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Why Saudis are ardent social media fans

Saudi Arabia’s most popular Twitter account with 11.4m followers is Muhammad al-Arefe, a Saudi cleric; and not a particularly liberal one either.


Smartphone growth has rocketed in the Gulf—by most counts the region has the highest penetration. WhatsApp and Facebook are the de rigueur modes of communication. Nowhere is that more so than in Saudi Arabia. Several surveys in 2013 showed that the kingdom has the world’s highest percentage of people on Twitter relative to its number of internet users; and of YouTube too. Little wonder they spend more hours online than their peers elsewhere. That might seem surprising for such a conservative country where the constitution is said to be taken directly from the Koran and women are not permitted to drive. Why are Saudis such big fans of social media?

Outsiders often regard the 30m Saudis as far behind the rest of the world. The modern Saudi state was only founded in 1932, and then on the basis of an existing pact between the Al Saud family and the Wahhabist clerics, who peddle a particularly red-hot version of Islam. It is certainly a traditional place, especially around the capital Riyadh. But the country has also rapidly modernised since discovering its vast oil wealth. It has a GDP per capita of almost $26,000. Today thousands of its young people study abroad, speak English and are as globalised as their worldwide peers. Fully 75% of the population are under 30. They have grown up thinking it normal to go online to do everything from ordering a coffee to watching TV.


It is the wedding of these factors to Saudi Arabia’s social peculiarities that may account for its topping of the virtual rankings. Shopping malls are about the youth’s only source of entertainment since the clerics dislike cinemas and bars. It is illegal for unrelated men and women to fraternise, so friends chat on social media. Facebook has become a way of picking up a date, taking over from young people turning on Bluetooth and searching for random connections. Frustrated Saudis can vent about the government anonymously on Twitter. But social media is not just used for getting up to naughty things. The country’s most popular Twitter account with 11.4m followers is Muhammad al-Arefe, a Saudi cleric; and not a particularly liberal one either.


The Saudi rulers make attempts to close down social media or criminalise things said in cyber-space—often with harsh punishments. Clerics, including salafist-jihadists, use the internet and apps to spread their cause to the vast swathe of the population that is devout and, as such, potentially susceptible to their ideas. But it is impossible to stem enthusiasm for all things online. On the whole, most reckon social media is more of a force for liberalisation in the gas-guzzling country. And there is no sign that the appetite for it is slowing. Saudis are becoming creators as well as consumers. Saudi entrepreneurs, especially in the more relaxed Red Sea city of Jeddah, are launching apps and YouTube channels. Whatever the position of Saudis in the real world, they are fully integrated in the virtual one.

 (Courtesy: The Economist - subscribe now in Pakistan)


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