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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  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    How utterly funny the criticisms considering that some UK MPs have been arguing for tigther government control of the press in the UK! Awkward or what?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    well several of thgese islamic states should be scared. If the Arab street ever learned the truth:

    they would know that Sharia law is babaric
    That their war against Israel only benefits terrorists
    That women are equal t men
    That Khomehni was one of the great war criminals in history

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I am an Arab who followed BBC for more than 50 years. Me and many others agree that the BBC delivers its service professionally which is not surprising.However, yesterday evening I watched a program on BBC TV conducted by Rasha Kandil and I was shocked by the bias and prejudice she reflected against an EX-Judge she called from Egypt.The line was then interrupted, which made me and others wonder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    This is what personal high tech social media is for! Never mind that the the powers that be do not want to hear the people, the people will speak and the world will hear...

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    It's been happening for a while and all around the world including here. Before long you had better be careful about what order you tap those key in. The internet is quickly becoming rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Nothing wrong with constructive criticism.
    What is wrong is those in charge not wanting to hear it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Have you ever tried to post a comment critical of the islamic hard line on Press TV the Iranian government's English language mouth piece? Honestly log on and try it. It won't work. They censor everything that goes against them. There is no freedom of speach anywhere in the Middle East least of all in countries proclaiming themselves as leaders of the islamic world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    "Who decides what constitutes an insult, who determines where the red line is?" he asked.

    BBC moderators, I replied

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    @35. wibble575
    "If USA funded IRA to attack England"

    They DID!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    To be honest most people's comments seem to support the Syrian government. Since when has it been ok to pay a load of people weapons to destabalise a government? If USA funded IRA to attack England to destabilise the government, would that be ok?

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    @31 Bluesberry

    Your ignorance is most disrespectful to Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26 year old Tunisian who doused himself in petrol in protest against the unfairness of his governments polices.
    His actions and subsequent death were not at the behest of the USA, to suggest such is frankly an insult to his memory.
    The Arab Spring came to Tunisia, Morocco & Egypt, by the people, for the people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    They can't stop the innevitable for long, they will all have to become constitutional monarchies sooner or later or they will be removed by force eventually. With things going the way they are this could come about sooner than anyone expected as well. These moves to restrict freedom like many people on here have already pointed out will only serve to speed up the process of there demise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Personally I have always thought that we should leave other countries to resolve issues with their population to themselves and not "butt in" on things that are not our business. We would be rightly appalled if another country tried to impose their standards or customs on us. Having said that, the report should make us appreciate the freedoms we enjoy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The United States must be so disappointment; the Gulf States must be so disappointed. The Gulf States were never to know their own "Arab Spring". Arab Springs only come to countries wherein the US wants insurrection - like Lybya, Syria and Iraq.
    Now some brave sould needs to ask the US why it is so vested to maintaining the Gulf status quo at the cost of democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    well it be a Barrage of complaints to help them,Weir her to help

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I hope this not the shape of things to come here. People in power seem to be be obsessed with maintaining their power. We all know that ultimate power corrupts - ultimately. And we do business with these people????

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Timely reminder why we dont want legislation in the on-line environment which limits freedon of expression here.

    Governements should however snoop to protect the weak and vulnerable... thats ok but the rules of engagement need to be tightened

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Given the extent to which the UAE has embraced 'westernisation', with migrants significantly outnumbering locals, capitalism being rife, & alcohol being widely available in Hotels, I'm surprised the regime's like this.

    However, I it is another reminder of how good we have it the UK.

    OK, always things to complain about, but we are fairly free to live our lives, and life's essentials all there!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Governments ought to be afraid of the citizens who employ them... but this is not a valid method to address that fear.

    Fortunately the innate structure of the internet treats attempts at technological censorship as flaws that are worked around, however the misuse of law to prosecute people who comment adversely also needs to be challenged whenever it occurs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Technology will out-smart governments no matter how smart they think they are! Listen, if I were the US the next time they send a drone over Iran airspace, parachute a few thousand really smart phones with unlimited internet etc.....Let the folks there see a diffrent version of news..heck this would work all over the world....


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