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memri
December 2, 2012 No.
903

Saudi Regime Fears Social Networks As Means Of Triggering Popular Protests

By: Y. Admon*

Introduction

The use of social networking sites has become very common in the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Studies conducted in this country have revealed that 38% of the population use social networks, more than in any other Arab country, and that Saudis lead the list of the 100 most influential Arabs on Twitter.[1] Saudi Twitter users include members of the royal family, such as Emir Walid bin Tallal; journalists and intellectuals such as Turki Al-Dakhil and Jamal Al-Khashoggi; and oppositionists such as Sheikhs Salman Al-'Odeh and Muhammad Al-'Arifi.

An example of the widespread use of Twitter in Saudi Arabia was apparent following a recent food crisis in the country and a drastic rise in the price of chicken. In response to the crisis, Saudi citizens organized a "Chicken Campaign" protest on Twitter which was so successful that the regime, sensing a possible threat, quickly curbed the price increase. The students who protested in the kingdom in March 2012 also made use of the social networks, mainly Facebook, to promote their cause.[2] In addition, the Saudi media has recently been warning that the Muslim Brotherhood is using Twitter to incite against the regime. In light of this growing use of social networks, the regime increasingly fears that they could spark social or political unrest, and is consequently monitoring the material posted on them by Saudi citizens.

The threat posed to the Al-Sa'ud regime by the social networks joins other threats it is facing, including power struggles within the royal family; the Arab Spring uprisings; the Iranian threat, one of whose expressions is repeated protests by the Shi'ite minority in the eastern part of the kingdom; and mounting criticism of the regime's policy – both by citizens and by Saudi princes – regarding institutional corruption, high unemployment and poverty rates, the lack of freedom of expression and of government transparency; the oppression of the Saudi woman; and more.

Against this backdrop, a public debate has emerged in the country regarding the social networks, with some focusing on the dangers they pose and others stressing their benefits.

This document will review the recent use of Twitter in Saudi Arabia for purposes of social and political activism, the regime's fear of this activity on the social networks, and the public debate regarding the matter.

Twitter Campaign To Lower The Price Of Chicken – A Successful Social Protest

After the price of chicken increased by up to 40% within two weeks, Saudi citizens launched a Twitter campaign in late September called "Let Them Rot," which urged consumers to leave the meat in the shops.[3] Concurrently, the Saudi press criticized the incompetence of the Saudi government in dealing with the price hike.[4]


"Let Them Rot" – A popular Saudi campaign against price increases[5]

In response to the Twitter campaign, which received widespread public support, and fearing the outbreak of an economic protest, the Saudi government curbed the price increase and launched a program to subsidize staple commodities for each household according to its needs.[6] Additionally, the Saudi Ministry of Commerce and Industry decided to suspend the export of chicken until local prices stabilized, and promised to monitor prices on a daily basis and publish the data on its website with full transparency.[7] Saudi Agriculture Minister Dr. Fahd Balghunaim said that the rising food prices could pose political, security, and social risks, and that the Saudi government was aware of these risks.[8] This campaign demonstrates the effectiveness of Twitter as a tool for sparking protest, and the minister's statement shows that the Saudi regime is aware of this fact.

Twitter – A New Platform For Criticizing The Regime

Since the Saudi media is subject to oversight and censorship, many now turn to social networks instead to express themselves. A November 6 article on the Al-Arabiya website claimed that the social networks have begun replacing the traditional media in Saudi Arabia, because they offer users unlimited freedom of speech, access to constantly updated information, and a platform for debating the burning issues that concern Saudi society.[9] Recent articles in the Saudi media likewise commented on the rapidity with which news spreads via Twitter, citing as an example the case of the November 1 fuel truck explosion in Riyadh, and criticizing Saudi state television channels for their inadequate coverage of the incident.[10]

In an article titled "Who Can Shut Mouths In The Kingdom Of Silence?!" in the Saudi oppositionist monthly Al-Hejaz, which is published in London, columnist Farid Ayham described how people use Twitter to express protest or publish articles that the mainstream Saudi media would censor, mentioning as an example the journalist Reham Al-'Olait. He wrote: "On September 6, 2012, the columnist Reham Al-'Olait published an article in the daily Al-Sharq titled 'My Crime Is Legitimate,'[11] [as a result of which the Saudi authorities] banned her from writing and suspended her column. [In addition,] the deputy editor of the daily was fired and the article was removed from the daily's archives. Following this affair, writers, activists and ordinary citizens logged onto Twitter to voice their opinion about it. Most of the criticism was directed at the government, represented by Information Minister 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Khuja, [but] the latter stated on his own Twitter account that he had had nothing to do with it, and blamed the paper's managers. [In actuality], the decision came from the Interior Ministry, as usual, [for it is they who] fire writers, replace newspaper editors, and arrest journalists for interrogation..."[12]


Reham Al-'Olait's article on Twitter
[13]

Fear In Saudi Arabia: Muslim Brotherhood Uses Social Networks To Spread Political Ferment

The Saudi regime also fears that the social networks will be used for political mobilization, especially by activists identified as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement.[14] Professor Madawi Al-Rashid, a Saudi researcher at Kings College, London who often criticizes the Saudi regime, argued that following the Arab Spring revolutions, the MB and Salafi streams have become a substantial threat to the Saudi regime, since they have begun to talk of democracy and pluralism and to threaten the regime's monopoly on the Islamic dialogue, which it has maintained for over 80 years.[15]

The use of social networks has in fact become common among many clerics. According to Saudi columnist 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Habib, clerics have the highest rate of social network usage in the country.[16] Recently, they have even begun releasing their sermons on social networks, considering them an effective means of distribution.[17] Among those engaging in this activity are clerics who are not part of the religious establishment, such as Salman Al-'Odeh, 'Aidh Al-Qarni, and Muhammad Al-'Arifi. These sheikhs, who speak out on various political issues, are often "tagged" as MB supporters, and their online activity causes concern to the authorities.

Sheikh Salman Al-'Odeh is particularly active on social networks, and often uses his Twitter and Facebook accounts as a platform for his political opinions, which are not in line with those of the Saudi establishment. Thus, for example, Al-'Odeh has expressed support for the revolutions in the Arab world, such as those in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. He has also called for reforms in Saudi Arabia, e.g., for holding direct elections to the Shura Council, separating the royal family from the executive branch, and expanding freedom of expression.[18] Furthermore, Al-'Odeh is frequently interviewed on the Qatari Al-Jazeera channel, which provides a platform for MB supporters and has encouraged the Arab Spring revolutions. The Saudi authorities recently barred Al-'Odeh from leaving the country to chair a symposium in Kuwait titled "Civil Society – A Means and an End" (which was eventually cancelled by the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry).[19] It should be noted that Al-'Odeh recently published an official response on his website (islatoday.net), stressing that he is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, even though, in his youth, he read many books by this movement.[20]

In an interview with UFM radio, he said that blocking media is a thing of the past and is no longer feasible, because today people have gadgets that connect them to the entire world, not only to limited circles. He also pointed out that those who call to block these media use them themselves, which shows that they realize their effectiveness. The best way to get people to use these media responsibly, he added, is by allowing them to use them, not by blocking them. He also rejected the claim that the Arab Spring revolutions were "Twitter and Facebook revolutions," saying that the only role of these media in the revolutions was to expose the reality in the Arab countries.[21]


One of Al-'Odeh's Twitter posts: "No one plans a revolution, it erupts in a single moment when the roads to reform are blocked, the wheels of justice grind to a halt, and oppression prevails."[22]


Al-'Odeh supports the Egyptian protests on his Twitter account.
[23]

Articles In Saudi Press: MB's Use Of Twitter – A Threat To Saudi National Security

The Saudi press has recently featured articles warning against the MB's use of the social networks. The articles claim that the MB is gaining ground in Saudi Arabia, and that this is evident on social networks, chiefly Twitter. They also accuse the MB of using this medium to incite against the state and its officials.[24]

In an article in the Saudi daily Al-Sharq, columnist Sa'ud bin Muhammad Al-Thunayan wrote that "the MB in Saudi Arabia" uses Twitter to incite and spark schism in order to undermine the security and stability of the kingdom: "Social networking sites, chiefly Twitter, have breached the censorship barriers... [imposed by] the media and press authorities, and Twitter users write about all aspects of the [government] ministries' [activities] and criticize their officials... Twitter affords a vast arena of freedom that [can] be used legitimately for certain social and humanitarian purposes, [such as] addressing problems and correcting mistakes... However, the crimes [committed on] Twitter have recently transcended all boundaries, and the incitement against the state and its officials has become one of the hallmarks of this site.

"Twitter is a phenomenon that must be addressed, studied and curbed, because what goes on there [now]... is an organized plot aimed at undermining the security and stability [of the country]. [This plot] is spearheaded by the MB in Saudi Arabia, which makes intensive use of its preachers to [spread] incitement disguised as religion, preaching and reform... Those who lie in wait for us have grown in number, [both] inside and outside [the country], and Twitter is one of the most successful [tools] used by those who aim to incite the rabble against the state and to invent problems, conflicts and false stories. The greediest of all are the MB in Saudi Arabia."[25]

In another article in Al-Sharq, columnist Jasser Al-Jasser wrote: "A euphoric voice [of victory] can be heard in Saudi Arabia, one that is not innocent of childish wantonness, and which emerged after the MB rose to power on the backs of the Arab [Spring] revolutions. Motivated by a deep yearning, both public and hidden, to spread [their influence] and take over the [Islamic] ummah, the Saudi MB members have removed their mask of peacefulness... and have begun to display their joy outwardly, telling each other that the day is near when they will ascend to the throne, just like their brothers before them [in Egypt, for example].

"This matter was revealed on Twitter, which has become the MB's largest tent, their place of gathering, their means of communication, and their propaganda center, where... they have begun to expose their [intensions], to break their sacred silence... to publicly declare their identity, and to stress their source of authority. This is a rash move, since the MB has not yet spread to the Gulf because of obstacles on their road [there]. This embarrassed them greatly, and undermined their dreams. Some of them chose to remain silent, while others found various excuses [for their behavior,] as usual. Despite this, the voice of their youth has not yet died down, and their enthusiasm persists... And when their energy erupts, it is hard to block.

"The problem today is that their map has been revealed, their websites are known, the doubtful has become fact, and the [state of] ceasefire and deception have given way to the beginnings of a conflict. How will the Saudi MB deal with this outrageous [state of affairs]l? How will they explain their rash behavior, especially since some of their officials have chosen escalation and conflict?..."[26]

The Regime Struggles Against Impact Of Modern Media

Though users of the social networks and modern media in Saudi Arabia include regime officials and members of the religious establishment, the authorities obviously fear the potential of the social networks to trigger domestic unrest. Prince Sultan bin Salman, son of the Saudi crown prince and head of the Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, refused to call Facebook and Twitter "social networks" and said that they were subject to political influence and were misused to "invade" the kingdom and Saudi society. According to the prince, these sites exploit the youth's lack of knowledge about their country's affairs in order to distort Saudi Arabia's image.[27]

Saudi Mufti and Senior Clerics Council head Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh also spoke of the "misuse" of social networks and other modern communication technologies. In a meeting with mosque preachers in Riyadh, the Mufti said that cellphones, Facebook and Twitter are tools that can be used for both good and evil, but are mostly used for evil. According to him, modern technology has become a means to spark anarchy, protests and rebellion against rulers, and is used to incite and corrupt.[28] The Mufti added that Twitter was full of curses, lies and rumors.[29]

Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Saleh bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh said that the social networks have some influence, but that this influence is more limited than it seems, because any individual can create the false appearance of having millions of followers within a few days. He added that the social networks are preoccupied with fads that are the result of licentious tendencies.[30]

On November 5, 2012, Saudi King 'Abdallah appointed Prince Muhammad bin Naif, who belongs to the younger generation in the royal family, as interior minister instead of Prince Ahmad bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz. Some believe that this reflects a decision by the king to gradually transfer the reins of power to younger hands capable of handling the threats posed by the Arab Spring revolutions, and especially by modern media like the social networks, which are effective tools for social mobilization.[31]

It should be mentioned that on March 27, 2007, the Saudi government passed the "Law to Combat Information Crimes," which punishes "libeling others... by various means of information technology" with sentences of up to one year in prison and up to 500,000 Saudi Riyals in fine. The law also sets a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of up to 5 million riyal for anyone who establishes a website for a terrorist organization.[32]

Referring to MB activity on Twitter in his Al-Sharq article, Sa'ud bin Muhammad Al-Thanayan wrote: "Applying the law to those who incite, spark fitna, and invent stories would be a strong deterrent that would extinguish the fires of fitna, which are started by means of organized and tested plans and effective coordination between groups with... identical goals."[33] However, it seems that the law is difficult to apply to controversial statements on the social networks.


"Electronic Warfare"[34]

Saudi Columnists: Twitter Has Many Advantages

Conversely, there were some who supported the use of social networks by both citizens and officials, and criticized the authorities' hostility towards them. Columnist Jasser Al-Jasser, despite his criticism of the MB's use of this medium, wondered why Saudi officials feared or denied Twitter using it, and claimed that it could help them improve their relations with the citizenry: "...The [officials'] hostility towards Twitter is not a healthy phenomenon. In fact, it reflects concealment, secrecy and lack of attention to the public, which prevents [them] from fulfilling their duty and from [addressing] the many problems facing [Saudi Arabia]. Officials should hurry up and open Twitter accounts, even if they do not personally operate them, in order to show their concern for those whom they serve and benefit from the advantage of having immediate [access to] information on [various] problems... and complaints. This way they will not fall prey to public relations representatives and official spokespeople... Using Twitter is a sign of openness, a tool of liberation, evidence of contact with the public, and a means [to receive] free information...

"Why then do officials avoid Twitter like the plague? Why do they leave the door open to various invaders who use the [officials'] names and websites to harm [them] and falsify [their statements], while their only role is to issue repeated denials?... Why is it so difficult [for them to maintain] continuous contact with the public and grow close to it? Twitter has been adopted [as a tool] by world leaders; it is the embodiment of the open door policy and is worthy of consideration, even if there is fear of [libelous] statements – since not using [Twitter] will not make it go away, but will only give [these libelous statements] more power and presence."[35]

Columnist Muhammad Al-'Asimi wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Yawm: "I want to take the Mufti's hand and log on to Twitter with him, and show him the incredible media power of this new platform... The Mufti – whether we always agree with him or not – is cautious in his statements and thinks long and hard before he speaks. Therefore, his presence on Twitter will have a major impact in countering those who are swept away by capriciousness and bragging... Furthermore, he can use his loyal aides to keep him directly informed of the public's tweets... If the Mufti sits down with us [in] Twitter, he will hear some of our reservations... and often find that justice is on our side. This is a reason for him to join a group of internet users from all streams and sects, who believe in proper language that would stop or curb the verbal and moral violence... If we welcome the Mufti to Twitter, we will [also] welcome all the exalted clerics... since Twitter should not be left to capricious [people] who openly fight for media attention and incite people against one another in order to win hollow popular support."[36]

In his article in the Al-Hejaz monthly, columnist Farid Ayham claimed that despite its efforts, the Saudi regime will be unable to suppress domestic opposition forever: "The policy of suppressing thought and opinion still exists in 'The Kingdom of Freedom'! Saudi Arabia leads the list of countries that censor social or political opinion and oppose even minimal criticism. This has caused the social networks to become active and influential... Those who cannot publish articles in the newspaper publish them on Twitter and Facebook. [Footage of] protests or strikes can be seen on YouTube shortly after [they occur], or even live, like the protest in Al-Qatif on September 7, 2012, in which thousands of [Shi'ite] citizens condemned the Al-Sa'ud regime and its policy...

"This is a new world, a new audience and new [way of] thinking that cannot be suppressed by any governmental means, despite the arrest of several Twitter users... Pressure on the regime is on the rise and is expected to increase even further. The [social] networks have become a means of expression, and of exposing embarrassing secrets about the regime and its policy. They are a tool for crystallizing public opinion against [the regime], by [making] clear statements and naming names, with photos, clips and documents..."[37]

* Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Moheet.com, October 2, 2012.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 819, First Signs of Protest by Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, April 4, 2012.

[3] Twitter.com//7amlatNo

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 9, 2012.

[6] Alarabiya.net, October 15, 2012.

[7] Al-Wasat (Kuwait), October 5, 2012.

[8] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), October 6, 2012.

[9] Alarabiya.net, November 6, 2012.

[10]Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 5, 2012; Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 7, 2012. On November 1, 2012, at least 23 people were killed when a gas tanker crashed into an overpass in Riyadh, triggering an explosion that brought down an industrial building and set fire to nearby vehicles. Various internet forums claimed that the vehicle was a truck bomb meant to explode in front of the Saudi National Guard headquarters, and that the Saudi authorities had found two more vehicles loaded with explosives at other locations. The Saudi authorities, on the other hand, claimed the explosion was the result of an accident. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 1, 2012; Reuters, November 1, 2012.

[11] This was a sarcastic column on the lack of freedom in Saudi Arabia, in which Al-'Olait wrote that "a dignified life in [the kingdom] is a lie that has lasted for 81 years" (i.e., since the establishment of the Saudi state). Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), September 6, 2012.

[12] One Twitter user wrote in response to the affair: "We can change the situation. We can pull the seats out from under [the Saudi officials]. We deserve freedom and dignified lives!" Al-Hejaz (London), October 10, 2012. Another said: "[This is] one of the best articles I've ever read" http://mobile.twitter.com/abo_torkei/status/243849290471063552.

[14] There is no organization or movement in Saudi Arabia that is officially affiliated with the MB, yet Islamist oppositionists in the country are often referred to as MB supporters, especially by regime officials and loyalists.

[15] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 17, 2012.

[16] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), September 24, 2012.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 9, 2012.

[18] Dawlaty.com, February 5, 2011.

[19] Akhbaar24.argaam.com, March 22, 2012.

[20] Islatoday.net, November 11, 2012.

[21] Islatoday.net, November 12, 2012.

[24] Furthermore, a report recently claimed that the MB was planning the first convention of the movement's leaders from Syria, Kuwait, and other countries, to be held in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj. According to the report, the gathering was to be held behind closed doors at the home of the movement's new General Supervisor in Saudi Arabia, whose name was not given, and its goals were to coordinate positions; spread Hassan Al-Banna's da'wa throughout the world; and discuss matters pertaining to each participating country, as well as the state of the Arab Spring revolutions, aid to the Syrian people, and support of the Palestinian people. 'Anaween (Saudi Arabia), October 23, 2012. It should be mentioned that, according to a report on Middle East Online, the convention was indeed held in Mecca, but, due to the illness of Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, did not address all the issues on the agenda. Middle-east-online.com, November 3, 2012.

[25] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), October 6, 2012.

[26] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), October 2, 2012.

[27] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 18, 2012.

[28] Alwatanvoice.com, October 5, 2012.

[29] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 2, 2012.

[30] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 15, 2012.

[31] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 5, 2012.

[33] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), October 6, 2012.

[34] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 14, 2012

[35] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia) October 16, 2012.

[36] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), October 6, 2012.

[37] Al-Hejaz (London), October 10, 2012.