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

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride