March 25, 2013 12:57 pm

Saudis challenged by power of social media

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Trials of activists in Saudi Arabia are usually held quietly, with the government trying to keep a lid on the detail. Recently, however, political activists who have fallen foul of the government have been tried in a more public way, with the media and ordinary people allowed to attend court sessions.

The new attitude is not necessarily a sign of greater judicial transparency, though. Like public beheading for capital offences in the heart of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the trials appear to be designed as a warning to a population increasingly wary of the opaque decision-making process in the kingdom.

Since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in the region two years ago, the Saudi authorities have clamped down harder on dissent. Although there were few ripples of protests within the kingdom, the government has not taken any chances.

Last week saw the resumption of the trial of Waleed Abu al-Khair, an outspoken rights activist accused of insulting the judiciary, talking to foreign media and contacting international human rights watchdogs. This follows the trial of two critics of the Saudi government, Mohamed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, who co-founded in 2009 the banned Civil and Political Rights Association. They received harsh prison sentences.

The crackdown is a significant setback for independent activists who had thrived under the limited openness that followed King Abdullah’s ascent to the throne in 2005 with a promise of reforms.

But the activists might have been seen as posing a great threat today because of the impact they have had online.

Saudis are among the most active social media users in the Middle East, which allows them to escape the restrictive gender-segregated public space and express frustration with the government.

The royal family has become increasingly alarmed by the impact of social media, which it apparently saw as giving ordinary people unprecedented power. While calls for reforms are not new, in the past demands were expressed by writing petitions to senior members of the royal family.

The government has also always been able to play Islamists against liberals and vice versa. In the process, the royal family emerged as the arbiter between the two groups, with the upper hand to reward or withhold patronage.

But the activists who have been suffering from the crackdown in the past two years do not define themselves in either liberal or Islamist terms. They have also been reaching out directly to people. One of their efforts has been to help families of political prisoners understand that fair trials are a right – and not a concession that needs to be handed down by the rulers. They have also advocated an elected parliament and told people that it was not un-Islamic to object to the king’s decisions or raise questions about corruption.

“The royal family does not want anyone to challenge the image that they are an open-minded, reformist family ruling a very conservative and radical population who do not want any rights,” says Mr Abu al-Khair, one of the activists on trial. “We do not want to change the regime, we want accountability. No one would object to having basic rights, fair trials and less corruption.”

While cracking down on dissent, the Saudi authorities have sought to address people’s frustrations with a generous package of social spending, which exceeds $70bn. But whether this will be enough to keep the population quiescent in the long term without political reforms as well is doubtful.

Saudis complain that despite the billions of dollars spent, public health, housing and education services are decaying. They are also perplexed by recent reshuffles of royal positions, which give them no clarity on why or how princes are being promoted or pushed aside.

Last week, Salman al-Odah, a leading independent cleric, delivered a warning to the rulers that caused a stir on Twitter, the microblogging site, where he has 2.5m followers. Although under pressure from the government because he was a supporter of the Arab uprisings, he spoke out in an open letter posted on social media that the Saudi government could no longer ignore people’s grievances or the calls for reform.

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