Saudi Arabia Contends with the Social Media Challenge

, February 8, 2011

Vol. 10, No. 28    February 8, 2011

    • Although they express admiration, Saudis and Gulf residents have no desire to see the chaos on the streets of Cairo and Tunis repeat itself in the squares of Jeddah and Riyadh. Gulf regimes are autocratic, but they do not engender the type of hatred demonstrated towards Mubarak and Ben Ali, and they do not run police states.
    • Like most authoritarian regimes, the Saudis were not enthusiastic about the introduction of the Internet into their country. Internet censorship is made easier in Saudi Arabia by an extremely centralized Internet infrastructure. There are only two nodes that connect outside the country, and all Internet service providers must connect through them.
    • Internet surveillance appears to be quite widespread. According to one report, many of those involved in filtering are Saudi “U.S.-educated techies” who understand the idea of Internet freedom but don’t think it applies to Saudi Arabia.
    • On January 1, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information announced a truly draconian regulation requiring all Internet publishing sites to register and get a license. The ministry was charged with approving the editors of online news sites, just as it does with paper newspapers.
  • There is little likelihood that Saudi Arabia or any of the other Gulf countries will go the way of Tunisia and Egypt because of a system where oil income is used to placate the populace. On January 17, Kuwait announced 1,000 dinar ($3,559) grants and free food coupons for all one million Kuwaiti citizens. Other Gulf states are expected to follow suit.

In Tunisia and Egypt, social media has been key in organizing demonstrations. There is no doubt that Saudi officials are watching events there very carefully. There have been at least one, and perhaps two, copycat self-immolations in the kingdom.1 Saudi leaders are keeping up a brave front. The sharp-tongued former ambassador to the U.S., Turki Al Faysal, was asked at the Davos World Economic Forum if democracy was even more dangerous than a nuclear Iran: “I don’t know,” he quipped. “In Saudi Arabia, we have neither nuclear weapons nor democracy.”

Although they express admiration, fundamentally, Saudis and Gulf residents have no desire to see the chaos on the streets of Cairo and Tunis repeat itself in the squares of Jeddah and Riyadh. The press has emphasized the crime and looting which has accompanied the demonstrations. Gulf regimes are autocratic, no doubt, but they do not engender the type of hatred demonstrated towards Mubarak and Ben Ali, and they do not run police states. Many Saudis in particular recognize that, though not perfect, the royal family has brought stability and prosperity to what was once a very poor region.

Saudis are not, however, holding back over the tragic results of the recent Jeddah floods, which have killed at least ten people since they began at the end of January. Similar flooding in November killed 123 people.2 The only demonstrations reported in the kingdom have been to protest the government’s repeated lack of flood preparedness.3

Social media, however, the engine that facilitated the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, is growing in Saudi Arabia, despite government efforts to quash it.

Saudi Efforts to Censor the Internet

Like most authoritarian regimes, the Saudis were not very enthusiastic about the introduction of the Internet into their country, but after a pause, realized that the commercial and economic advantages outweighed the political risks. Nevertheless, the regime set out to censor the Internet in a comprehensive manner.4 Saudi Arabia has made the “13 Internet Enemies” list of Reporters Without Borders.5 But the rulers are also using the Internet to their advantage in efforts such as the Al-Sakina Program for Dialogue, which the Saudis use to combat al-Qaeda.6

Internet censorship is made easier in Saudi Arabia by an extremely centralized Internet infrastructure. There are only two nodes that connect to the outside world, and all Internet service providers must connect through these nodes’ proxy servers. There is no legal Internet access through any other means.

The Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) oversees Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia.7 Unlike the Chinese government, which attempts to deny it is filtering by blaming lack of access on technical problems, the Saudis are open about their filtering. People who access a website that is either blocked or not pre-approved are met with the following message:

 

Needless to say, an Internet surfer who runs across such a message would not be anxious to reach such a site again, and would probably be wary of submitting a request to get it unblocked. The CTIC provides online forms for both blocking and unblocking requests.8 Tech savvy Saudis are able to get around the blocking.

The Saudi authorities argue that most requests to block come from Saudi citizens concerned about pornography. Indeed, the government contends that 95 percent of its blocking is related to pornography. But the CTIC’s mandate is broad, and its website states that “as for the other categories, they consist mainly of pages related to drugs, bombs, alcohol, gambling and pages insulting the Islamic religion or the Saudi laws and regulations.” Quotations from the Koran and “modern scientific studies” are cited to bolster its case for blocking.9

According to one report, many of those involved in filtering are Saudi “U.S.-educated techies” who understand the idea of Internet freedom but don’t think it applies to Saudi Arabia. These include graduates of Harvard and Carnegie Mellon, led by Sulayman Mirdad, deputy governor of CITC for information technology, a graduate of Boston University and co-founder of a Boston-area networking company.10

Internet surveillance appears to be quite widespread. The Ministry of the Interior has ordered that surveillance cameras be installed at Internet cafés and that proprietors keep records of customers’ identity.11 The Saudi religious police has also requested access to blocked websites in order, it maintains, “to monitor immoral practices by visitors of these sites.”12

Individual websites are relatively easy to block, but blocking social networking sites comes at a greater cost. Facebook and Twitter are a very different story because they provide platforms and are not subject-limited. A recent report in the Saudi pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, based on statistics from Twitter officials, noted that since the beginning of 2010 the number of Saudi users had grown by 240 percent, although the company refused to provide exact figures for the country, or any country for that matter. The number of tweets had grown 440 percent in 2010, compared to 95 percent worldwide.13

The Jeddah floods of late 2009, when people vented their disappointment with the government’s response, first catalyzed greater social networking. According to blogger Fahd al-Hamzi, the main use for Twitter by Saudis is to bring certain injustices to light, such as a case of a young girl who drew attention to her abusive father. This spurred the media to take action. Al-Hamzi believes it to be a safe way for concerned citizens to let off steam.14

Authoritarian regimes thrive on the control of information. This, of course, has gotten much harder in the age of satellite television and Internet. The Saudis used to have a monopoly on the media both inside and outside their country. That is no longer the case. The information revolution has unleashed a flood that no government can really staunch.

Saudi bloggers and tweeters have been covering events in Tunis and Cairo.15 Yet they are exercising some self-censorship when it comes to drawing comparisons to their own country.

In traditional societies such as Saudi Arabia, the young have traditionally deferred to their elders. But the young people – the shabab – have new technologies at their disposal that are greatly empowering. Their elders are not familiar with these technologies. King Abdullah seemed out of touch when he reportedly telephoned Mubarak with the message: “Egypt is a country of Arabism and Islam. No Arab and Muslim can bear that some infiltrators into the brotherly Egyptian people are attempting to destabilize that country’s security and stability in the name of freedom of expression, and they have been exploiting the public and spawning hatred and driving them to engage in destruction, arson, looting – terrorizing them and inciting sedition.”16

The Saudi Regime vs. Bloggers

In 2005, the regime blocked Blogger, Google’s popular weblog tool, preventing bloggers who used the tool from accessing their blog. Most famously, Fu’ad al-Farhan, widely seen as the dean of Saudi bloggers for using his real name, was arrested in December 2007 and held for four months. While local papers ignored his arrest, the news was carried by over three hundred Saudi bloggers. Web services are occasionally blocked in order to make accessing websites difficult. TinyURL, a URL shortening service, has often been blocked.17

Other people who are deemed to have stepped out of line in their Internet usage have been called on the carpet. Just to name a few: in August 2009, two Saudi activists, Walid Abd al-Khayr and Khalid al-Nasr, had their Twitter pages blocked for posting human rights content. This was apparently the first move against Twitter users.18 In December 2010 Prof. Muhammad Abdallah Abd al-Karim was arrested for posting an article to a website questioning whether more than medical issues were behind King Abdullah’s travel to the U.S. in November. A Twitter hashtag (#FreeDrAbdulkarim) was created to campaign for him, as were two Facebook pages.19

The Saudis vs. Facebook and Blackberry

In mid-November 2010, the Saudi authorities temporarily blocked Facebook in what might have been a trial balloon. An error message appeared when Internet users tried to access it. An anonymous Saudi CITC official told the Associated Press that Facebook’s content had “crossed a line” with the kingdom’s conservative morals, but that blocking the site was a temporary measure.20 However, CITC spokesman Sultan Malik said, “The Facebook blockage was an accidental error which affected some parts of the kingdom and it resumed its normal operation soon after it was fixed. There are no changes to Facebook in the kingdom; the site will operate as usual.”21

It seems that Saudi Arabia is still in search of an Internet policy that will keep its citizens happy while protecting the regime. But each step has met with serious opposition. In the summer of 2010, Saudi authorities began suspending Research in Motion’s Blackberry service out of concern that its servers were encrypted and could therefore not be monitored. This, of course, threatened all Blackberry users, not simply the dissidents or the al-Qaeda supporters the regime claimed it wished to monitor. After negotiations with Research in Motion, an agreement was reached which would apparently allow authorities to gather information on users from a Blackberry server which Research in Motion had agreed to place in the country.22

Meanwhile, in early January it was reported by ITP.net, a Middle East technology site, that Apple’s cloud-based synchronization service, MobileMe, had been blocked in the kingdom. The service facilitates the synching of information across all Apple devices such as iPhone, iPad, and iTouch. The blocking stopped after about 24 hours.23

All Saudi Publishing Websites Asked to Register

The latest installment in Saudi attempts at Internet monitoring came on January 1 when the Ministry of Culture and Information announced a truly draconian regulation requiring all Internet publishing sites to register and get a license. This included blogs, news sites, personal websites, forums, broadcasting via mobile phones, mailing lists, chat rooms – basically any form of electronic publishing. The ministry was charged with approving the editors of online news sites, just as it does with paper newspapers.24 Anyone caught blogging without a license was subject to a maximum fine of 100,000 Saudi Riyals ($26,665) and possibly a ban on Internet publishing.25

Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch both condemned the new law,26 and it met with ridicule from many Saudi bloggers who stated they had no intention of registering their sites. Interestingly enough, Tariq al-Humayd, the liberal editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, welcomed the new regulations, arguing that it would bring order to a chaotic Internet and prevent people from publishing irresponsibly without fear or without taking responsibility for their actions. It would help protect copyrighted material, he stated.27 In all likelihood, however, Humayd was probably more concerned with the impact of Internet news on the profits of traditional newspapers.

Social networking aside, there is little likelihood that Saudi Arabia or any of the other Gulf countries will go the way of Tunisia and Egypt. This is because of the rentier state system, where oil income is used to placate the populace. Kuwait was the first to understand this in the context of the recent events. On January 17, Kuwait announced that it would be marking several anniversaries by handing out 1,000 dinar ($3,559) grants and free food coupons for every citizen in the Gulf nation. The state news agency KUNA reported that Shaykh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah has ordered the gifts for all the estimated one million Kuwaiti citizens. It even covers newborns until February 1. The food program was expected to offer free staples such as rice, eggs, and milk until March 2012. The reason given was three upcoming milestones: 50 years of independence, the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that drove out Iraqi troops, and the fifth year of Shaykh Sabah’s rule.28

It would be likely for other Gulf states to follow suit. The much poorer Jordan was taking a similar tack: on January 20 its government announced a surprise pay raise for civil servants and expansion of a state subsidy program. It follows a government announcement last week of a $125 million package of partial subsidies for fuel and staple products like sugar and rice. The new package includes an increase in pensions for retired military and civilian personnel as of January 1. It also expanded the current subsidies to cover livestock and liquefied gas used for heating and cooking.29

The signal Gulf leaders are sending to their populations is this: You have it pretty good, so don’t get any crazy ideas.

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Notes

1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12260465.

2. http://www.indyarocks.com/videos/Jeddah-flood-534443; AFP, January 28, 2011.

3. Reuters, January 29, 2010, http://www.trust.org/alertnet/news/activists-call-rare-protest-in-flooded-saudi-city.

4. Joshua Teitelbaum, “Dueling for Da‘wa: State vs. Society on the Saudi Internet,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 222-239.

5. http://en.rsf.org/spip.php?page=article&id_article=19603.

6. http://en.assakina.com/index.php.

7. http://www.internet.gov.sa/.

8. http://www.internet.gov.sa/resources/block-unblock-request/block/; http://www.internet.gov.sa/resources/block-unblock-request/unblock/.

9. http://www.isu.net.sa/saudi-internet/contenet-filtring/filtring.htm.

10. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_47/b4109068380136.htm.

11. http://opennet.net/blog/2009/04/restriction-internet-use-middle-east-rise-internet-cafés-saudi-must-install-hidden-came.

12. http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/saudi-arabia/religious-police-demand-access-to-blocked-websites-1.127081.

13. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 3, 2011, cited in MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 3513, January 16, 2011.

14. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 3, 2011.

15. http://www.npr.org/2011/01/26/133212623/social-media-revolution-hits-saudi-arabia.

16. http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article245718.ece.

17. http://www.kalharbi.com/?s=internet+censorship.

18. http://en.rsf.org/saudi-arabia-two-human-rights-activists-twitter-24-08-2009,34262.html.

19. Ibid.

20. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101113/ap_on_hi_te/ml_saudi_facebook_ban.

21. http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article190596.ece.

22. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/07/blackberrysaudi-arabia-de_n_674621.html.

23. http://www.itp.net/583412-mobileme-blocked-in-saudi-arabia.

24. http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/01/03/132053.html.

25. http://www.tgdaily.com/business-and-law-features/53403-saudi-arabia-bans-blogging-without-a-licence.

26. http://en.rsf.org/saudi-arabia-repressive-regulations-target-08-01-2011,39243.html; http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/01/07/saudi-arabia-rescind-new-online-restrictions.

27. http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=2&id=23671.

28. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/17/AR2011011700936.html;

29. http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5g0lp9wgOvfTHIqlarQZna51TROkA?docId=5707231.

 

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Joshua Teitelbaum, Ph.D., is Principal Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a researcher at the GLORIA Center, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and holds visiting positions at the Hoover Institution and the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, both at Stanford University.

 

Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum

Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum is Senior Research Fellow, Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Tel Aviv University, and Rosenbloom Israeli Visiting Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and W. Glenn Campbell and Rita Ricardo-Campbell National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford University.