sentence, the Saudi authorities are accepting greater online freedom since the Arab Spring uprisings started in 2011.

“Social media provides a space for interaction that isn’t permitted in public,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who follows social media trends in Saudi Arabia and Gulf politics. “Saudi leadership views the use of social media to express discontent as a fact of modern life that must be tolerated. Not allowing it might lead to further disgruntlement.”

A third of Saudi internet users access Twitter each month, the largest proportion in the world, according to data from PeerReach. YouTube and Instagram are the other two most popular social media sites in the kingdom.

The increase in online media use is being supported by economic growth of 3.6 per cent last year, employment initiatives and by a population structure where a majority of the 30 million people in the country are under the age of 30.

King Abdullah, who was born in 1924, raised the minimum wage for Saudi workers and increased spending to ward off the political unrest that has swept through other Arab countries. He allocated record funds to build roads, airports and industrial centres to reduce the country’s dependency on oil revenues.

Saudi Telecom and Etihad Etisalat, the two largest telecommunications providers in the country, have expanded their services in response to customer demand. Internet penetration reached 55 per cent of the population at the end of the first half of last year, according to data from the country’s telecoms regulator.

Saudi online debates are in sharp contrast to the conformity of many elements of life in a conservative Islamic society.

“Social life in Saudi Arabia tends to be heavily regulated and tradition-bound, but online most of these restrictions melt away,” said David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who follows social and political change in Saudi.

The government is in a “delicate” balancing act, said Fahad Nazer, a former analyst for the Saudi embassy in Washington. “While they have allowed these necessities of modern life, they are also sensitive to the concerns of conservatives.”

Some online chat applications have been banned. In June, the telecoms authority blocked Viber, a free mobile phone application, and threatened others that failed to comply with regulations. State media is also censored, though even here discussion is becoming more open.

“There is little doubt that the political culture is changing, slowly but surely,” said Mr Nazer. “The virtual public space allows Saudis of all ages to discuss in public what used to be discussed in private.”

© Bloomberg

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower