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
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

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager -Healthcare Software-£70,000 OTE

£40000 - £60000 per annum + £60,000 OTE+Car+Mobile: h2 Recruit Ltd: Business D...

Cancer Research UK: Volunteer Area Manager Mentor/Coach

Voluntary : Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for volunteers who will use thei...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: National Commercial Manager - Buyer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This waste services provider is...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game