The Internet is revolutionising the way the Saudi society interacts and distributes news. A county with a young and dynamic population of which 70% are below the age of 30, coupled with steep Internet penetration of 40%, this shows that the young people want their voices to be heard.
A YouTube video which shows an important Saudi official riding in a chauffeured Rolls Royce unspools a wire fence across previously unclaimed land, has attracted 2.2 million viewers. According to Sarah Pintanachi, a secondary school teacher in Saudi Arabia, the aspect of the video which made people sit up and take note is the official saying: “It’s mine now”. “This highlights the height of corruption in the state, which used to be swept under the carpet not long ago,” she added.
One film mocking the Commerce Ministry for perceived double standards in enforcing business regulations attracted more than 915,000 hits on YouTube. Small traders must stick to the letter of the law, it suggested, but powerful businessmen can get away with selling public the most basic of necessities – air.
Bloggers and contributors on online forums now openly discuss social ills, government inefficiency and corruption and post videos on YouTube with a predominantly satirical twist.
“(Our) team is very careful not to cross the red lines and instead reflects all the issues that have caused controversy or debate that have been discussed in the media,” said Lama Sabri, a writer for “Aaltayer”, which translates roughly as “On The Fly”, one of the popular YouTube shows.
“The programme also uses comedy to make fun of the existence of these red lines,” she added.
All is not fun and games. More than 52,000 people have viewed a film commemorating victims of Jeddah’s deadly 2011 floods by showing notional “corpses” wrapped in blue sheets in the worst-hit areas. Many Jeddah residents blamed the disaster on the government’s failure to erect proper flood defences.
“The video showcasing the 2011 Jeddah flood victims, opened the eyes of many people,” Sarah said. “Children who had seen the video were feeling sad and angry with the government. They are too young to understand the consequence of a natural disaster, but they felt that the King should have done something to keep his people safe.”
Countless Saudis have seen the mobile phone footage of the morality police accosting a family out shopping, which went viral this year with 180,000 hits. King Abdullah later sacked the head of the religious organisation dedicated to enforcing its version of Islamic behavior.
The youth may be using YouTube to address issues through movies, however, Twitter is used not only as a discussion platform but also a place where ‘the rich and corrupt’ are exposed.
“The young people are turning to social media to voice their concerns,” Sarah Pintanachi, a teacher in secondary school in Saudi Arabia, told Arabian Gazette. “Rather than updating their status like some teenagers around the world do, the Saudi youth are using this tool to highlight the problems faced by their society,” she added.
“The Internet has always provided Saudis a space to express themselves freely in unprecedented ways, and this (Twitter) is just the latest platform,” said Ahmed al-Omran, a well-known Saudi blogger. “People are becoming more vocal and critical on Twitter.”
On Twitter, an anonymous writer using the pseudonym “Mujtahidd” has amassed a huge following with a series of detailed posts about the alleged misdeeds of members of the extensive royal family.
The writer accused one senior royal of bullying a judge into helping him perpetrate property fraud by forging documents, and denounced another for stock market manipulation.”I believe that exposing corruption on its real scale is a very effective way of convincing people to move against it,” Mujtahidd said in an email to Reuters.
“I enjoy reading Mujtahidd’s tweets, but it’s dangerous because he’s attacking these very prominent people without any sort of evidence and hurting public confidence in the state,” said one prominent Saudi.
The tweets have gained such notoriety that the Grand Mufti, without referring to Mujtahidd directly, launched his own attack on Twitter last month, saying the social network “promotes lies” and includes “attacks against religious and society figures”.
Though young Saudis are thrilled that taboo subjects are now getting discussed more openly, the government is not happy. A law introduced last year made blogs and other social media subject to some of the same restrictions as conventional media.
Many countries across the world have decided to pass legislation to monitor the content which is posted online. The UK is the latest country to announce its new upcoming legislation last week, to monitor the content posted on social media.
Some Saudis believe the greater public scrutiny that social media allows is making a mark on the kingdom’s ruling elite as more senior officials and royal family members are taking a note and joining online discussions.
Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, the half-brother of King Abdullah, and Information Minister Abdulaziz Khoja are among the most senior Saudi personalities to join Twitter.
“Definitely, the government is paying attention and monitoring… The number of subscribers on Twitter in Saudi is among the highest in the region so it is being looked at with some seriousness,” said Hussein Shobokshi, a Saudi analyst.
“It will be one of the things that we will see growing to have more and more influence,” he added.