Blogging in Saudi Arabia

Craig kindly allowed his detailed research paper on Blogging in Saudi Arabia to be shared. I’m confident that you will find this an insightful and very interesting read.

Blogging in Saudi Arabia :  An Agent of

Social Change?

Craig Wetmore

The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies

The Johns Hopkins University – Bologna Center

Via Belmeloro 11

41026 Bologna

18 May 2008

“The Internet is one of the most powerful agents of freedom. It exposes truth to those who wish to see and hear it. It is no wonder that some governments and organizations fear the Internet and its ability to make the truth known.”[1]

Introduction[2]

It has been argued that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is becoming more pluralist by allowing for, and in some instances even promoting, gradual social change.[3] This paper will focus specifically on how the growth of a liberal Saudi blogosphere, in which writers post predominantly in English, might play into this gradual evolution.[4] It is clear that the slight relaxation of media censorship in the Arab world, coupled with immense growth in the level of internet penetration available to the masses, has allowed for the growth of a such a unique online community. This could not have happened without the acquiescence of the regime in power. This phenomenon should not be overlooked, nor should it be overhyped, in analyzing the potential evolution of Saudi society. In some regards, the growing blogosphere is indicative of a younger generation’s yearning for increased personal freedom, individualism, and in some cases, political accountability and reform. In other respects, the Saudi blogosphere is a reflection of a repressive society, one in which dissent is not tolerated, conformity is the norm, and Wahhabism is a dominant factor in daily life. However, a survey of the budding blogosphere demonstrates is by no means a monolith, nor should it be analyzed as such.

The concept and pace of change in the Kingdom is different than in many other parts of the world. One scholar notes, “Change in Saudi Arabia is glacial: it may not be easy to see, but it does exist.”[5] To some outsiders, the Kingdom is most well-known for its conservative Wahhabi society, its position as a significant supplier of oil to the world markets, and its complicated relationship with the West. Indeed, many view the country as one that is stuck in time, a problem the KSA has recently tried to address with an expensive public relations effort.[6] Although the country is still extremely conservative relative to Western standards, the regime is slowly but surely implementing reforms. Between 1971 and 1999, the KSA spent an estimated $1.285 trillion to advance socio-economic development. This dramatic level of investment will most likely result in social change.[7] It is tempting to view this change as a precursor to democratic development, but as one scholar notes, “Reform and liberalization do not equate to democratization – nor do they necessarily lead to it.”[8] What is certain is the extent of social change in Saudi Arabia, and the specific nature of it, is still being debated ferociously both internally and externally.[9] The blogging community constitutes a small but growing voice in this complicated dynamic.

The main goal of this paper is to provide a comprehensive survey of the liberal blogosphere in Saudi Arabia, analyze its development and growth, and determine what role, if any, it plays in the further evolution of Saudi society. The first part of this paper will provide a very brief background on the growth of the internet in the KSA. The controlled manner in which internet access came to the Kingdom has definitely influenced the development of the Saudi blogosphere. The second part of the paper will provide a survey of the blogosphere, mainly by examining blogs written in English and hosted in Saudi Arabia, as well as drawing significantly on personal interviews with selected bloggers. A brief overview of the community is first in order, followed by a more detailed discussion of specific attributes. It is important to note that the majority, but not all of the bloggers interviewed for this paper, blog in English. This is important for reasons to be discussed later. Despite this somewhat narrow approach, by identifying some of the more prominent players, the reasons for their blogging, and the content presented, one can gain a learned appreciation for the growing phenomenon. The final part of the paper will examine the role that bloggers play, if any, in the growing liberalization of Saudi society.

Internet access in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The internet was late in coming to Saudi Arabia relative to the developed world. The region’s first wide-area network, GulfNet, was created in 1985, but was not available for public use. Saudi Arabia actually established an internet link for government use in 1994, but delayed wider availability for the next three years while the government debated the benefits, drawbacks, and logistical requirements of public access. [10] It is clear that the government did not want to open the internet to the public without a comprehensive monitoring system in place. In April 1995, Saudi authorities decided to migrate GulfNet to the Internet Protocol to create “an information super highway connecting academic institutions, research centers, and public libraries in Saudi Arabia,” and proposed to call the network SaudiNet.[11] Not until 1999 was the internet made available to the public. Prior to this, people inside the Kingdom wishing to access the Internet had to dial foreign ISPs in neighboring Gulf Arab states, or have access to a satellite connection.[12] In addition to exercising surveillance, governments can discourage international calls to foreign ISPs by raising the cost of these calls, thus keeping the amount of Saudis online via an external network to a minimum.[13]

By 2001, according to statistics provided by the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), there were only 690,000 people online out of a total population of roughly 24 million. The International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency for information and communication technologies, estimated in 2004 that 6.3% of Saudi Arabia’s population was online.[14] In 2006, according to KACST, 13 percent of the population was online, or 3.1 million people.[15] Data from 2007 estimates there are 4.7 million users online, or roughly 19.5% penetration. The same dataset indicates there were 218,200 Broadband Internet connections available in mid-2007.[16] It is clear that internet growth is extremely robust in Saudi Arabia, with aggregate subscriber numbers slightly above the country average for nations in the Middle East, but that penetration is still quite low relative to the rest of the developed world.[17]

All internet traffic in Saudi Arabia runs through one main group of servers which is housed in Jeddah. Officials use firewalls to censor all websites deemed to violate what they believe are the social, cultural, political, economic and religious principles of the state.[18] This filtering system was originally set up by the Internet Services Unit (ISU) of the KACST. The ISU oversaw and implemented the filtration of web pages that are offensive or harmful to the society or violate the tenets of the Islamic religion or societal norms, under the direction of the Permanent Internet Security Committee. Since the reformation of Internet in KSA that took place in 2006, the Communications and Internet Technology Commission (CITC) now oversees the filtration system.[19] The CITC identifies pornography as the “most noteworthy” content to be monitored, claiming that 95% of all blocked pages fall within this category.[20] According to a study done by the OpenNet Initiative, the Kingdom’s filtering also focuses on pages that deal with drugs, gambling, religious conversion, and sites with tools to circumvent filters (proxy servers). The policies, procedures, and philosophy for Saudi Arabia’s filtering system are relatively transparent and documented on the web site of the CITC. Citizens of Saudi Arabia have the ability, thru a simple web based form, to alert the CITC of pages one might deem to be offensive. After a review of such a request, the CITC can choose to block the page if it deems it necessary. There is also a web form for citizens to request that a page should be unblocked, and according to some bloggers, has led to some minor successes.

With the current technology available for web monitoring, it is obvious the KSA maintains a monopoly over the internet community. However, despite the ability of the regime to effectively censor any website it wants within its own network, it is often noted that relative to other authoritarian regimes, Saudi Arabia is fairly open.[21] Second, it is growing more apparent that citizens are becoming more resourceful in regards to evading censorship. For the most part, access to advanced technology is for the elites of Saudi society, but the use of proxy servers in addition to more expensive satellite connections has enabled some Saudis to view websites the government deems inappropriate. These trends will likely continue to expand access to more citizens as technology becomes cheaper and more widely available.

Survey of blogosphere in Saudi Arabia

Noting that the internet itself is in its nascent stages of development, the blogosphere in the KSA is arguably still in its infancy, but despite this, remains remarkably diverse. The blogosphere began to develop in 2003, but started to grow significantly in 2005.[22] Men and women, Sunni and Shia, young and old – this comprises the demography of the blogging community.[23] Various observers estimate there are anywhere between 200 and 1000 blogs present today in the KSA.[24] One estimate in 2006 claimed the number of bloggers in Saudi Arabia had tripled since the beginning of the year, reaching an estimated 2,000.[25] As a point of reference, a 2007 study estimates there are 70 million weblogs in the world.[26] It is difficult to maintain an accurate estimate of the number of blogs present in any online community noting the frequency with which blogs are moved or simply discontinued. It is clear though that the community is growing larger by the day.

The remainder of this paper draws heavily on email interviews conducted with numerous bloggers living in Saudi Arabia between February and May of 2008. For this section of the paper, unless indicated otherwise, all comments, observations, and conclusions are the result of the aforementioned interviews. Many blogs that exist in Saudi Arabia are written in English, Arabic, or a mixture of both.[27] More than 65% of the blogs maintained on http://saudiblogs.blogspot.com/ are in English. It is clear from many interviews that the English blogging community is perceived to be more liberal in general than the Arabic blogging community. As noted previously, all of these interviews were conducted entirely in English, but roughly 20% of the bloggers interviewed actually blog in Arabic. It should also be noted that opinions attributed to the blogging community in the Saudi in aggregate are at best an approximation. Inferences drawn from interviews cannot be expected to be perfect. There is likely an exception to every generalization. The paper will attempt to note and explain these exceptions when possible.

Bloggers in Saudi Arabia are demographically diverse. The majority of bloggers are in the age 18-30.[28] Some estimates indicate there are as many female as male bloggers, although from an analysis of blogs in English, it seems as though more males are writing. Most bloggers are extremely opinionated, often comical, and for the most part, seemingly well educated. Some utilize perfect English, others struggle with complex sentence construction. Some have studied abroad, either in Western Europe or the United States. Most prefer to blog anonymously, but some write under their real name and even others go as far as provide pictures of themselves. In some instances, blogs are maintained by individuals older than 30, but most of these are by ex-pats who have moved to the Kingdom for various reasons, personal or business related. It can be argued these blogs should be considered part of the Saudi blogosphere as they are maintained in the KSA, but not by a natural Saudi citizen, and thus should be viewed from a different perspective. Additionally, there are a fair amount of blogs written by Saudis that do not reside in the Kingdom. For the most part, this paper does not examine these blogs as closely as those written by individuals that are living within the Kingdom. Nevertheless, the content of such blogs is important in a general sense as to the rounding out of the community.

The content of the blogs in Saudi Arabia varies dramatically from page to page. Less serious blogs read more akin to daily journals, commenting lightly on domestic issues, such as problems with housekeepers, family and friends, personal health, or sports issues. More serious blogs include posts on social, political, and cultural issues, both internal to Saudi Arabia as well in a more globalized context. It is important to note which issues are not commonly addressed. The denigration of specific figures in government or religious circles is considered taboo by many bloggers. Direct criticism of Islam is also very uncommon. The controversial matter regarding the printing of cartoon pictures of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper was not addressed by many posts. The religious police, whose official title is the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, are rarely discussed directly. There are references to incidents in which the religious police played a role, but rarely are they attacked outright.[29] Thus there are “red lines” that are not to be crossed, but for the most part, it seems bloggers say what they want to say.

Despite the growing personal freedom available to users of the internet in Saudi Arabia, there have also been significant and public setbacks. One well known Saudi blogger, Fouad al-Farhan, was detained for more than four months after expressing pro-reform opinions and criticizing government officials.[30] His arrest and detention prompted many other bloggers to comment on his situation, with the international media ultimately picking up the story. His detention has yet to be clearly explained by the Saudi regime, but many bloggers and international journalists have expressed a negative opinion on the repressive nature of the incident. It is unclear if Fouad will continue blogging now that he has been released, but many of his supporters in the blogosphere insist he will indeed re-enter the online community he was instrumental in building. There is no doubt that bloggers will continue to push the line when and where they feel it to be appropriate, and there is a strong likelihood of future detentions or harassment. It remains to be seen if the government will become a repressive entity, or if it will perhaps allow the liberal blogosphere to sustain a voice in the online community. Thus far, it appears as though it is a controlled, but reasonably free environment.

Why are the bloggers blogging?

The plethora of reasons bloggers provide as to their motivation are almost as diverse as the bloggers themselves. Some bloggers are writing to comment negatively on particular social norms in Saudi society, such as the segregation of men and women, the fact that women cannot drive cars, or the lackluster state of the education system. Many openly comment about the state of repression regarding the Arab media. Some activists have used their blogs to organize demonstrations and boycotts, as well as criticize corruption. The less politically inclined have turned their blogs into forums to share personal stories and sexual fantasies.[31] Still others write because they want to promote their business.[32]

As noted previously, it is dangerous to generalize, but most blogs written in English are fairly liberal and pro-Western. Without a working knowledge of Arabic, it is obviously difficult to ascertain the content of blogs written in Arabic. However, most bilingual bloggers note that in general, Arabic blogs are as diverse as English blogs, but more conservative in general. Religion is a more dominant theme on the mind of the Saudi blogger who writes in Arabic.[33] Another major theme of blogs written in Arabic in Saudi Arabia, according to one blogger, is something to the effect of “We need to be heard.” Without a doubt, there is a feeling amongst many bloggers that relates to their need to “vent” about particular issues. Lastly, some bloggers feel as though Saudi blogs written in Arabic are more conservative, and thus less controversial, when it comes to addressing social, cultural, and political issues.

Interestingly, a decent share of female bloggers indicate they write for personal reasons as opposed to political reasons. Simply, many Saudi women are choosing to utilize their growing freedom on the internet to express themselves. One female student at King Saud University in Riyadh started blogging in January 2005 and found she liked it because of her love of writing, noting, “I love blogging because it helps me to express myself and I like to write in English.”[34] Similarly, another female blogger states in a straightforward manner, “I want to share my thoughts, dreams, hopes and feelings through this blog.”[35] Others find blogging an escape from a restrictive culture, for which anonymity is key. The Arab News writes, “Lured by the possible anonymity of the medium, Saudi women have produced a string of blogs filled with feminist poetry, steamy romantic episodes and rants against their restricted lives and patriarchal society.”[36] Others note they enjoy the friendships they have developed with some of their readers online. The above commentary is not meant to imply that all female Saudi bloggers are apolitical, but rather on the margin, many focus their blogs on apolitical issues. An exception to this observation is a blog run by two Saudi females, Khoulah and Farah. Although they have individual blogs, the two teamed up to form a blog to call for Saudi women’s Islamic rights.[37] Khoulah and Farah are hoping to push for change for the better, by educating the public and Saudi women about their religious rights. Their blog also seeks to celebrate and encourage successful Saudi women.[38]

There is also a segment of the Saudi blogosphere that is much more attuned to political and social issues. These bloggers are openly trying to participate in the effort to push for more reforms, increase political activism, and draw attention to their growing community and to the diversity of the KSA.[39] One blogger notes, “I’m a great believer in the Internet, and in the power of information to cast a light into the darker corners of our world. Saudi Arabia is certainly one of those dark corners. I would also like, in my own small way, to educate opinion within Saudi Arabia and around the world that might start to engineer change in our country.”[40] Another blogger writes, “You can’t write whatever you want in the newspaper here; you can’t even lift up a poster in protest. On the blog, it’s a different world. It was the only way to express myself the way I wanted.”[41] A female blogger writes, “Saudis are easily stereotyped by Westerners. In the West, we are often viewed as lazy, filthy rich, spoiled, brain washed, radical Islamists and this view needs to be changed. Blogging helps in expelling this false notion. Just like any other society, we do have a lot of rotten apples, but it is not like we only have one box of bad apples and we are stuck….The bottom line is that we are diverse individuals with varying opinions and outlooks on life, religion, culture and other things. The world needs to see both sides of Saudi society.”[42] The desire of many young bloggers to open their society to the rest of the world comes through powerfully in many instances.

The fight between secular and conservative elements has also moved to the Saudi blogs. A group of liberal bloggers constructed a website to amalgamate a list of Saudi blogs that write without self-censoring. Per the website, the bloggers also setup a meeting to discuss issues in person.[43] It is this group of bloggers that caters mainly to an English speaking audience. Another group of bloggers created a website called the “Official Community of Saudi Arabian Bloggers” (OCSAB).[44] This group is more conservative in nature, and has stipulated that bloggers must adhere to a particular set of rules to be admitted to the organization. These bloggers have agreed to not defame any of the three ‘divine’ religions, not discuss race issues, only write in Arabic (with a few exceptions), and only allow residents of Saudi Arabia into their organization. Several English blogs have noted with acrimony that the efforts of the OCSAB are not in the interests of the growth of the Saudi blogosphere in general, and the inclusivity and strict rules of the organization are not a positive development. One blogger accuses the OCSAB of becoming a government influenced entity as the group has supposedly applied for financial support from the regime.[45] Another blogger notes that this “self-styled ‘official’ blogger group appears to aim for the ‘ethical cleansing’ of the Saudi blogosphere.”[46] One liberal blogger went as far as to make the argument that some of the more conservative bloggers are likely submitting pages to the CITC for the purpose of advocating their blocking. Despite this, it is not uncommon for a blog to be unblocked after a review of the CITC.[47] One blogger maintains that the OCSAB, if it becomes an “arm” of the regime, will serve as the de facto police of cyberspace.

It will be important to monitor how the OCSAB grows, or if the government endorses the group over the more liberally minded blogging community. It is possible that the group will be co-opted into the more conservative parts of the regime and become a tool for repression. It remains to be seen which group becomes more well-known and followed within Saudi society. It is likely that the blogosphere is large enough for both groups to co-exist and grow independently of one another.

Noting the authoritarian nature of the Saudi regime, as well as the recent arrest of Fouad Al Farhan, it is somewhat surprising that many bloggers are seemingly unconcerned about possibly being arrested. However, it is clear that the threat of harassment and the ever present concern that one’s blog might be shut down is on the minds of many. Most bloggers were clear to make the distinction between harassment and detention. Writers that tend to be more political in their posts express a more cognizant fear than those writers taking a “dear diary” approach. Being that these bloggers have all grown up in Saudi Arabia for the better part of their lives, if not their entire lives, they all seem to know where the “red lines” are and do their best not to cross them. In some instances, boundaries are pushed. On the whole however, most consciously obey the unwritten rules. Those bloggers who focus on social behavior in the KSA express the least amount of fear in regards to being arrested or detained. More than one blogger noted that some posts draw negative responses by readers, and on occasion, led to a fear of personal safety. But all in all, there is not a sense of stifling fear or impending doom amongst the blogging community in regards to the potential actions of the regime. Frustration, due to the blocking of blogs by the CITC, is a more common refrain noted.

Why the anonymity? Why English?

A survey of Saudi blogs demonstrates a striking contrast with that of the Western blogosphere in regards to the amount of posts that are authored anonymously. In the West, many blogs are replete with contact information, pictures of the author, and often an abundance of personal information. In Saudi Arabia, most bloggers, but not all, cherish their anonymity. It is clear from many discussions that this is mainly a cultural and social phenomenon. One blogger notes astutely that conformity is important within Saudi culture, as is evident in national dress, and anything outside of those ‘norms’ is immediately denounced as radical or irreligious. Individualism is not inherent to Saudi society as it is to the West. Bloggers enjoy the fact that their anonymity, relative to their peers, allows them to write things they might not otherwise write for fear of being an outcast within their friends and family.[48] The internet effectively provides an escape from a society in which individualism is condemned. According to those interviewed, female bloggers have an added incentive to remain anonymous. Many feel that a female represents not only herself, but also her and her family’s values, and if she “steps out of line,” she might lose some of her privileges. Being that women in Saudi Arabia need social and familial support because of both norms and law, this is not something many are willing to risk.[49] Anonymity thus provides a security blanket for many Saudis spending time on the internet.

A second reason for the anonymous nature of Saudi blogs is related to the suspicion of government monitoring. Depending on the blogger interviewed, there are several different views as to whether or not blogs are monitored by the government. Some are certain they are being monitored, others are certain they are not. Most think that some monitoring is occurring, but not to a significant extent. One point of agreement relates to the influence of language on the blogger’s concern regarding monitoring. Many believe blogs written in Arabic are likely more closely monitored than those written in English, for the main reason that many government officials cannot speak English. At the same time, many of the English blogs are more liberal and thus inflammatory, creating an interesting complication for the regime if indeed it does not have an adequate supply of English speaking analysts. English blogs also have the opportunity to attract international media attention, something that is not likely to be viewed in a positive light by the government.[50] Bloggers that are more political in nature are also more confident their posts are being monitored. There is no doubt the government is aware of the nature of some English speaking blogs, as the arrest and detention of Faoud clearly indicates, but the extent to which the blogosphere is currently being policed by a government entity is less evident. Some bloggers have argued that the regime is more focused on extremist websites and chat rooms conducted in Arabic relative to the liberal English blogosphere. It is more likely that certain English blogs are monitored, especially those that create a “buzz” in the blogosphere, but that many go unnoticed.

Noting the homogeneity of the Arabic language within the Kingdom, coupled with the pervasive Wahhabi influence, the fact that many bloggers write in English is worth exploring. It is practically impossible to determine how many blogs are composed in English relative to Arabic, but it is clear the number of blogs written in English is growing. Several bloggers express their preference for writing in English in order to reach a broader audience. One notes it is the “global lingua franca” and has the potential, if enough readers view the blog, to change the many stereotypes that exist surrounding the Kingdom. Another blogger notes, “If I were also to address an Arabic-only audience within Saudi Arabia, it would not just be a question of language, it would also be a question of style. To be frank, my brand of humor does not get many laughs in a Bedu encampment. The style would need to be simple and folksy, which doesn’t appeal to me personally. If someone else wants to do that sort of blog, I will give them every encouragement.” It is clear the blogger’s intended audience is a determining factor in choosing a language in which to write.

How is censorship impacting the blogosphere?

The Kingdom controls the information its citizens can readily access on the internet via a filtering system that draws upon commercial software from the United States, an expert local staff for operating the system, and Saudi citizen input to suggest over or under-blocking according to stated filtering criteria.[51] With the available technology today, the Saudi regime could block mass access to any blog it wants to censor, assuming its citizens are accessing the blog via the Saudi internet. That access to the internet is via the Saudi infrastructure is a valid assumption for many citizens, but the dynamic is certainly changing. As noted previously, there are also methods which allow citizens to read blocked pages, the two most common being either a proxy or satellite connection.[52] Being that proxies are effectively portals to the internet “outside” of the Kingdom, if a citizen can access such a portal, he or she can bypass the firewall in Jeddah. However, proxies can be blocked like any other web page if the government finds the correct address. Satellite connections are overly expensive, and thus are not frequently utilized by the average Saudi. Nevertheless, it is a fluid situation in which the regime is trying to keep the internet as “Islamic” as possible, but is facing up uphill battle in the fight against technology. The question is whether the government has the resources, or the desire, to monitor a blogosphere which is still quite small and accessible to only a minor part of the population. Being that the ability for monitoring is present, it comes down to a matter of resources. In this case, actions speak louder than public statements or conspiracy theories. Being that the blogosphere does indeed exist, implying the Kingdom allows for its being, it begs the question – why?

The blogging community provides a wide range of views as to the reasons behind the Saudi regime allowing the blogosphere to exist. One blogger notes that it is possible the regime is actually trying to use the blogosphere as a way of reminding citizens who is in complete control. Simply, this argument stipulates the regime will let the blogosphere develop, but then punish those who step over the line in terms of the content that is published. Being that the regime has a monopoly on force and power, it can decide where the lines are drawn. It is entirely possible that technology can be used as a tool of repression, effectively allowing the regime to identify its opponents and deal with them in a manner in which it deems fit. However, it is still too early to draw this broad conclusion in regards to the blogosphere, but it is certainly something that bears watching.

Other bloggers are less cynical. Some think it would be too time consuming for the regime to actively police the blogosphere and do not have the resources available for such a task. In the same vein, others argue it is technologically impossible to shut down bloggers on a daily basis. It is undeniable the process would be time consuming, but the argument that resources are not available does not hold much merit. With the price of oil hovering around $120 a barrel, it is difficult to imagine the regime cannot afford to hire some English speaking software engineers for the CITC division.[53] It is more likely the government is focused on more pressing issues. One blogger believes the government is aware of the satisfaction that many Saudis derive from creating and reading blogs, and that there is a growing sensibility on the part of government to increase its citizens’ satisfaction, thus allowing for the blogosphere to develop. A fourth explanation relates to the desire of the Saudi regime to appear as a liberalizing force in the region in the eyes of its allies. If blogs were frequently blocked and zero dissent was allowed, the international media would not likely ignore the censorship. There are several interest groups that focus their efforts solely on illustrating the nature of authoritarian regimes and media censorship. It is argued the Kingdom simply does not want the negative press.

It is extremely difficult to determine why the regime is doing what it is doing, why the blogosphere is being allowed to develop, and how its expansion might continue in the future. The simplest, and perhaps the most optimistic explanation offered by one blogger, gives credit directly to King Abdullah. Noting the regime’s stated attempts to liberalize some aspects of society, it can be argued the domain of cyberspace is one of the areas in which it is experimenting with increasing personal freedom. Without a direct line of access to the inner circle of decision makers in Riyadh, this argument would be difficult to prove, but it is certainly worthy of further research.

Will bloggers play a role in the liberalization of Saudi society?

As one scholar notes, “Saudi Arabia is in flux – domestic politics, society, the economy and foreign relations. That much is clear.”[54] But how exactly is it changing? And what role does information technology play as a possible “enabler” of freedom and democracy? Jon Alterman writes:

In the United States and in much of the developed world, new information and communications technologies have created a universe in which information is unimaginably plentiful and accessible. This abundance has shaped a new generation of youth, fundamentally different than their elders. In the near term, the primary effects of the information revolution in the Arab world are likely to be domestic. Does that mean information will bring democracy to the Arab world? The answer is probably not, at least in the short term. Political systems take time to grow, and ideas about identity change slowly. Over time, though, it is clear that the sheer volume of information available to people in the Middle East, and especially eagerly consumed by young people, will transform politics. There is no guarantee that young Arabs’ future will be better than their past, but the tools at their disposal to help make it so are more powerful than those of their parents, and their grandparents before them.[55]

Not all scholars are as optimistic. Alon Peled writes in the Middle East Quarterly:

The Internet is a double-edged sword that can work to promote different, and sometimes conflicting, causes in the Middle East. It can open up economies yet at the same time increase the socio-economic gap between the knowledgeable few and the impoverished many. It can disburse free information and simultaneously provide governments with new powerful tools to track the daily lives of citizens. It can broaden political participation while fragmenting communities. Internet technologies can increase trust across borders through access to information or decrease it by introducing new threats (such as data encryption and hackers).[56]

The path to increased personal freedom in repressive societies, irrespective of whether that leads to increased political participation, certainly is positively impacted by the growth of the internet.[57] The precise manner in which the internet impacts the development of the Middle East is being debated, but it is obvious that without the presence of the internet, the blogosphere would not exist. Many would argue the growth of the internet is unstoppable, but does this mean the continued growth of the liberal Saudi blogosphere is inevitable? Noting the arguments made above regarding the regime’s monopoly of force relative to its censorship abilities on the internet, it is by no means a foregone conclusion the liberal blogosphere will continue to grow indefinitely. One could imagine a scenario in which more repressive elements within the Saudi regime advocate an increasingly strict censorship environment on the internet, one in which liberal blogs are aggressively targeted by the CITC. This policy would lead to the development of a blogosphere much different than the one existing today. It might not stop the development of a blogosphere in the long term, but it could certainly derail the efforts of the relatively small number of bloggers today. One could also imagine an increasingly liberalizing society in which personal freedom is expanded beyond cyberspace to include cafes, schools, and public places. This latter vision would likely see a Saudi blogosphere evolve that is even more diverse and vibrant than the one presently in existence. At the present time, with only a few years of history to analyze, and a censorship dynamic which changes almost daily, it is arguably too early to come to a finite conclusion regarding the future of this budding online community.

Upon an initial review of the diversity of content within the blogosphere, it is tempting to conclude that the blogging community is indeed an agent of change. One thing is clear, the pressures on the Saudi regime to evolve are numerous and real. What remains unclear however, is the extent to which the nascent blogging community in the Kingdom might be able to promote and shape such pressures. One can argue the individual personal space that is being created on the Saudi internet via the blogosphere has the potential to contribute to the increasing pressure on the Kingdom to evolve, ultimately leading to the growth of more social and political activism. From a Western perspective, the growing personal freedom that is exemplified by the Saudi blogosphere, an online community built amongst an extremely repressive society, is both striking and impressive. However, what is equally as striking is the general feeling amongst the Saudi blogging community, with few exceptions, that the growth of the blogosphere will not contribute meaningfully to the evolution of Saudi society, either socially or politically.[58] Simply, many bloggers interviewed feel as though the road to significant change is too long, Saudi society is too static, and the regime too powerful for them to make a difference. Despite this seemingly pessimistic overtone, there are a few bloggers that do believe in the power of the internet, and the blogosphere in general, to promote change. One well known blogger writes, “I keep this blog running because I want to be a part of the change that is going on in Saudi Arabia. I want to participate in the effort to push for more reforms, and I want to see this country become a better place.” It is an approach that is refreshing, compelling, optimistic, and speaks to the potential power of the blogging community in Saudi Arabia. Only the future will determine if such goals are also realistic. Regardless of the presence of near term social change in Saudi Arabia, or the lack thereof, the rapid growth of a diverse blogosphere in a society as conservative and repressive as the one present in Saudi Arabia is a phenomenon that certainly warrants further study.


[1] Cerf, Vinton, The Internet Under Surveillance: The Free Flow of Information is not Free, Internet Report by Reporters without Borders, 2003.

[2] The author would like to thank various members of the blogging community in Saudi Arabia for providing valuable insights and information regarding the topic at hand. The paper would not have been possible without this interaction.

[3] Hamzawy, Amr, The Saudi Labyrinth, Carnegie Papers, Middle East Series, N. 68, April 2006 and Doran, Michael, The Saudi Paradox, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, No, 1, January/February 2004.

[4] A brief definition of the term “blog” and “blogosphere” are in order. A blog, a combination of the term web log, is a website, usually maintained by an individual, with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. The blogosphere is a collective term encompassing all blogs and their interconnections. It is the perception that blogs exist together as a connected community (or as a collection of connected communities) or as a social network.

[5] Peterson, J. E, Saudi Arabia and the Illusion of Security, New York : Oxford University Press, 2002.

[6] Stakelbeck, Erick, ‘Saudis’ Multi-Million Dollar PR Agenda,’ CBN News.com, March 15, 2008.

[7] Ibid, Peterson.

[8] Aarts, Paul and Nonneman, Gerd (eds). Saudi Arabia in the Balance : Political Economy, Society, Foreign affairs. New York : New York University Press, 2005, pp. 452

[9] Panel Discussion entitled Has the Saudi Kingdom Reformed? in Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2006, pp. 53-62.

[10] Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia in 2004: A country study by the OpenNet Initiative. A Publication of the OpenNet Initiative. http://www.opennetinitiative.net

[11] Goodman, Seymour E. et al., The Global Diffusion of the Internet Project: An Initial Inductive Study, March 1998, The Mosaic Group.

[12] From the Islamic Voice online, ‘Saudi Arabia approves Internet services,’ Vol 12, No:144, December 1998.

[13] Peled, Alon, Debunking the Internet Myth: Technological Prophecies and Middle East Politics, Middle East Quarterly, September 2000, Volume VII, Number 3.

[14] Alterman, Jon, IT Comes of Age in the Middle East, Foreign Service Journal, December 2005.

[15] Abou-Alsamh, Rasheed, ‘Finding Freedom in Blogosphere,’ Arab News, 06/30/06.

[16] Internet World Stats, Middle East Region. March 2008. http://www.internetworldstats.com/middle.htm

[17] Internet World Stats, The Internet Big Picture: World Internet Users and Population Stats. March 2008. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

[18] The Internet Under Surveillance: Obstacles to the Free Flow of Information. Report by Reporters without Borders. International Telecommunication Union : 2003.

[19] Ibid, Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia in 2004 as well as information available as http://www.internet.gov.sa/

[20] Introduction to Content Filtering in the KSA available at http://www.internet.gov.sa/learn-the-web/guides/content-filtering-in-saudi-arabia

[21] Author’s email interview with several Saudi bloggers, who noted that many websites that are blocked in other Arab countries are indeed accessible in the KSA, such as photo sharing and personal networking pages.

[22] Observation of a well known Saudi blogger available at http://saudijeans.blogspot.com/2005/02/great-divide-observations-on-arab.html

[23] A list of Saudi blogs can be found at http://saudiblogs.blogspot.com/. Unfortunately, many of the links present at this site are no longer functional.

[24] Although there are no official statistics on the number of blogs run by Saudis, a website called saudiblogs.org run by Ahmed Al-Omran already has 300 blogs in its directory, both in English and Arabic, with eight to 10 new blogs being added every month.

[25] Ambah, Faiza Saleh, ‘Saudi bloggers challenge longtime restrictions,’ Islam Daily, 11/13/2006.

[26] Sifry, Dave, The State of the Live Web, April 2007 available at http://www.sifry.com/stateoftheliveweb/

[27] An analysis of the 86 Saudi blogs listed on http://saudiblogs.blogspot.com/ shows 22% are written in Arabic, 12% are written in both Arabic and English, and 66% are written solely in English.

[28] Shaikh, Habib, ‘Blogs fast becoming place of refuge for women,’ Khaleej Times Online, 02/23/07.

Also, a sampling of bios located on many blogs indicates ages in this range.

[29] One blogger dedicates his blog, “In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.” However, he lives in the United Kingdom, and is thus one could argue is under a different set of “rules” relative to his Saudi counterparts.

[30] Interestingly, one Saudi blogger contents that the arrest of Fouad was by no means a surprise nor was it overly secretive. He notes, “In the case of Fouad Al-Farhan, the first time he got into trouble, the Saudi authorities called him and told him they wanted to meet him. They picked him up in their car, took him to a cafe and over coffee told him that they didn’t ‘agree with everything he said’ and that he should stop. He agreed and they dropped him off at home. Later he was even given permission to start blogging again. He was only jailed when he started criticizing the government again. He got his warning and chose to ignore them.”

[31] Ambah, Faiza Saleh, ‘New Clicks in the Arab World: Bloggers Challenge Longtime Cultural, Political Restrictions,’ Washington Post, 11/12/06.

[32] Author’s email interview with a blogger living in Riyadh who noted that one of the 2 reasons he was writing a blog was “to promote myself as a personal trainer.” His other reason was to “to just talk to other people in a frank and truthful way.”

[33] Author’s review of numerous online postings led to this conclusion. One example is present at http://saudijeans.blogspot.com/2005/02/great-divide-observations-on-arab.html

[34] Abou-Alsamh, Rasheet, ‘Finding Freedom in Blogosphere,’ Arab News, 6/30/06.

[35] Personal statement online from a female Saudi blogger who calls her blog “Confessions of a Coconut Wahhabi” available at http://wahhabinut.blogspot.com/2007/01/confession.html

[36] Ibid, Rasheet.

[38] Ibib, Shaikh.

[39] Online personal statement from a popular Saudi blogger available at http://saudijeans.org/about/

[40] Online personal statement from a popular Saudi blogger available at http://muttawa.blogspot.com/2005/12/religious-policeman-faq.html

[41] Ambah, Faiza Saleh, ‘New Clicks in the Arab World: Bloggers Challenge Longtime Cultural, Political Restrictions,’ Washington Post, 11/12/06.

[42] Hussain, Usama, “A new voice in conservative Arabia,” The Students Gazette available at http://www.thestudentsgazette.com/current_detail.php?story_id=183

[43] There was no summary of the meeting available, although it does appear as though there was an attempt to organize, as is indicated at http://saudiblogs.blogspot.com/2005/10/calls-for-first-saudi-bloggers-meet-up.html. From email conversations with some bloggers, it is clear that many communicate quite frequently, both in person and online.

[44] Official website of the OCSAB available at http://www.ocsab.com/

[45] Comment by a Saudi blogger who is against the formation of the OCSAB. http://alienmemoirs.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/05/oscab_round_no_.html

[46] Blogger from Bahrain comments on the OCSAB in his post “Saudi Cyber-Vigilantes effect first Saudi blog ban” available at http://www.aqoul.com/archives/2006/06/saudi_cybervigi_1.php. Another blogger argues the same at http://dotsson.blogspot.com/2006/06/unblock-saudi-eve_04.html

[47] Several bloggers note this, one such comment is available at http://rasheedsworld.blogspot.com/2005/11/blocked-and-then-unblocked.html

[48] One female blogger notes, “I hide my identity for the sake of privacy, really. If I used my real name I would not have the freedom to say what i think and feel because I’d always keep in mind the feelings of others. And as I said, our culture values privacy, and blogging would definitely be a form of ‘airing your dirty laundry.’”

[49] A Saudi women’s dependence on male providers is summed up in a recent article in the Boston Globe. “Saudi women often must obtain permission from a guardian – a father, husband, brother or son – to work, travel, study, marry, or even access healthcare. They cannot open bank accounts for their children, enroll them in school, obtain school files, or travel with their children without written permission from the child’s father. Saudi women also are prevented from accessing government agencies that have not established female sections unless they have a male representative. Despite national regulations to the contrary, some hospitals require a male guardian’s permission to allow women to be admitted, have medical procedures performed or be discharged, the report found.” Abu-Nasr, Donna, “Saudis urged to end sex segregation,” Boston Globe, 4/21/2008.

[50] One blogger notes “English blogging is more quotable by the world!”

[51] Ibid, Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia in 2004.

[52] Villeneuve, Nart, Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents, Reporters Without Borders, 2006, pp. 63-79.

[53] At the time of this writing on May 18, 2008, WTI is priced at $126.29 a barrel. http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/commodities/energyprices.html

[54] Aarts, Paul and Nonneman, Gerd (eds). Saudi Arabia in the Balance : Political Economy, Society, Foreign affairs. New York : New York University Press, 2005, pp. 433.

[55] Alterman, Jon, IT Comes of Age in the Middle East, Foreign Service Journal, December 2005.

[56] Ibid, Peled.

[57] Emma Murphy writes, relative to her thesis in Agency and Space: the political impact of information technologies in the Gulf Arab states, “It concludes that modern ICTs have demonstrated the potential to expand the existing public sphere, and to create new opportunities for liberal political activity.” This paper can be found in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 6, 2006, pp 1059-1083.

[58] When asked if the growth of the blogosphere will play a role in the evolution of Saudi society, in the growth of political activism, or in the potential move to a more democratic arena, several responses were noteworthy. One blogger writes, “The easy answer to the above question is “No”. However, blogs and the new media in general can be a relatively small contributor for cultural and maybe political changes in the country. Yet, the road is way too long. Many people do not care about political activism and consider it a waste of time and very risky!” Another blogger notes, “Blogs and more importantly Arabic forums are giving people an opportunity to criticize and voice their concerns. Where will this lead to? I’m not sure. As for this being a step toward democracy, I don’t think so.” A third blogger writes, “Blogging has the potential to lead to change, however I don’t really count that much on it. In a country that has been put under thick fences to keep it away from the outside world for so long, there is lots to be changed before we can get to the phase of political activism via blogs….blogging is a small step among many other needed steps.” One particularly cynical bloggers argues, “No. Not at all. You should keep in mind that the majority of the people in this country do not want to change. They think democracy is the devil. The majority of women are against females being allowed to drive in Saudi because they said that it will “open new doors”… the few people who interact with the outside and cry for “democracy” in this country are a minority. It’s sad, but it’s true.”

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19 Responses

  1. In terms of solving the language problem, because we need a non-national global language, can I suggest a language like Esperanto.

    An interesting Youtube video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com?v=_YHALnLV9XU

  2. Loooong one Carol :), but I had the day of so I did get though it.

    I agree with much of the analysis. I also second his comments regarding the Arabic blogs being more conservative. The English blogs are read by very few inside the country and thus have less influence on change. However, they do provide great educational reference about the country and do a good job in breaking the stereo types. I hope someone does a similar analysis on the Arabic web.

  3. I thought about splitting it into several posts but decided against…glad you read it through S in US.

    I also agree with much of the analysis and believe the author did a good and thorough job. It would be very interesting if a similar analysis could be done on the arabic blogs. Do you follow any of them?

    In my view, I don’t think the intent of any of the english language blogs about KSA are written with an intent for change or reform. I know Saudi Jeans states that is one of his goals though.

  4. Brian, thanks for the educational video. I do think a designed language can be more powerful and easier to use, but unfortunately the dream of creating a universal language will never come true. English already has 10% of the population of the world as fluent speakers. This number is more impact full if you consider that half of those speakers are non native. Meaning that English has gained a foothold with other societies especially among the more influential groups like intellectuals, businessmen, technologist, etc. I think it is better to build on what we already have with English and hopefully the numbers can keep growing.

    Carol,

    I do read a number of Arabic blogs. Actually, I have more Arabic blogs, on my list of 100 or so, than English ones. I have been more aggressive about reading in Arabic lately, because I need to keep my language skills up. Also, I think the quality is not up to what you find in English. It is really hard to find real good Arabic blogs. I am not just talking about writing quality, but also diversity of topics. One of the things that disappoint me is that too many of them have a religious focus. I know religion is important, but certainly there are hundreds of other topics to write about. You can see that also in some of the commentators, where they take a religious stance in every discussion.

  5. S in US: Glad to hear you also follow the arabic blogs. I should start doing that as another mechanism to enhance and improve the arabic that I do have.

    If possible, I’d love your list and would be happy to add another blogroll which focuses on Saudi blogs in arabic.

  6. Ok, I’ve sat down for a whole afternoon, and read the post.

    Bugs me:
    *Although the country is still extremely conservative relative to Western standards,*
    I know it’s not my place to say, but: what of it?. And why is it that anything like ”progressiveness” should be linked to ”the west” why can’t a country (not KSA obviously) be ”progressive” in it’s own way? I can entirely concieve an islamic country being ”progressive” in their own islamic way. That the majority don’t choose to be so doesn’t change the possibility of progression.
    Islamic countries were quite ”progressive” in the far past. I wonder what has happened that made them slide back.

    Internet only since 1999? oefff

    Brian: I love Esperanto, and speak a tiny bit, but we should have been brought up on it: everybody from our teens like the man in the video. I think English has taken over the role Esperanto was created for.
    And if it comes to be that english is being used as lingua franca over most of the globe then it will have lost its National status, it will have become a global language.

    Reading blogs has given me a much more realistic view of places far away 🙂
    and new friends! 😀

  7. I know…it takes the record for the longest which I’ve posted on my blog.

    It should also be noted that KSA has had internet since 1999 but does not go into when other connectivity options outside of dial up were finally introduced… which was in fact very recent.

  8. Carol,

    I read a diverse list of blogs. I am going to include a few of my favorites and try to avoid any ones that promote specific ideologies either political or religious.

    – Heaven’s Steps http://www.hdeel.ws/blog/ : As you know we recently lost Hadeel al-Hodaif, one of the best Saudi bloggers. I decided the best way to pay my respect too her is by re-reading all her previous posts. I am including her blog in my short list as a tribute to her beautiful spirit.

    http://sarahjassi82.jeeran.com/ : This is the blog of Sarah Mattar, a Saudi college student and probably the best literature talent in the Arabic blogs. I think Sarah will be a great published writer in the near future.

    – Random Thoughts http://prom2000.blogspot.com/ : A general arts blog. Well written and provides great diversity of topics.

    – Thoughts On Art http://topart2000.blogspot.com/ : By the same writer as previous blog. This one focuses on reviews of famous paintings. I think the arts do not receive enough focus in the Arabic world, so I feel these 2 blogs are a good find.

    – Mohammad Omar blog http://www.mohomar.com/ : A Jordanian writer covering daily type of issues, but with focus on the big picture and with an easy enjoyable style of writing.

    – GadgetArabia http://www.gadgetsarabia.com/ : By now you probably figured out that I am a geek at heart. This commercial blog provides reviews of electronic gadgets in Arabic.

    – Dr. Net http://www.qatardr.net/blog/ : This writer provides good coverage of the Internet in Arabic. It is a very useful resource for anyone following developments or looking for ways to improve knowledge of technologies. There are many sites like this in English, but an Arabic site is rare.

    http://www.osama.ae/ : Random topics by a writer from the UAE. One of my favorites as I enjoy his sarcastic sense of humor.

    I should stop here before I get carried away. One last thing to mention is itoot.com, which is a site that aggregates Arabic blogs. I think you should add your blog to the list there, if you have not already. You will also find a good list of Blogs, both in English and Arabic, written by Arabic writers.

  9. Aafke,

    You have very thoughtful questions:

    “And why is it that anything like ”progressiveness” should be linked to ”the west” why can’t a country (not KSA obviously) be ”progressive” in it’s own way?”

    I am going to provide my view and hopefully do not stir up controversy. Conservatism has swept over the Arabic world in the past 3 decades. Regardless whether you attribute that to support from petro-dollars or the reaction to oppressive regimes, it is becoming a fact. The environment does not encourage the development of progressive ideology locally and in many cases oppresses them. Being an independent philosopher or an intellectual can mean extreme rejection by social order. I am not sure if you remember the list of intellectuals that were accused of being heretics by WM. That list included some of the best minds of the Arabic world in the 20th century. We are a society that punishes its best thinkers, much like Europeans did in the dark ages.

    So with the absence of local development of progressive ideas, it is convenient for the masses to adapt readily available Western ones. The strength of western media makes this task even easier. What I mean by media here is not just visual media like TV and movies, but also books, magazines and online resources.

    It is also important to note that not only the West has influence on Arabic societies. Socialist ideologies were and to a certain extent still are very prevalent in the Arabic world. Obviously those have been losing ground ever since the fall of the Soviet Union.

  10. S in US – thank you so very much for the list of blogs. The next weekend I’m going to have to create a Saudi arabic blog roll and add them. Interestingly from your blogroll I just learned a friend of mine has been blogging in arabic!

  11. […] an insightful and very interesting read. Blogging in Saudi Arabia 😕 An Agent of Social Change? Chttps://delhi4cats.wordpress.com/2008/05/23/blogging-in-saudi-arabia/Business Line Headlines Friday, September 07, 2001 The HinduAdvertising & Marketing Peoplemeter […]

  12. Long article :d
    it’s a nice story about internet in Saudi Arabia

  13. glad you enjoyed and welcome, Amjad.

  14. […] Arabia has a large and active blogosphere, in which all kinds of voices and opinions can be heard, including opinions that cannot be expressed in the country's media. But can blogging play a […]

  15. […] Arabien hat eine große und aktive Blogosphäre, in der die unterschiedlichsten Ansichten aufeinandertreffen – auch solche, die in den Medien des Landes nicht geäußert werden dürfen. Aber kann das Bloggen […]

  16. […] Arabien hat eine große und aktive Blogosphäre, in der die unterschiedlichsten Ansichten aufeinandertreffen – auch solche, die in den Medien des Landes nicht geäußert werden dürfen. Aber kann […]

  17. […] Arabia Saudita la blogosfera è sviluppata e attiva, con un ampia varietà di voci e opinioni [in], incluse quelle che non trovano spazio nei media tradizionali del Paese. Tuttavia, la […]

  18. Very interesting paper and I do believe the first to be conducted on such subject in Saudi… Thanks so much for sharing Carol…

  19. You’re welcome Amr!

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