By Michael Peel of the Financial Times.
Gulf states are cracking down on alleged politically and religiously offensive messages on Twitter, in a move that is alarming rights campaigners and highlights the surging regional popularity of the site.
Human Rights Watch has condemned the detention of activists in Bahrain and Kuwait, as social media offer a new outlet for criticism in conservative societies where rulers have traditionally enjoyed near-absolute power in exchange for delivering high living standards.
The arrests – together with other detentions in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – show how social websites are expanding Gulf public life in contrasting and sometimes conflicting directions, as nationals traditionally served only by heavily censored media grapple with rapid social change at home and the political turmoil gripping the Middle East.
While Twitter has carved out a niche in Gulf countries as a tool for organising protest, it has also emerged as a means of religious enforcement; an alternative to physical demonstrations in societies where such confrontations are taboo; and as a debating chamber between loyalists and enemies of the ruling monarchies.
Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, a UAE-based columnist and the Gulf’s best known tweeter in English, says the site offers for the first time a “window into the minds and thoughts” of groups ranging from previously remote top officials to hitherto “unrecognised political movements”, often operating under aliases. “Recently pro and anti-government elements have … taken advantage of this anonymity to criticise each other – and go as far as making threats,” Mr Qassemi says.
Human Rights Watch last week called for the release of Nabeel Rajab, a rights activist in Bahrain, where the Sunni Muslim monarchy has cracked down on an uprising led by members of the country’s Shia majority. The campaign group said Mr Rajab, who was previously held for more than three weeks in May, had been detained again this month after he tweeted a call for the prime minister to step down.
Human Rights Watch also criticised the Kuwaiti government over a 10-year jail sentence handed down in early June to Hamad al-Naqi over tweeted messages that allegedly criticised the kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and insulted the Prophet Mohammed. Mr Naqi’s lawyer says his client was convicted under a law forbidding “intentionally broadcasting news, statements, or false or malicious rumours … that harm the national interests of the state”.
The arrests reflect a migration of Gulf nationals of all political persuasions to Twitter. In a recently released infographic, Amman-based social media consultant Khaled el-Ahmad showed users from the region making up more than two-thirds of the estimated 1.3m Twitter accounts active across the Arab world.
In tiny, but politically active Kuwait, almost 8 per cent of the population uses the service; the 235,000 Kuwaiti accounts eclipse the number of users in nearby Egypt, Mr Ahmad’s graphic showed, citing numbers from the Dubai School of Government.
The boom has sent the popularity of leading users in the Gulf surging at a staggering rate. Many of the top tweeters are clerics, led by Mohamed al-Arefe, a telegenic, conservative Saudi Arabian Islamic scholar, who has this year leapt from just under 650,000 followers to more than 1.8m.
Mr Arefe’s rapid rise shows how – among some sizeable Gulf constituencies – the reach of religious figures is far greater than that of the revolutionaries, media personalities and entertainers comprising the site’s elite in other Arab states. This power was demonstrated in February, when Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi writer, addressed the Prophet Mohammed in a series of tweets that many declared blasphemous.
After fleeing the country amid a storm of calls for his arrest and execution, Mr Kashgari was extradited from Malaysia and, according to local media reports, is now in detention awaiting trial.
In the UAE, both representatives and opponents of the status quo have embraced Twitter enthusiastically since a ban on it was lifted in 2008. The country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority – which once oversaw the curb on the site – is now an active user, while Dhahi Khalfan, Dubai’s outspoken police chief, attracts attention and headlines for his lively tweets denouncing Islamists and others he deems to be working against the UAE’s national interests.
The ability of online campaigns by Emirati citizens to reach the halls of power quickly was demonstrated in June with an impromptu Twitter campaign encouraging the UAE’s expatriate majority to wear culturally appropriate dress in public spaces. The call, which resonated widely in the community, quickly made it to local newspaper headlines, international newswires and the country’s Federal National Council, where elected and appointed representatives debated the need for a federal law regulating dress codes.
Deeper political concerns have also been raised. Some UAE citizens have taken to Twitter to rail against what they claim to be the all-pervasive and negative influence of the country’s state security agency, highlighted by the arrest of four people in May on charges of “tribal instigation” and libel over tweeted comments.
The plight of seven Islamists stripped of their nationality documents for unspecified alleged crimes has been broadcast effectively through the site, in the absence of coverage by the local media. Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassimi, the highest profile Islamist to be detained, has praised Twitter as the UAE’s Tahrir Square.
It is part of a wider embrace of Twitter in the Gulf that has been as messy – and sometimes ugly – as might be expected in a region suddenly offered a mighty platform for long repressed public discourse.
“Twitter has contributed to an expansion of freedom of expression,” says Dima Khatib, a correspondent for Qatar’s Al Jazeera, who has emerged as one of the region’s biggest Twitter stars since the start of the Arab uprisings. “But things have cracked wide open – we still don’t know how to respect other points of view yet.”