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Saudi Clerics Out-Tweet Liberals Forcing King to Balance

Saudi Clerics Out-Tweet Liberals
Saudi internet surfers check their twitter accounts at a coffee shop in Riyadh. Photographer: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

The Saudis making the biggest splash on social media aren’t the youthful, secular activists who led protest movements elsewhere in the Arab world last year. They’re religious scholars like Salman al-Oadah.

Saudi Arabia jailed al-Oadah in the 1990s, when he was advocating the kind of Islamic militancy espoused by al-Qaeda. Now, after renouncing extremism, he has more than 1 million followers on Twitter, as does Muslim scholar Ayed al-Qarnee. A third preacher, Mohammed al-Arefe, tops the national rankings with 1.4 million readers, more than the population of Bahrain. By contrast, one of the highest-profile campaigners against the religiously motivated ban on women drivers, Manal al-Sharif, has about 80,000 followers.

Their influence limits King Abdullah’s ability to introduce further liberalizing measures designed to prevent ferment elsewhere in the Middle East spreading to the world’s biggest oil exporter. The king has pledged social and economic steps to reduce the swelling ranks of unemployed young Saudis and ensure they don’t join their peers in Tunisia or Egypt by seeking to topple the government. Even so, change must be acceptable to a clergy with the capacity to shape public opinion.

“To get an impression about how people are really feeling, look at the social networks,” Robert Lacey, British author of “Inside the Kingdom,” a 2009 history of Saudi Arabia, said. “There are reformers calling for Western-style democracy and human rights -- the sort of liberals that give quotes to visiting journalists -- but they don’t get much local response.

Driving Ban

‘‘The top three tweeters in the whole of the peninsula are all conservative religious sheikhs,’’ he said.

Under a pact between the al-Saud family and Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab dating to 1744, Saudi Arabia adopted and promoted the austere Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, according to a Saudi government website. Conservatism permeates the country, where women are banned from driving, men and women can only mix socially under strict monitoring, and shops close during prayer times.

Some clerics have been critical of the royal family in the past, accusing it of corruption and attacking its alliance with the U.S. Al-Oadah was jailed for his role in the opposition religious movement of the 1990s known as Sahwa, or Awakening. At the time, he advocated a purge of liberals from positions in government, schools and media to make society more Islamic, according to ‘‘The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia’’ by David Commins.

Religious Police

While al-Oadah is socially traditionalist on many issues, he doesn’t advocate the extreme positions of some other Sunni clerics. When the king appointed Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Asheikh, a more liberal candidate, in January as the head of the religious police, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, a prominent Wahhabi cleric, criticized the move as a Western plot against Islamic values and in support of gender mixing. He has also called for supporters of mixing to be killed.

Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, with 180,000 readers on Twitter, in February called for Saudi writer Hamza Kashgari’s execution for his postings on the Prophet Mohammed. Kashgari is in a Riyadh jail awaiting trial.

Al-Oadah, 55, says he turned to Twitter and Facebook after the government last year banned him from leaving the country because they felt his support for Arab revolts meant ‘‘I was representing revolution,” he said. The cleric says he’s sensitive in using social networking sites. “I don’t only lecture young people,” he said. “I stop and listen.”

‘Credible and Popular’

Al-Oudah isn’t aggressive or extreme compared with his Saudi peers, said Bander Alnogaithan, a Riyadh-based lawyer who follows the sheikh on Twitter. “He is credible and popular among all types of people.” Al-Oadah is against women working alongside men and participating in public activities, such as sporting events.

Even more popular is al-Arefe, a conservative whose website offers video-clips of his sermons and a text-message service outlining religious duties. His Twitter postings address religious and social issues, including female employment.

“Employing a man is beneficial to him, his wife, his kids, his sisters and so on,” he wrote this month. “Employing a woman is beneficial to only her (usually). Then why is the race to hire her and deprive men from jobs? There are intentions behind this matter!”

$130 Billion Spree

Abdullah responded to the regional turmoil last year with a $130 billion spending spree. The main aim was job creation - a critical consideration in a country where more than a quarter of people in their 20s are unemployed. Extra cash was also channeled to the religious organizations, after they backed a ban on public demonstrations.

Liberalizing social measures have included last month’s decision by the governor of Riyadh allowing young men to enter shopping malls during peak hours rather than just on weekday lunch hours. Rules on gender mixing in mall workforces were also changed since Abdullah became king in 2005 so that women could work in lingerie and cosmetic outlets. That’s aimed at cutting an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent among women in their 20s.

Abdullah, who’s 88 this year, opened the first co-ed university in 2009 and for the first time in the kingdom’s history gave women last year the right to vote in future municipal elections. They can also join his advisory council.

Eastern Clashes

The kingdom has mostly escaped unrest sweeping the Arab world, though there have been clashes between security forces and protesters in the east where the oil industry is concentrated and where the Shiite Muslim minority mostly lives.

The surface calm may be misleading, said al-Oadah in his Riyadh office as he sat surrounded by piles of Islamic texts.

“The Arab Spring did affect Saudi Arabia,” said the Muslim scholar, who served Arabic coffee and dates, according to Saudi custom. “Before it was taboo to ever talk about things. Now, young people are expressing their opinions vividly, and they don’t really care about the consequences. To have someone come and just preach to them isn’t acceptable anymore.”

The Muslim scholars are joined on social media by Saudi princes, government officials and political activists, all using the 140-character messaging space allowed by Twitter to contest the country’s future. Osama Nugali, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, is a regular poster. Prince Talal, a liberal from King Abdullah’s generation of the ruling family, has 288,000 followers.

Twitter Investor

His son, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, actually owns part of Twitter Inc., after buying an undisclosed stake in December for $300 million. Alwaleed is the world’s 24th-richest man with a $20.5 billion fortune, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Among the most controversial figures on Saudi social media is Mujtahidd, who has attracted more than 300,000 followers with posts about the alleged misdeeds of royal family members, and housing and stock market corruption. The anonymous blogger said in response to e-mailed questions that the aim was to expose “those who are corrupt” and said, “I have the information and I am capable of using it in an effective manner.”

The growing domination of Saudi social networking sites by religious conservatives pushing a traditionalist agenda, and individuals criticizing the government, has sparked comment from those clerics most sympathetic to the crown.

‘Abusive Remarks’

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheik spoke out last month against the use of social-networking sites for political criticism. The government is “constantly under attack from people who post insulting and abusive remarks,” he said.

“The mufti? No one follows him,” Waleed Abu al-Khair, a human rights activist who is also barred from leaving the kingdom, said in a phone interview. Al-Oadah, he said, is “the most revolutionary cleric in Saudi Arabia.”

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