Feature

The Prince of Twitter

The Prince of Twitter

When most people want to become involved in Twitter, they open an account. Leave it to Prince AlWaleed bin Talal, the Saudi media mogul who is King Abdullah’s nephew, to buy a chunk of the microblogging site. The prince’s company announced on Dec. 19 that it was investing $300 million in Twitter, officially bringing the site into the mainstream of the Saudi media scene.

Rightly or wrongly, social media is perceived as a revolutionary tool in Saudi Arabia — one of the many factors that contributed to the Arab Spring. The association was so strong that a few days following the Egyptian uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak, a Saudi official had to deny a rumor that the Saudi king had offered Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg $150 billion to buy his social networking site — a bargain, the thinking went, if it helped him ward off further revolutions. And indeed, sites like Twitter and Facebook are rapidly growing in the kingdom, precisely because they allow voices that otherwise would not have been able to find an outlet to flourish.

For example, the hashtag #AlwaleedTwitter was quickly formed after the news of the prince’s investment broke. Saudis commented, asked critical questions, and even poked fun — imagining what would happen if the purchase of this "strategic stake" meant that the kingdom’s religious police (officially known as The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) would now be allowed to rule the Twittersphere.

"Now that Twitter is Saudi, you will have two options when you log-on: Men’s Section and Women’s Section," commented @Noni_Alk, writing in Arabic.

Another user, @badeeeerQ8, sarcastically suggested that the site will now be forced to shut down during the five daily prayer times for Muslims, in line with the kingdom’s enforcements on shopkeepers.  

That’s not to say all Saudis on Twitter saw AlWaleed’s purchase in a negative light. Veteran Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who next year will be launching the prince’s news channel, Al-Arab, from its newly announced headquarters in neighbouring Bahrain, dismissed any political dimension to the decision, tweeting that "it is a purely an investment and a belief in social media which isn’t restricted to Twitter." Shortly afterwards, Khashoggi was retweeted by another highly active Twitter user: Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, AlWaleed’s wife, beaming his views out to her 92,000 followers.

Princess Ameerah, too, received her fair share of jests. Many tweets suggested that the princess’s fondness for the site was the main reason behind Alwaleed’s investment; a matter that is likely to spark competition between Gulf royalty, insinuated @N6911a, a user who humorously suggested that Sheikha Mozah al-Missned is now demanding that her husband, the emir of Qatar, buy her Google! Another tweep, @reenadT, jokingly asked Ameerah if she would allow others to play with her "Twitter" until each got their own.

One of the Saudi tweeps who frequently challenges the country’s established norms is the Saudi-American Nora Abdulkarim (@Ana3rabeya). "I breathe Freedom. I bleed Oil," reads her Twitter profile.

Although Nora only joined the site this year, she has managed to upset many of her fellow citizens in Saudi Arabia by discussing social issues considered taboo in the kingdom.

A few days ago, she launched a series of tweets organized under the hashtag #SaudiMcCarthyism, where she made observations such as, "Citizen Rights are *always* Sacrificed at the Feet of National Security." She even drew an analogy between the U.S. portrayal of communists during the Cold War and current regional rivalries in the Middle East, tweeting, "Dirty Red Commies = Backstabbing Persian Shia."

"A reoccurring comment that I get is to mind my own business," she explains, adding that other angry comments were directed at her choice of writing in English as well as Arabic, or for displaying an unveiled picture of herself. And of course, there’s the matter of a woman asserting her right to be involved in Saudi Arabia’s notoriously restricted political and cultural space.

"Particularly in Saudi, women have not been part of the political scene, even on a strictly superficial level," she says. "Thus, it is easy to understand some men’s confusion at outspokenness, when typically women like me should be in the kitchen or in a more neutral and non-confrontational field like medicine that ‘suits my female nurture-based nature.’"

The Dubai School of Governance estimated in March that the number of active Twitter users in Saudi Arabia stood at 115,084 — in a country of 26 million. This figure, which likely only expanded during this revolutionary year in Arab politics, is partially due to the belief that traditional media outlets are not playing their watchdog role or expressing people’s legitimate concerns and grievances. As Lawrence Wright wrote in his 2004 article "Kingdom of Silence," even the best official Saudi news sources "are constrained by the same taboos that cripple all Saudi publications," such as prohibitions on what can be said about Islam, the government, and the royal family.

In this stultifying environment, social media has proven an especially useful tool for evading the censors.

"[A]ctivists and bloggers of both genders are having an impact in spreading rights awareness on several fronts, such as housing, women rights and corruption," says veteran blogger Fouad al-Farhan, who currently has more than 30,000 followers on Twitter. "The conversations taking place at the moment couldn’t have been discussed in the past," he argues, adding that the participation of many officials and ministers in these online debates has also expanded the range of freedom of expression."[B]loggers are no longer arrested at once for posts and opinions."

Farhan enjoys a particular type of celebrity status within the blogosphere. After all, his critical blogging got him arrested in 2007, where he spent 137 days in solitary confinement. His original blog remains blocked because he refuses to take down its content, he says, but he continues to write on a new website and now heads business development at Saudi Arabia’s newest daily, Al-Sharq, which is heavily involved in social media.

Farhan is not the only Saudi tweep to be thrown in jail for using social media. In May, a little-known Saudi woman named Manal al-Sharif took the keys of her car and posted a YouTube video of herself driving . Sharif was jailed for over a week for violating the kingdom’s notorious ban on female drivers, but her action launched the #Women2Drive movement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton eventually spoke out in support of Sharif, who now boasts almost 50,000 followers on Twitter, where she continues to advocate for the cause.

Social media has also helped bring movies to Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are banned. Local filmmaker Bader al-Homoud decided to leap-frog this obstacle by uploading his film, a 22-minute dark comedy titled "Monopoly," to YouTube. He promoted the film’s launch with a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #MonopolyFilm. The result? Nearly a million views within the first week of release in September, and almost 1.6 million so far. In addition, the film’s reception sparked an intense reaction in the local press, which either adopted Homoud’s advocacy for his project’s main cause — a shortage of housing in the kingdom — or attacked the film and its maker as unpatriotic.

As Twitter has grown in popularity in Saudi Arabia, the spin doctors of government officials and influential sheikhs have also came on board to take part in the discussion, if not attempt to hijack it completely.

Saudi officialdom’s Twitter takeover provoked a swift backlash. Many accounts defending government officials hide behind fictitious names to protect their identity, and often don’t upload a profile picture. They therefore continue to use the default picture, the "Twitter egg." In Arabic, the word for eggs is "beyd," but in the Saudi dialect, calling someone "beyd" also usually means that their character is terribly foul. It wasn’t long before tweeps started referring to government PR officers as "beyd," accusing them of rotting the Twitterverse.
Ahmed al-Omran (@ahmed), a pioneer blogger who gained an audience through his popular blog Saudi Jeans describes the #SaudiEgg phenomemon as "a newly created account by an anonymous user who relentlessly defends the government." These zealots, he says, tend to be "more kingly than the king."

Another recent phenomenon is the migration of mainstream Saudi celebrities to Twitter, who have quickly accumulated follower counts that dwarf first generation Saudi tweeps. For example, Sheikh Ayed Al-Qarni, the infamous Saudi religious scholar who was at the helm of the Al-Sahwa ("Awakening") movement and author of best-selling book La Tahzan ("Don’t Despair") has 450,000 followers, celebrity Saudi TV presenter Turki Al-Dakhil has 278,000, and Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd, the son of the late King Fahd and current Minister of State Member of Ministry Council, has 137,000 followers.

For his part, Omran sees the growing official acceptance of Twitter as a step forward for the kingdom. "Having all these people on Twitter proves that the real world and the virtual world are extensions of one another," he says.

It was not so long ago that the mere thought of talking back to a government official was unheard of in Saudi Arabia. By the looks of it, Prince Alwaleed’s money is being well spent — not just from a pure business perspective, but also by investing in a platform that can give a voice to the voiceless in the kingdom.