Every summer, The hot ‘simoom’ winds hit the Gulf states. In August, this region is considered one of the hottest in the world. This, however, is not the only problem facing those living in the Gulf. One of the more important problem is the absence of civil society organizations, generally replaced by charities controlled by competing bourgeois families, or business associations debating the economic needs of the region. Amid scorching heat, and the absence of civil society organizations, how do Saudis express themselves?
Saudis against normalization
Last month, a group of Saudis led by former major general in Saudi Intelligence, Anwar Ashqi, visited Israel. This was the first Saudi semi-official visit to Israel. It took place at a time when Saudi Arabia was still keeping with its historical position of boycott. The Saudi public found itself lost between the silence of officials and the chorus of supporters for normalization with Israel.
A few days later, social media accounts from various political affiliations appeared. Arab nationalists, Islamists, and Liberals from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere were using the hashtag #Saudis_against_normalization to call for mobilization on a specific time and date.
Saudi Arabia has the highest number of active twitter users in the Arab region, with twice as many users as in Egypt, and 40% of active users in the Arab region as a whole. With this huge twitter presence, the hashtag against normalization was trending within hours, reaching 6 million visits in the first 48 hours.
On August 2nd, a petition was circulating on twitter via “Saudis against normalization”. The petition condemned the political and economic normalization, and demanded that no further visits take place. It was first signed by around 100 people, and within the first three days the number of signatories reached 2000 and included writers, thinkers, clerics, and journalists from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Since it appeared on the “Saudis against normalization” page, the petition was circulated by BDS accounts all over the Arab world. Many newspapers and websites were covering the story, and TV channels close to the Saudi government such as Al Majd, were hosting discussions about the hashtag. This lead Saudi ambassador at the UN, Abdallah Al Mouallimi, to write an article in the Madina newspaper entitled “The Celebrating Normalizers” in which he condemned the visit and called it the “cursed visit”.
Holding the public sector accountable
This was not the first time Saudis made a collective stand against decisions by the state. For instance, a clip circulated showing former Health Minister, Ahmad Al Khatib, speaking in a chauvinistic way to a citizen. Saudis responded by launching a hashtag demanding the resignation of Al Khatib for his inappropriate behavior. This led King Salman to remove the minister from office. Furthermore, Saudi reactions on twitter also led to the resignation of former Saudi ambassador in Egypt, Hisham Nazer. He had appeared in another clip replying dismissively to a Saudi woman asking him for a solution to her problem. The Saudi public launched a hashtag using his words to criticize his behavior and demanding his removal.
Even sports were not spared from Saudi public campaigns. With the end of the Rio Olympics this summer, and the Saudi delegation failing to win a single medal, a wave of popular anger grew on twitter against the head of the Saudi Association for Athletics, Nawaf Ben Mohammed. Users launched the tweet #remove_Nawaf_Ben_Mohamed and expressed their frustration at the failure of the Kingdom in achieving anything noteworthy in the Olympics in the last 25 years. Seven days later he was removed from office and the board of the association was dissolve and replaced by an interim management.
Alternative social and political platforms
The Saudi public is not alone in recognizing the power of social media. Authorities are also well aware of the effect these tools can have on public opinion. The Misk group held a conference called “Tweeps” in Ryadh last April, hosting a number of social media celebrities as well as a number of ministers and important figures from the Gulf. They discussed the nature of social media and the most important issues that it presents.
Today, social media in Saudi Arabia carries of some of the most important demands the Saudi public has, with the least censorship. After all, civil society organizations suffer from a number of limitations, especially with the need to register as official institutions while gatherings under any unofficial umbrella are strictly banned. These constraints create the allusion that the Saudi society is lazy, weak, and inactive. However social media activity shows a very different picture.
Twitter made it possible to mount campaigns in unprecedented speed and organization. Today Saudis have a wide number of interconnected youth networks able to create a collective standpoint involving hundreds of thousands within hours. These new tools allowed the creation of new collectivities that bypass traditional elites, and do not revolve around the usual symbols easily controlled by the state. These collectivities allowed the creation of an organized collective position rarely seen in Saudi Arabia, and able to escape the repression of the state by constantly reforming itself and reappearing from various channels.
When in 2011 calls for freedom were heard across the Arab world, the majority of Saudi demands had to do with civil society and rights. The aim was not only to participate in public life, but also to achieve these demands rather than repeatedly implore officials. But things unfortunately did not go as planned, and many dreams were not fulfilled.
With the continued absence of civil society organizations, Saudis are trying to use the tools at their disposal to fill the gap. Social media becomes a platform for political and social demands, it holds officials responsible at all levels, say “NO” to normalization with Israel and creates pressure without going through state institutions, but from within the Saudi public.