Social media brings change in Gulf despite efforts at control

A Saudi internet surfer checking her twitter account at a coffee shop in Riyadh, February 2012 Efforts to legislate online debate are having mixed results in the Gulf

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A recent decision by the United Arab Emirates to tighten restrictions on internet use has highlighted attempts by the authorities in Gulf states to staunch the flood of comment and criticism appearing on social media websites.

The amendments to the UAE's existing law on internet crime were announced last month in a decree by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nuhayyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

It says citizens who create or run a website or use the internet to deride or damage the state or its institutions face up to three years in prison. Foreign nationals will be deported.

The institutions include the president, vice-president, any of the rulers of the federation's seven emirates, their crown princes and deputy rulers, as well as the national flag, national anthem, or any symbols of the state.

The law also prohibits "information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures" that authorities believe could threaten security or "public order".

Sheikh Khalifa issued the decree just hours after the UAE was elected to a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council, after standing unopposed for one of the five vacant seats reserved for Asian states.

Although some provisions of the legislation were aimed at preventing the proliferation of racist or sectarian views online, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said its principal effect was to place severe restrictions on the rights to free expression and free association and assembly.

Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East director, says it has already had an impact on social media usage.

"It has had a chilling effect," he told the BBC, adding that prominent UAE activists had "stopped tweeting".

"Who decides what constitutes an insult, who determines where the red line is?" he asked. "It shows the utter intolerance of any kind of public criticism of the government"

'Indiscriminate thieves'

Elsewhere in the Gulf, a lawyer for the prominent Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami - also known as Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb - said his client was sentenced last week to life in prison.

He was convicted by a security court of insulting the country's "symbols" and encouraging the overthrow of its ruling system.

A Bahraini anti-government protester chants slogans as she holds up a pictures of jailed human right activist Nabeel Rajab, 3 December 2012 Friends are operating Nabeel Rajab's account as he serves a sentence in Bahrain

The case against him is said to be based on a 2010 poem critical of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, but activists believe the Qatari authorities were angered by a 2011 poem in which he denounced "all Arab governments" as "indiscriminate thieves".

Mr Ajami has been in solitary confinement since his arrest in November 2011.

And in Oman, a number of online activists were sentenced in July to jail terms from one year to 18 months for "defaming" Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed.

The previous month, the Omani authorities threatened a crackdown, with Muscat's public prosecutor threatening all appropriate legal measures against those who made "inciting calls".

Many have criticised the Omani government's failure to carry out reforms promised in 2011 following demonstrations.

Another Gulf activist, Nabeel Rajab, is currently serving a three-year prison term in Bahrain.

His Twitter account, which has over 100,000 followers, says: "Because of tweets, I have been in jail since 9 July, sentenced to three years in prison. My friends are operating my account on my behalf."

The Bahrain government, however, says the sentence was for inciting illegal acts by encouraging people to protest and attend banned rallies.

In Bahrain all public gatherings and rallies have been banned, although the government insists the measure is only temporary.

Twitter takes off

The picture, though, is not all bleak.

The Saudi blogger, Ahmed al-Omran, says that when he set up his Twitter account in 2006 virtually no-one in his country was using the micro-blogging service.

"Now it has exploded," he told the BBC from Jeddah. "Saudi Arabia has the fastest growing population of Twitter users in the world. In one month last year it increased by 3000%."

"It is redefining how boys and girls get to know each other. "

Saudi Arabian blogger Ahmed Al Omrane (right) speaks during the third Arab Bloggers Meeting on 3 October 2011, in Tunis. Ahmed al-Omran says Twitter is enabling big social changes in Saudi Arabia

That constitutes a huge shift in social dynamics and relationships in a still deeply conservative country.

So can social media change a region where royal families have ruled with an autocratic hand for decades?

As in the West, much of the Gulf's social media is consumed with celebrity watching, sports and day-to-day chatter.

But because the Gulf has such a large youth population, one that is educated and very new-media savvy, some of the conversation bouncing around in cyberspace is, unsurprisingly, about the need for change, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring.

And that can be dangerous. Governments in the Gulf have little tolerance for calls for deep reforms and even less when individual members of the ruling families come under fire.

They have sophisticated monitoring systems to accompany far-reaching laws and tend to come down hard when they believe a red line has been crossed.

Red line 'receding'

But even though monitoring is extensive, the sheer volume of online comment and conversation makes policing internet use in the Gulf a huge and, some would say, impossible challenge to meet.

Start Quote

Twitter is becoming the newspaper that we never had”

End Quote Jamal Khashoggi Al Arab News, Saudi Arabia

Steve Royston, a businessman based in Bahrain who blogs regularly on Gulf matters, believes that, though caution remains the byword, social media is a force for change.

He says: "The red line is still there but it is receding."

Writing in his blog, Mr Royston applauded a recent podcast conversation in English now gaining a measure of internet fame. It is called "That Jeddah Podcast".

"The broadcasters are bright, articulate and insightful - serious yet full of life and humour. Any young Westerner listening to their conversation is likely to think: 'Wow - these people are just like me!' And guess what - in all that is important they are."

Of course, just the idea that three people - a man and two women - unrelated could have a public conversation about freedom of expression, attitudes towards women, sexuality and other taboos in the rigid social climate of Saudi Arabia would be otherwise unthinkable.

As Mr Royston notes: "The taboo about mixing of the sexes does not apply online."

And as the online world breaks down walls and steps into previously forbidden territory the old, official world seems baffled about how to deal with it.

'Unstoppable tide'

Legislation, sophisticated snooping, arrests and even jail will have their effect on high-profile activists like Nabeel Rajab and others.

But they are a distinct and vocal online minority. Others who are less vociferous or more nuanced continue to push the envelope. There is, as one blogger told the BBC, "a subtle dancing around certain issues".

After all, says a young Saudi blogger, "the government can't jail everyone who says something they don't like to hear".

That is a point not lost on older commentators like Jamal Khashoggi, the editor-in-chief of the new Al Arab News Channel in Saudi Arabia.

"Twitter is becoming the newspaper that we never had. It is having an effect, and we haven't seen all of it yet," he told a Washington conference on US-Arab affairs in October.

"What could Twitter, what could Facebook do to affect change and reform in Saudi Arabia? God only knows. But it has begun to happen."

Indeed, says the young Saudi blogger: "This is a tide, not just here but throughout the whole world. Saudi Arabia cannot stop it."


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  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Muzzling free speech and internet expression which are moderate in nature show intolerance. What a shame! In this day and age, dialogue, openness are the best ways to move forward. Unfortunately the dictatorial stance is a sad reflection and commentary of the current state of affairs. Transparency will never see the light of day if politicians here adopt this narrow-minded approach. Sad but true!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    No doubt, those that block access to the internet have free access. I say it matters because they will know the eyes of the wolrd are on them, but pre-supposes they are capable of feeling shame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    What does it matter what anyone writes about these countries ? Their own people are not allowed to use the internet freely anyway so they don't get to see them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The gulf states are not the only ones to hasten their own demise by limiting free speech. It would seem there are others that play that game too. History no longer seems to be told by the winners, more over the reality seems to be told by those with the largest audience. It is a fortunate fact that you can only kid some people some of the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The very fact that Emirates' monarchs staunch any online criticism by framing harsh penal laws is at once a reminder of their not relinquishing their positions of power. The Gulf spring is slowly gaining in momentum with modern education and e-gadgets at the disposal of the masses. The self-anointed monarchs cannot stem the tide of democracy in the foreseeable future as man is born free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I'll say this once again...that the world as a whole should be ashamed of allowing Syria to get to this bloody stage of this one sided war for longest time. Why should we all be ashamed? Because we allowed another likewise holocaust to happen, except that the victims were Syrian civilians. There is now a real chance that Assad or his brother will now use sarin gas. For the rebels are closing in!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    No surprise here. Of course these worthless tyrants are going to do all that they can to remain in power which they have been doing for the past few decades with both British and American aid! Look at the King of Bahrain as an example of this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Freedom and democracy has a price tag that seems to be only payable in blood. Sooner or later the blood of the despots as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    They might be able to imprison the human body; but they'll never imprison the human mind!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Events in Egypt prove what similar events prove every time, that the real purpose of religion is power.Power over people, power over money, power over every life, every event, every thought just like any other dictator. Heresy brings with it anything from ostracism to prison, torture, even death depending on the society.Religions hate women because it's afraid of their competing power over men

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Very true - no real rule of law either - Emiraties who break the same laws as expatriates get very light sentences while foreigners get put in prison. Many expats are imprisoned there for debt. Foreign female maids and employees are abused and often not paid for minor misdemeanours. The west is hypocritical over the UAE that is for sure. Time the Gulf States were brought to book.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    No western financed UAE Observatory for Human Rights? Unlike Syria's event of Internet service denial which was major news worldwide, this event only gets a little notice due to the UAE being pro-west.

    Mass media hypocrisy, highlighting Syria's problems with terrorists, while down playing western-friendly tyrannical UAE abuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Why are the old guard so scared? Change is good. Change is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The Internet is fast becoming less and less anonymous, those using it to oppose dangerous regimes are playing a foolish game... wouldn't the SS have loved to have a list of IP addresses related to anti-Nazi propaganda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Interesting how this isn't a major news story.

    Just saying

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Pres Morsi has made a basic mistake, he has initiated a power grab in Egypt that does not uphold what the people want, equality is very important, the old thinking does not include women as equal to men, just like the Emirates do not see women as equal, denial of the equality of men & women speaks volumes to the overall equality of religion or secular differences
    One cannot exist without the other

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    People in the Arab world, Iran, Pakistan, and similar places have a choice. They can have a secular tyrant or a religious tyrant. But it hardly stops there. India, Russia, China all have similar rules even if they are not codified into law.What is the red line you dare not cross?Anything that threatens or embarasses the dictator.Hard to stop it though in the information age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    We have an emerging dictator in Egypt, now we have the Emirates trying to limit peoples freedom to information & freedom of expression.
    Pres Morsi has set the army the task of barricading the presidential palace to protect the government from "The People"
    The mistakes of the past have not been learned by the Emirates or Morsi
    The uprising was to achieve FREEDOM & a democratic society
    & cannot stop

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This is insanity on the part of the authorities, they are playing a grave game with the freedom of any human beings rights to express their opinion on any matter. In their haste to limit what a terrorist can do, they are infringing on the rights of citizens & the "Red Line" is vague & can change at the whim of an authority figure.
    Not a good omen, society is moving away from dictators to freedom


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