When the Arab Spring happened across some of the MENA nations in 2011, all eyes were on Saudi Arabia. With unemployment & poverty on the rise and a visibly disgruntled public and living within the confines of restrictive Sharia laws, it was easy to see how some might have thought that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was a ticking time bomb waiting to happen. Perhaps surprisingly, no such uprising took place. The petroleum-rich nation countered the pent-up social unrest by spending billions of dollars on social welfare and nationalization programmes to placate citizens and preempt any thoughts of revolution. It silenced the public for a while, but behind closed doors and in secret rooms, and publicised by anonymous accounts at the click of a mouse, a different kind of revolution was taking place – on social networking sites.
It is reported that Saudi Arabia has more than 3 million active twitter users and is ranked as the fastest growing Twitter nation in the world with 50 million tweets per month. And with 6 million Facebook users and 90 million YouTube views, social media has become an integral part of Saudi social life.
Twitter, in particular, has become extremely popular among the Saudis who see it as a tool to voice their opinion in a country where there is very little freedom of speech or public discourse on the political or social state of affairs. From criticism of government policies and the royal family, government corruption and social neglect; to women’s rights and right to franchise, have become some of the hottest topics on Twitter.
Political analysts are however surprised at the Saudi government’s tolerance, considering repeated calls by the Grand Mufti and the security spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry to curb social networking sites, as they claim that vested interests are using social media to garner social unrest. This procrastination by the Government is seen by some as the Saudi Government’s clever modus operandi to allow people to vent their anger and frustration on the networking media than on the streets.
Saudi Arabia’s active social networking community has also impacted the the e-commerce sector in the country,in a major way. The Kingdom has the largest retail sector in the Middle East worth $66.7 billion, making it the second largest e-commerce market in the Middle East next to the UAE. The high buying power of the public, is the reason for the country’s strength in retail sector — the majority of whom are of the youthful demographic and living in the oil wealthy nation. The social lifestyle centres around the high consumption of luxury goods and other goods and services. Now add to this, 49% Internet penetration, active social media networking, and a booming information and communication technology sector and it is easy to understand how Saudi Arabia has become the hotbed for e-commerce in the region.
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In a country where there is little social life or public entertainment, the Internet and Social Media have come as a blessing to fill a void in the lack of public dialogue and discourse. Political critiques have found their voice, and so have closet artists & musicians, who now have an outlet and audience for their creative talent.
A particular legendary Twitterer, Mujtahidd’ hailed as the “Julian Assange” of Saudi Arabia has become a revolutionary in his own right; and is giving the Royal family much to worry about. He is the Twitterverse sensationalist whistle blower, accusing the Government and the Royal family of mass corruption and total disregard for their social responsibilities. And even though the government has gone to great pains to unravel his identity, they have failed so far. He has expressed to the media that his sole intention is to reveal corrupt officials in the government, remove them and cleanse the system. Mujtahidd’s identity is a closely guarded secret and no one has a clue how he receives the detailed inside information. He has 991,000 followers on Twitter and counting.
The liberalism on social networking sites have also encouraged mainstream media to give serious thought to public discourse and political critique. From the man on the streets,to judges, lawyers, clerics and the Royals, the Twittersphere is alive and tweeting in KSA. The government too, has joined the bandwagon with key officials and members of the Royal family being active social networkers, to highlight their policies and sometimes to counteract policy-related critique by the twitter masses. What remains to be seen is if all of this will translate to affirmative action by the government, to give the Saudi public what they truly deserve – freedom of thought and expression, and the right to exist — not just on social media, but in the real world too.