Abdullah Al-Maglooth and Raif Badawi are both Saudi bloggers. They both enjoy a massive online following. But while one of them was honoured at the Arab Social Media Awards for employing social media channels to promote positivity and tolerance, the other is serving a ten-year prison sentence, and the very reason for his incarceration is the Saudi government's intolerance for the blog he maintained.
When UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched the Arab Social Media Awards in June 2014 to celebrate and promote the use of social media in the region, Badawi had already been in jail in Saudi Arabia for two years on multiple charges including “founding a liberal website” and “insulting Islam”.
“We want this prize to add real value to existing efforts to develop all channels and sectors of the Arab media. By honouring online influencers, we stress the great value that an innovative and effective social media presence can bring,” said Sheikh Mohammed at the time.
The awards were presented at the first-ever Arab Social Media Influencers Summit on 17 and 18 March 2015, attended by over 15,000 social media influencers, enthusiasts and professionals alike. Amongst those invited to speak were Brandon Stanton, author of the blog 'Humans of New York' and Chris Messina, inventor of the Hashtag. The 'Humans of New York' blog has over 12 million followers on Facebook and Messina has a following of more than 73,800 people on Twitter.
Prominent Arab online influencers including Ali Jaber, director of MBC Group and Dean of Mohammad Bin Rashid School of Communication, and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, independent journalist and former host of HuffPost Live, also spoke at the summit.
Raif Badawi, too, is considered an online influencer, as his 40,000 Twitter followers would surely agree. His website, now closed down, was set up to promote debate about religion in the Saudi kingdom, where freedom of expression is not guaranteed in the constitution. Badawi's sentence also included 1000 lashes, to be given over 20 weeks. He received the first 50 lashes on 9 January 2015 and since then his case has received an outpouring of international support as governments and organisations around the world including Amnesty International have called for his release.
Not just a Saudi problem
Many others across the Arab world, and more specifically the Gulf States, have been targeted and harassed for their online dissent. Some, like Badawi, have been jailed, and some have had their citizenships revoked.
Since November 2012, when UAE president Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan issued a vaguely worded cybercrimes decree, at least six people in the Emirates have been sent to prison for comments made on Twitter.
In Bahrain, where the government has been attempting to smother an uprising demanding reforms since 2011, protesters turned to Twitter en masse to express dissent — but it wasn't long before the authorities caught up with the tech-savvy activists online. So far in 2015, nine people have been arrested for “misusing social media”, a charge punishable by a fine or up to two years in prison.
In Kuwait, long considered a bastion of free speech in the region, online critics of the regime and the royal family have been facing a growing crackdown, as has been reported by the Gulf Center for Human Rights. On 29 January 2015, Abdulaziz al-Mutairi was sentenced to five years in prison for undisclosed tweets the court said had insulted an emir. According to Human Rights Watch, since the start of the year Kuwaiti authorities have brought prosecutions against at least 60 people who expressed critical views on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, other social media platforms, and at protests.
In Qatar, poet Mohammed Al-Ajmi is serving a 15-year sentence for “insulting the emir” because of a poem he wrote criticizing governments across the Gulf region in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings. He was arrested after a video of him reading the poem in public was posted on YouTube.
In Oman, an appeals court upheld the jail terms of 28 online activists in late 2012. While Sultan Qaboos later pardoned all activists, netizens and human rights defenders convicted on charges of defamation, cyber-crime or illegal assembly—a move hailed as a positive development—human rights organizations report that since then at least two bloggers have been detained in relation to their activities online.
These monarchies, together with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which was formed in 1981. A regional intergovernmental political and economic union, one of its most important charges was the defense of the region's ruling families. To safeguard their interests, cracking down on critical political speech was deemed necessary.
But with the rise of social media in the region in the last few years, controlling such speech has become more difficult.
Gulf states unite against dissent in the digital sphere
The young populations of the Gulf Arab monarchies are some of the most avid users of social media in the world. With 2.4 million users, Saudi Arabia boasts the highest number of active Twitter accounts in the region. A July 2012 Arab Social Media Report found that #Bahrain was the most-tweeted hashtag in the Arab world in February and March 2012. Recent research has also shown that trust in social media as a news source in the region has been growing fast.
In a recent interview with Muftah, Jessica Dheere, the executive director of the Beirut-based Social Media Exchange, said of the Gulf States, “They're in a kind of trial-and-error calibration period to see how much control they can exercise over critical online speech.”
A meeting of GCC leaders in June 2014 resulted in an agreement among ministers for more cooperation in policing social media sites.
In October, during a meeting of the GCC States' information ministers, Bahrain's media affairs minister, Sameera Bin Rajab, said social media networks are being used to 'blackmail' Gulf States to implement political reform processes.
“It is important to take advantage of the international efforts that seek to regulate the electronic media in order to reduce the pressure exerted on the countries in the region under the pretext of freedom of opinion and expression, and which is being misused to blackmail and impose specific views,” she said.
Some States care more about their international image than others. The UAE has been especially keen to project the image of a progressive and tolerant nation. When a 2003 UN Arab Human Development report recommended that regional governments in the Middle East encourage "cognitive learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity”, the UAE embarked on systemic reforms, major investments in research and development and the construction of a new cultural and educational district.
The missing element
Hosting the Arab Social Media Influencers Summit is another indication of their commitment to economic and cultural development. On the summit's official website, the words creativity, progress, entrepreneurship and innovation stand out. Attendees were exposed to a range of examples, perspectives and theories about the importance of social media in the business sector, the tech industry, and the media. Only good can come out of such an initiative, but if the UAE's rulers are truly committed to progress, creativity, and cognitive learning, one key element is missing from the mix —dissent.
A recent essay published by the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), a nonprofit organization based in the United States, argues that a culture of dissent is essential for economic diversification and progress.
The authors point out that while the UAE's stated vision is to cultivate a generation of nationals with an “appetite for risk-taking”, the freedom to choose what to teach and what to learn will still be decided by the region's ruling elites.
If the UAE and others in the region are truly committed to creating a climate that encourages innovation, as the rhetoric around the Summit suggests, individuals who express opinions that are different from the majority must be celebrated, rather than silenced. Encouraged, rather than punished.
In short, dissent—whether academic, commercial, political, or intellectual—must be embraced, and that change in attitude must start with the ruling elite themselves.