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The evolution of Saudi social media: from Namnam to Twitter

The 1950s saw the rapid spread of socialism, Pan-Arabisim and nationalism across the Arab world. These movements were led mainly by the president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was considered an iconic figure and a symbol of Arab dignity after he overthrew the monarchy of Egypt in 1952. Nasser's ideology spread like wildfire across the Middle East, eventually reaching Saudi Arabia where the monarchy found it an existential threat; it was here that the story of Namnam began.

The Namnam is a mythical Arab monster that consumes human flesh. During that period, and in a state where two-thirds of the population were illiterate and uneducated, with no source of information apart from official institutions, the Saudi government circulated a rumour of the mythical "Namnam" coming out from the mountains of Tehama between sunset and sunrise. The fear of this monster forced people to stay at home so they would not interact with the few educated individuals influenced by the geopolitics of the region who would meet clandestinely at night to share books and articles. In another words, it was a means of enforcing a curfew.

With Saudi Arabia lacking both a national elected council and the right to form active civil society movements, Saudis started to smuggle fax letters and cassette tapes from the exiled opposition leaders based in the UK, represented by the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) that called for political reform. If these fax letters were found in anyone's possession, it meant jail for a minimum of one year and loss of employment without compensation. Years later the internet was born, and access to information increased exponentially as new arenas were created. One of these new arenas was the political forums, the first virtual council for Saudis, where heated debates took place and where the authorities were criticised publicly but using codenames. Popular figures such as "The Black Bat" criticised the interior and foreign policies of the Saudi government, writing satirical articles viewed by thousands, saved to floppy discs and passed around before they were removed.

Since then Saudi society has changed a great deal, with a large cohort of educated youth looking for more avenues to share exchange and discuss new ideas. Nowadays, Saudi Arabia has the world's highest Twitter and YouTube use per capita with a staggering 50 million tweets a month and 90 million YouTube views a day; it also has the highest number of Facebook users in the Gulf. This was also reported by the Washington Institute. These statistics are no surprise when we consider that 70 per cent of the Saudi population is under 30, of which 40 per cent are unemployed. The new Saudi generation has become digital and, indeed, the government is no longer the sole source of information and cannot control all of these users, even with thousands of "Namnams".

These social media tools have provided alternative sources of information to the official Saudi media empire of more than 30 channels and radio stations, building up contradicting narratives and creating a virtual space for Saudis to breathe and express their views, although sometimes this comes at a heavy price. These views are expressed using different approaches in the social media; for instance, by raising awareness of some of the social problems including poverty and low-paid labour. A champion of such an approach is Feras Bughnah, a Blogger who was arrested in 2011 in connection with one of his YouTube episodes showing the scale of poverty in Riyadh, the capital city of the largest oil producing country in the world.

A different and more popular approach is the YouTube black comedy which is the voice of the voiceless and represents the Saudis' unofficial silent majority party. Champions of this kind of black comedy are Omar Hussain (@omarhuss), Ali Al-Homaidy (@ali_alhomaidy) and Hadi Al-Shibani (@Hadialshibani); the latter was arrested in 2012. Collectively they have more than one million followers on Twitter, commenting sarcastically on different topics published by the local newspapers.

Last year a Twitter campaign launched in Saudi Arabia called "the salary doesn't meet the needs" took cyberspace by storm, with at least 17 million tweets in the first two weeks; it highlighted the devastatingly low living standards shared by Islamists, non-Islamists, liberals and reformists alike beyond all the boundaries of culture, tribe and social class. Funnily enough and despite the astonishing facts, this Twitter campaign was described as an "Al-Qaeda-operated smear campaign" by Nasir Ghazi Al-Otaibi, a brigadier general and a member of the Saudi consultative assembly.

However, the government's response to the internet is nothing short of censorship. Thus, producing hashtags and promoting such campaigns are no longer sufficient. Furthermore, social media might be used as a monitored release valve to gauge and balance the Saudis' frustration against the government's oppression, thus allowing the average Saudi to feel self-satisfaction without their frustrations leading to action on the ground. In other words, the social media may act as anaesthetic, leading to desensitisation.

Recently the Saudi social movement has shifted from Twitter to YouTube, where a group of young men who realised that the government's promises are nothing but hot air recorded video clips expressing their frustration, calling for accountability, denouncing the official-state sponsored corruption and criticising the authorities. This new movement is no longer a clandestine movement led by coded names; on the contrary, these individuals declare their full names and IDs publicly, despite the widely known oppressive response of the General Investigation Department (GID). Such activities could land them in prison for several years. This indicates that these activists believe that a critical mass has been reached, and that there are too many dissenters for the government to imprison them all. It also shows the gradual normalisation of dissent and criticism, in spite of the government's efforts. Because of this, it has been dubbed as 'the Saudi ID Revolution'. All those who posted the videos starting from Mohamed Fahd Al-Doussari have been arrested and the courage of these individuals is amazing; they know that they will be in prison within 24 hours, facing ill-treatment, questioned and interrogated alongside 26,000 other prisoners of conscience, as reported by Amnesty International.

These different stages in the development of Saudi social movements demonstrate a fascinating creativity in the demands, solidarity and resistance of the Saudi people to the rhetoric of the government. Fifty years ago, at the time of Namnam, creating such a swiftly growing movement would have been next to impossible because it would not have been possible to reach as many people as we do today.

It should be noted that despite the fact that social media enables like-minded people to organise themselves without any formal organisation, it is also a double-edged weapon. The more causes that are promoted through social media, the greater the distractions, resulting in divisions and a loss of focus within civil society. Simply put, there are many things to care about and one may fail to prioritise and mobilise accordingly. Another problem is that the influx of information in social media can be overwhelming, making it difficult to be filtered and thus it is sometimes misleading.

However, Saudis are now engaging with the discourse of human and civil rights, inspired by the Arab 'spring'. These sentiments and discourses are no longer only the province of the elite opposition but also ordinary Saudis. The co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), Dr Abdullah Al-Hamid, is a leading figure of the movement and has been arrested several times. He recently began a hunger strike calling for a constitutional monarchy.

One could ask what next and how will Saudis turn these social movements into effective, positive change. Firstly, these virtual protests must go out into the real world and these sentiments must be manifested into more organised actions via all types of civil disobedience rather than isolated individual acts. Saudi society and activists must overcome self-censorship and rethink the use of the social media to establish a vibrant civil society serving the common good, democratic values and human rights.

Sahar Al-Faifi is a molecular geneticist and activist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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