It can be both fascinating and bizarre to compare regions and cultures through any lens. A couple of articles on the issue of Twitter, its users and the number of their followers caught my eye this week. The first was a piece entitled Our cleric and their Lady Gaga by Saudi media analyst Yasser Al-Ghaslan (Yasser can be followed on Twitter at @alghaslan).
I’m going to start providing brief profiles of the most popular (which I’m defining here as most followed) users of Twitter in Saudi Arabia and then profile users in other countries around the Gulf.
First up, let’s profile the most popular users in Saudi. It may be no surprise that religious figures are the top Tweeters in Saudi Arabia. The below is a top five list of Saudi religious figures.
1. Dr Mohammed Al-Arefe/@MohamadAlarefe – relatively young in comparison to his peers (he was born in 1970), Dr Mohammed Al-Arefe is possibly the most followed person in the Middle East on Twitter with 2.3 million followers. Dr Al-Arefe is a insatiable user of social media (there are several channels on Youtube named after him), and he’s been a pioneer in his use of social media including working with corporate sponsors such as Du to answer questions about religion through Twitter and other digital media channels.
Dr Al-Arefe involves himself in a number of political issues; he recently organized a fundraiser for Syrian refugees and tweeted about Arab Muslims in Iran. Dr Al-Arefe is generally considered to be a mainstream Saudi religious figure in terms of his outlook and views.
2. Dr Ayed Al Qarnee/@Dr_alqarnee – Dr Ayed Al Qarnee is a well-known Islamic scholar who is best known outside of Saudi for his publications which include Don’t Be Sad (La Tahzan) and also Do Not Despair (La Tayass) which was blacklisted after Dr Al Qarnee admitted plagiarizing another author. Dr Al Qarnee has over 1.5 million followers on Twitter, and he’s also active on Facebook and Youtube.
Dr Al Qarnee is often viewed as a progressive in terms of his comments and thoughts. He was one of the first popular scholars in Saudi to rule that Islam does not prohibit women from driving. He has worked with corporations such as telco operator Zain Saudi to promote Islam through digital channels. Unthinkable for most scholars in Saudi, Dr Al Qarnee also collaborated with popular Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu. Dr Al Qarnee also uses Twitter to promote Muslim causes worldwide. He’s been prominent of his support for the Syrian people against the Syrian government and has recently been Tweeting about oppressed Muslim communities in Burma.
3. Dr Salman Al Auda/@salman_alodah – Dr Al Auda is possibly the best known of the five religious figures on this list due to his media work and his jailing and subsequent rehabilitation. Born in 1955 or 1956 in Buraidah, Al-Qassim, Al Auda studied under a number of prominent conservative scholars including Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd Allah ibn Baaz and Muhammad ibn al Uthaymeen. Al Auda was jailed for five years for preaching against the Saudi government. Before his imprisonment Dr Al Auda was an ultraconservative; after his release Dr Al Auda became a different person. He preaches coexistence and tolerance with other religions. Dr Al Audah is the editor of website Islam Today, he regularly appeared on TV network MBC and he uses the internet to give lectures to his followers.
After Dr Al Audah it’s more difficult to discern who should make up the remainder of the list. If I’ve got this wrong then please do let me know and I’ll amend.
4. Dr Tareq AlSuwaidan/@TareqAlSuwaidan – While not a Saudi (Dr AlSuwaidan is Kuwaiti by nationality), Dr AlSuwaidan is an ever-present face on both traditional and social media channels. While Dr AlSuwaidan is the least orthodox of those on this list (his PhD was in petroleum engineering rather than religious studies), he was an early adopter of television with shows across a number of networks. A self-pronounced moderate, Dr AlSuwaidan has just under 700 thousand followers on Twitter and 460 thousand likes on his Facebook page. He has applications available through Apple’s iTunes online store.
Dr AlSuwaidan is a regular user of Twitter, where he generally preaches dialogue and tolerance. Dr AlSuwaidan is less involved in politics than the other preachers on the list. However, he has taken a strong stance on Syria to support activists opposed to the regime.
5. Adnan Al-Arour/@AdnanAlarour – The final person on the list is Sheikh Adnan Al-Arour. Riyadh-based but originally hailing from Hama in Syria, Al-Arour is a conservative cleric who studied under a number of prominent Saudi scholars including Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd Allah ibn Baaz. Al-Arour has had a number of books published and regularly appeared on Safa TV, an Islamic satellite channel based in Egypt. Al-Arour has just under 500 thousand followers on Twitter and over a 100 thousand likes on Facebook.
What marks Al-Arour out from his peers on the list is his involvement in the conflict in Syria. Most of Al-Arour’s online dialogue revolves around events in Syria and his vocal support for the ending of the country’s present regime.
While nearly all of the messaging put out by those listed above is in Arabic, the Financial Times’ correspondent in Riyadh Abeer Allam wrote a sharp piece on the phenomenon which is well worth a read. The article can be viewed here.
As a final twist to the above Saudi-based newspaper Al Eqtisadiah wrote a piece about Saudi celebrities buying followers on Twitter. The article’s main points were reproduced here in English on Al Arabiya. Two of the five scholars listed above are mentioned in the article. If I ever have the time I may check out these allegations. If anyone else has done then please do drop me a line.