Twitter Gives Saudi Arabia a Revolution of Its Own
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia did not have an Arab Spring. But it has had a revolution of sorts.
Open criticism of this country’s royal family, once unheard-of, has become commonplace in recent months. Prominent judges and lawyers issue fierce public broadsides about large-scale government corruption and social neglect. Women deride the clerics who limit their freedoms. Even the king has come under attack.
All this dissent is taking place on the same forum: Twitter.
Unlike other media, Twitter has allowed Saudis to cross social boundaries and address delicate subjects collectively and in real time, via shared subject headings like “Saudi Corruption” and “Political Prisoners,” known in Twitter as hashtags.
With so many people writing mostly under their real names — there are some 2.9 million users in the kingdom, according to one recent study, and it is the world’s fastest-growing Twitter zone — the authorities appear to have thrown their hands up.
“Twitter for us is like a parliament, but not the kind of parliament that exists in this region,” said Faisal Abdullah, a 31-year-old lawyer. “It’s a true parliament, where people from all political sides meet and speak freely.”
Whether all this talk will lead to real change is hard to say. Some skeptics see the government’s unexpected tolerance as a deliberate ploy to let people blow off steam, not so different from the billions of dollars the government spent on social welfare programs last year in the wake of the Arab uprisings: anything to quell a real rebellion. In a country where public entertainment and street life, let alone protests, scarcely exist, and few people socialize outside their families, social media fills a crying need.
Still, the sudden lifting of taboos on public criticism has been remarkable in its own right. It has revealed, among other things, a striking depth of anger at the royal family that cuts across the political spectrum and has led some Saudis to wonder how long this deeply conservative and seemingly placid society can survive without serious reform.
“Twitter has revealed a great frustration and a popular refusal of the current situation,” said Salman al-Awda, a prominent cleric who was jailed for several years in the 1990s for his attacks on the government and is now seen as a moderate. He has more than 1.6 million followers on Twitter.
“There is a complete gap between the rulers and the ruled,” he said. “Even those who are in charge of security do not know what the people really think, and this is not good.”
The most flagrant criticism of the royal family by far has come from a single mysterious person named Mujtahidd. (The word means “studious.”) Starting late last year, Mujtahidd began posting sensational and richly detailed accusations about corrupt arms deals, construction boondoggles and back-room power plays involving numerous royals, including King Abdullah. He often writes directly to the Twitter accounts of the alleged malefactors.
“Is it true that your house in Jedda cost $1 billion but you charged $6 billion and pocketed the rest?” he wrote early this year to Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, one of his favorite targets. There is no way to verify any of his claims, but the royal family clearly takes him seriously, writing heated denials. He now has more than 660,000 followers.
The royal family is said to have made strenuous efforts to uncover Mujtahidd’s identity, to no avail. He is widely rumored to be an alienated member of the royal family, or someone relaying information from such insiders.
In the meantime, Mujtahidd appears to have emboldened many other Saudis.
The annual National Day holiday last month, for instance, elicited a gale of criticism. On the day before the holiday, the interior minister, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, released a statement noting that “we enjoy a luxurious lifestyle.” The statement was meant to be patriotic.
But on Twitter, many Saudis said they saw the prince’s “we” as an arrogant reference to the royal family, not the nation. The minister, upset, posted a defense. That drew more angry denunciations, including the following: “Remember that we have no medical insurance, no jobs. Prince Salman” — Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the heir apparent — “has billions of dollars, and don’t forget all the fenced-in lands belonging to the royal family.”
The insurgent emotions visible on Twitter appear to have carried over into the traditional media, where columnists and talk show hosts have become more assertive in criticizing the government. But Twitter still drives the conversation.
The new voices are not confined to calls for Western-style liberal reform. The largest Twitter followings belong to clerics. Muhammad al-Arifi, a conservative cleric, has more than 2.7 million followers, dwarfing the most prominent champions of women’s rights, for instance, and members of the royal family.
Earlier this year, when a young Saudi poet and columnist named Hamza Kashgari wrote three Twitter postings that seemed to criticize the Prophet Muhammad, the Saudi Twittersphere was full of calls for his arrest and prosecution, even as Western liberals urged clemency. He was extradited back to Saudi Arabia after trying to flee to Malaysia, and remains in prison on blasphemy charges.
Religious criticism appears to be a red line for almost all Saudis. After the controversy last month over an anti-Islamic video, a popular Saudi Twitter tag was “Anything but the Prophet.”
Nor does the government have a totally hands-off policy. Interior Ministry officials prowl the Twittersphere, always under false names, chastising government critics and issuing brittle avowals of loyalty to king and country.
There have also been a few ham-handed efforts to control the criticism, including a royal decree issued in July barring Saudi judges from writing on Twitter.
That decree was a result of months of furious verbal assault by judges against the mismanagement of the judicial sector. In September, 45 judges resigned in protest. “There is a revolution in judicial circles,” said Abdulaziz al-Gasim, a prominent Riyadh lawyer.
But Twitter remains a remarkable vista of areas of Saudi society that had until recently been closed to outsiders. The issue of political prisoners, for instance — a category usually understood here to include both champions of a constitutional monarchy and Islamists who oppose the government on religious grounds — draws a broad band of sympathy.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Abdullah, the lawyer, sat at a cafe on Riyadh’s Tahlia Street and flipped open his laptop to scroll through an amazingly diverse array of critical Twitter feeds. One of them, “Public Prison Diary,” is by a prisoner who posts from a cellphone that is occasionally smuggled into his cell. He has 85,000 followers. Sample message: “If you see a prisoner sleeping, do not wake him up. He might be dreaming of freedom.”
A hashtag about the cinema, which is illegal in Saudi Arabia, shows a lively debate between liberals who oppose the ban and conservatives who say lifting it would corrupt the youth.
“This is increasing the culture of rights here,” Mr. Abdullah said. “And it matters. Yesterday, I wrote a tweet about the court system, accusing the judges of arrogance. The judiciary minister himself called me to talk about it. So you see, they read it.”