When Saudi Arabia announced a program to provide people with affordable homes last month, only a few hours passed before online critics started attacking the performance of the Housing Ministry.
A man wrote on Twitter that the agency “is all promises but we have yet to see them implement anything.” Another said the ministry should solve problems with previous projects before starting new ones. The ministry defended its plan the same day, in a rare government response to public discontent in an absolute monarchy.
Saudis, with the world’s largest proportion of Internet users accessing Twitter, are turning online to avoid the censorship of traditional media, and to question government in a way that’s transforming their relationship with the ruling Al Saud family. While that might in the past have resulted in a jail sentence, the Saudi authorities are accepting greater online freedom since the Arab Spring uprisings started in 2011.
“Social media provides a space for interaction that isn’t permitted in public,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who follows social media trends in Saudi Arabia and Gulf politics. “Saudi leadership views the use of social media to express discontent as a fact of modern life that must be tolerated. Not allowing it might lead to further disgruntlement.”
A third of Saudi Internet users access Twitter each month, the largest proportion in the world, according to data from PeerReach. YouTube and Instagram are the other two most popular social media sites in the kingdom.
The increase in online media use is being supported by economic growth of 3.6 percent last year, employment initiatives and by a population structure where a majority of the 30 million people in the country are under the age of 30.
King Abdullah, who was born in 1924, raised the minimum wage for Saudi workers and increased spending to ward off the political unrest that has swept through other Arab countries. He allocated record funds to build roads, airports and industrial centers to reduce the country’s oil dependency.
Saudi Telecom Co. and Etihad Etisalat Co., the two largest telecommunications providers in the country, have expanded their services in response to customer demand.
“The focus has been on data services, and that has been a growth area for the past six to eight quarters,” Asim Bukhtiar, head of research at Riyad Capital, said by phone. “Now, the companies are improving the quality of their 4G and fiber optic services.”
Internet penetration reached 55 percent of the population at the end of the first half of last year, according to data from the country’s telecoms regulator.
Saudi online debates are in sharp contrast to the conformity of many elements of life in a conservative Islamic society.
“Social life in Saudi Arabia tends to be heavily regulated and tradition-bound, but online most of these restrictions melt away,” said David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who follows social and political change in Saudi Arabia.
Publicly, most men wear white robes and checkered head scarves, while almost all women are covered in black abayas. In some private settings, men and women increasingly attend parties together, and it isn’t uncommon for women to enter dressed in abayas then remove them to reveal short-cut dresses and high heels.
The subtle shift in attitudes has led to a conservative backlash.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh warned in November against any attempts to spread propaganda through social media. He described it as a platform for “malice that promotes misleading doctrines.”
The government is in a “delicate” balancing act, said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at Vienna, Virginia-based JTG, and a former analyst for the Saudi embassy in Washington. “While they have allowed these necessities of modern life, they are also sensitive to the concerns of conservatives.”
Some online chat applications have been banned. In June, the telecoms authority blocked Viber, a free mobile phone application, and threatened others that failed to comply with regulations. State media is also censored, though even here discussion is becoming more open.
For the Saudi Interior Ministry, fighting al-Qaeda is a greater priority than stopping people from expressing themselves.
“Our focus is radical ideology,” Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, head of the Interior Ministry’s ideological security department, said in an interview. “If they aren’t calling for violence or illegal activities, we don’t bother them.”
A group of Saudi women tested this on Oct. 26, and with little interference from authorities. On their website, 26th October Women’s Driving Campaign, the women asked the government to provide “a valid and legal justification” for maintaining the world’s only ban on women drivers.
The government, though, “won’t tolerate all kinds of politically charged discontent expressed on social media,” Boghardt said.
Since 2011, there has also been an increase Saudi-made YouTube videos. Bambee, or Pink in Hijaz, describes itself “as a very bold comedy show” addressing social issues. The Eysh Elly, with 1.9 million subscribers on YouTube, has made 67 videos and is considered the first production to attract a large Saudi following.
Malik Nijer, a cartoonist and chief executive office of a Saudi animation company with 549,000 followers on Twitter, said in an interview that he turned to social media to avoid restrictions on “material allowed on television.” Hisham Fageeh, the producer of the video “No Women, No Drive,” which had more than 11 million views, makes online videos to meet demand for local content.
Some royal family members are also online expressing themselves. Last month, Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal chided on Twitter the kingdom’s information and culture minister for removing a TV host from the air after a guest on his show criticized the government.
“There is little doubt that the political culture is changing, slowly but surely,” said Nazer. “The virtual public space allows Saudis of all ages to discuss in public what used to be discussed in private.”