When it comes to the use of social media in the Gulf region, the proper word to describe it is contradictory. While rulers in the Gulf are embracing online networks to promote their own achievements, ordinary citizens are being jailed, deported and harassed when asking for change.
The conservative countries of the Arabian Peninsula have so far been immune to the political and social changes that took place in other Arab countries – some of these so-called revolutions were directly supported and funded by the Gulf regimes.
While some wealthy Gulf countries tried to wither the winds of change by throwing money at the problem – in Saudi Arabia and Qatar – which increased the salaries of all state employees by 60% and for defence employees by 120% in September 2011 – money, it seems, is losing its appeal amongst many local citizens who are asking for more.
Some are calling for jobs, others advocate reforms, democracy and free speech. Those people, however, are not marching their way onto the streets, (except in Bahrain, and some in Oman and Saudi Arabia) but they are expressing their disapproval on social media sites. In paranoid Gulf States, however, a 140-letter tweet can be seen to pose a threat.
In 2011, the Kingdom received a big blow after the disclosure of wide-scale corruption among the Saudi princes, news of which was published by the unknown Saudi whistle-blower @Mujtahidd, who is suspected to be a Saudi prince himself. Up to this point in time, 250,000 Saudis have voiced their support for the Saudi national.
Following the Arab Spring revolutions, the Gulf governments have been cracking down on social media activists. Qatar has recently sentenced a poet to life in prison for writing verse (rumoured to be ‘We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite’) that the country’s ruler found insulting.
According to Human Rights groups, the case of the Qatari poet, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al Ajami, whose term was recently reduced to 15 years, shows “hypocrisy” of the rich Gulf state, which has supported Arab uprisings in Libya and Syria.
“It is deplorable that Qatar, which likes to paint itself internationally as a country that promotes freedom of expression, is indulging in what appears to be such a flagrant abuse of that right,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East director, when al Ajami was given life sentence.
While you might end you up at a Qatari jail for reciting a poem, signing a petition in the UAE can actually strip you from your citizenship. In 2012, in the first such banishment by the country, the UAE deported the online activist Ahmed Abdul Khaleq to Thailand after stripping him of his right to reside in the Emirates.
Abdul Khaleq was part of the UAE 5 group who signed a petition calling for democratic reforms in the UAE. After spending eight months in jail, the five activists were later released as per a royal pardon. Abdul Khaleq was stripped from his UAE citizenship and subsequently deported to Thailand on a Comoros Island passport, according to the Emirates Centre for Human Rights.
But while the Gulf authorities are cracking down on social media activists and tightening control on social media sites with plans to expand anti-blasphemy laws – which can be punishable by death – to include social media content, top personalities in those same countries are using social networks to promote their own ideas and sometimes attack those of others.
A study by the public relations consultancy Burson-Marsteller in April 2012, revealed that out of 264 heads of state and institutions in 125 countries that have a twitter account, 21 were from the Middle East and North Africa.
Recently, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai turned his attention to Twitter. His page, set up with the intention of promoting national achievements and development initiatives, has attracted over one million followers. Equally, the Dubai Police Chief Khalfan used his Twitter account to warn against a ‘plot to overthrow the governments of Gulf Arab countries’ claiming that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are using social media to destabilise the Gulf States.
Moreover, the UAE has recently amended its existing Internet crime law in which citizens, who create, run a website or use the Internet to deride or damage the state or its institutions could now face up to three years in prison. Foreign nationals will be deported.
The picture is no different in Saudi Arabia, which has published new regulations for the electronic media, prohibiting criticism of Islam or anything that “compromises public order”. Meanwhile, Saudi officials are increasingly using Twitter to engage with the public.
In December 2011, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who tops the 2012 Arab Rich List with $25.9 billion, bought a “strategic stake” in Twitter for $300 million. Moreover, many new Saudi religious clerics are using Twitter, including Mohammad al Arefe, a conservative Islamic scholar who has 1.8 million followers.
While rulers in the Gulf region seem determined to do everything they can to control the flow of information on social media and staunch comments and criticism, few think that their preventative methods – Internet restrictions, new laws and online monitoring systems – will actually work this time around. After all, these governments “can’t jail everyone who says something they don’t like to hear,” as one young Saudi blogger puts it.
“Rulers in the Gulf region are trying to hijack social media sites, and they want to use them as tools to promote their own ideas or agendas. At the time, they spare no effort to arrest anyone who disapproves with their own interpretation of public good, or safety,” a Dubai-based journalist, who prefers to remain anonymous says.
She cites the attack made by an anonymous person on the UAE government computer system, a move to highlight censorship and the crackdown of online activities in the country, as an example of how things can go wrong when governments fail to address the current changes wisely.
“This incident shows that controlling social media doesn’t make people move away, but on the contrary, it calls for more people to tweet about it,” the journalist adds. “If tweeting is a crime, we’re all criminals.”
Jadal Karim, which is a pseudonym, is a Middle Eastern journalist who grew up in Palestine and continued her studies in the UK. She currently lives and works in Dubai. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.