Turkey, Twitter and how a ban couldn’t/wouldn’t happen in the Gulf

While Turkey is busy trying to gobble up Twitter, there’s little chance of anyone in the Gulf banning social media any time soon (image source: http://www.globalpost.com)

Last week, we in the Arab world were treated to a spectacle that we’re all too often participants in. Instead, we looked on as the government of a neighboring country pulled the plug on a social media service and denied its citizens and residents the right to use Twitter. The story behind the move by Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to block access to Twitter is fascinating, a page-turner about corruption, dissent and how one man is trying to dominate political will in his own country (have a read of the background here, in a wonderful piece written by the New Yorker’s Jenna Krajeski).

A question/tweet by the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Knickmeyer about the situation in Turkey from a Middle Eastern perspective got me thinking about the subject. Here’s my take on the Gulf states country-by-country.

Saudi Arabia

Let’s start with the largest country in the region, Saudi Arabia. There are millions online and active on social media in the Kingdom (both Twitter and Facebook have fifteen million Saudi users between them – Facebook has approximately eight million users and Twitter just under seven million ). For many, social media is a release, a forum for open debate where anything and everything can be discussed.

The whole spectrum of Saudi society is online and using social media – some of the most popular and prolific tweeters are religious scholars. while there is criticism of policy online, would the government be willing to risk a public backlash any social media channels were to be closed? Rather, Saudi’s social media policy can be summed up in one sentence – do what you want online but we are watching you. Saudi’s online laws, which have recently been rehauled, allow for citizens to be detained for their online activities (a recent piece by Abeer Allam for Al-Monitor covers recent developments in the Kingdom).

Bahrain

The second Kingdom on the list, Bahrain has suffered more than most over the past three years. Bahrain’s social media has become almost as polarized as the situation in the country, between those who support the government and those who support the opposition. However, despite the war of words online Bahrain has never threatened to pull the plug on social media (there was a communications blackout during the early days of the political crisis in Bahrain).

Instead, the island state has tightened up its online legislation and has cracked down on bloggers and other activists who use social media (Global Voices’ editor Amira AlHussaini wrote a piece about the arrest of blogger Mohammed Hassan in July 2013).

The Kingdom uses social media to communicate both locally and globally on issues such as security, foreign policy and terrorism. Would Bahrain seek to indirectly legitimize the opposition’s claims that the government is cracking down on media through pulling the plug on social media? Not likely.

The United Arab Emirates

The second largest country in the GCC by population, the United Arab Emirates has taken to social media like a duck to water; the country’s leadership are online, the country’s businesses are online and the country’s population are also online tweeting, updating their statuses and uploading pictures of every single meal and building around them mainly on their smartphones. The UAE’s population communicates about literally everything, except to criticize.

There’s so few people in the UAE who aren’t supporting the country’s leadership that the thought of any social media being pulled seem ludicrous. For those that do dissent the UAE introduced in 2012 more stringent online laws which include jail time for those that defame the country. These laws have been put into effect.

Kuwait

Maybe surprisingly for those who don’t know the region, Kuwait has the freest media industry in the region, with columnists regularly criticizing government policy. Kuwait’s parliamentary system and the level of public discourse in the country means that few subjects are off-limits. Kuwait’s social media scene is also buzzing – Twitter reckons that over half of the country’s population, 1.5 million out of 2.7 million, are active users.

Even in Kuwait however, there have been cases of people being jailed for their tweets, either for insulting the Emir or for blasphemy. Still, it’s hard to see how or why any social media channels would be banned in a country that is known to enjoy a ‘debate’ every now and then.

Oman

On the periphery of the Gulf, Oman was affected by the Arab Spring. The country’s ruler Sultan Qaboos introduced sweeping reforms to appease Omanis calling for a better standard of living. The country has contended with online activists and the authorities have warned people not to spread libel and rumours that prejudice national security. Would Oman seek to shut down social media? Again, it’s unlikely.

Qatar

Last but certainly not least, Qatar has championed its own brand of journalism aka Al Jazeera for over a decade now. The country with its vast gas reserves has not had to contend with any political discussions about its governance and future. Qatar has jailed one person, a Qatari national, for publishing a poem on Twitter.

In addition, the country’s government is seeking to introduce a revised cybercrime law which would increase and expand the capacity under which a person communicating online could be jailed for (for a detailed news piece read this article by Matt Duffy on Al Monitor here). However, there’s little chance of anyone in government shutting down any social media channels in the country.

In short, social media has changed the Gulf just as it’s changed the world. The region’s citizens and residents have much more freedom to talk about issues online. The Gulf’s governments and their business interests have also become adept at using social media to promote their own messaging and market themselves. The region’s citizens are aware that even online they’re being monitored (this BBC article describes this notion of being watched) and most of them will tread carefully about what they say and how they say it. For others, they’ll go online anonymously and tweet to their heart’s content.

For governments, social media has become a release value on societal pressures and the message to nationals is clear – talk about whatever you want but don’t criticize. Examples have been made of those who do. But, while the governments have the ability to cut off social media and even throttle or close access to the internet, thankfully the Gulf isn’t Turkey. No one here is going to ban Twitter or any other social media channel any time soon.

Reputational Issues and the Pressure from Outside to Change – Will the Gulf’s Firms Be Forced to Adopt More Worker-Friendly Policies

Smile for the media! Will Gulf-based airlines be forced to change their employment practices or will they risk possible reputational damage in the face of criticism from the foreign press? (image source: http://www.nycaviation.com)

First there was Qatar and now the UAE. I’m not talking GDPs, economic growth or any other metric that a government may promote in the public spotlight. Rather, I’m talking about media criticism, notably international media criticism of worker rights.

Over the past couple of weeks a series of articles have been written, mainly by the European media, critiquing the lack of rights for employees of Qatar Airways and Emirates. The pieces, in particular a lengthy series of allegations in Swedish newspaper Expressen, have shone a light on employment practices, many of which appear distasteful to those not used to working or living in the Gulf.

The article in Expressen entitled the Truth About the Luxury of Qatar Airways details the conditions under which Qatar Airways employees have to live. The report, which can be read here, tells of strict curfew times for air hostesses and pilots, constant surveillance, and instant terminations.

Others have run similar allegations. Even locally, we’re beginning to see these articles appear in the press; Arabian Business recently ran two pieces on the HR practices of both Qatar Airways and Emirates.

With a global presence comes greater media scrutiny. Similarly, global events on your doorstep can attract negative headlines (look no further than Brazil in the run up to this year’s World Cup or even Qatar, the 2022 World Cup andthe country’s labor camps).

In a sense, I’m surprised that this hasn’t happened sooner. The region’s three big airlines are global players who aim to capture transit traffic which they shuttle through their hubs in the Gulf. Similarly, the region’s sovereign wealth funds have been snapping up brands globally for some time now, but especially in Europe where trophy assets have become a staple for SWFs in Doha and Abu Dhabi.

So, how do the airlines react? Never one to be outdone for a quote, Qatar Airways’ CEO has furiously denied all of the allegations and has instead railed at the newspapers printing the articles and called them, in effect, racist. To quote from Arabian Business:

“Like any other organisation, we terminate nonperforming employees and these are allegations made by ex-QA staff.”

“This is not against Qatar Airways but against my home country. They are throwing stones at my country for no reason at all.”

Emirates has been more low-key in their response on the claim that they mistreat female employees by firing female cabin crew who become pregnant during the first three years of their employment.

In the long-term how should the airlines respond? If they continue to deny or ignore the allegations, will they face a backlash from consumers concerned about the airlines’ reputation? What’s certain is that the headlines are not going to go away; to the contrary, the deeper you dig, the more bodies you will find. It’s going to be fascinating to see if the negative media coverage from outside the region eventually forces a change in worker policies.

This is one theme I’m going to be following with increasing interest.

Bahrain, Saudi and the UAE use Facebook to Announce Ambassador Pullout

It’s pretty remarkable – I’m not just referring to the withdrawal of the Bahraini, Emirati and Saudi ambassadors from Doha but also the way the news was announced. I, like many others, saw the news first not on traditional news channels but via Twitter. And where was the original announcement? On the Facebook page of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s pretty remarkable to see social media being used to release such information, especially considering the medium is designed with dialogue in mind. If you read Arabic have a look at the comments on the Ministry’s page.

The original announcement, which was later carried in the region’s papers, is below.

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the pullout of the three ambassadors via its Facebook page before the story broke in the traditional media

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the pullout of the three ambassadors via its Facebook page before the story broke in the traditional media

Saudi Bans Energy Drinks Advertising – What Now Happens To Social Media

The Kingdom’s Government took the drastic step yesterday of introducing a raft of measures aimed at restricting the sale, promotion and consumption of energy drinks. The move, which was not expected, will mean that as of now energy drinks companies will no longer be able to advertise or carry out promotion campaigns through ‘electronic or print media or any other means’.

It doesn’t end there. The Saudi Cabinet banned the free distribution of energy drinks to consumers belonging to all age groups. Energy drinks have also been banned in restaurants and canteens at government establishments, as well as educational and health institutions, public and private sports clubs and halls.

To quote from the report on the Al-Arabiya news-site, the full list of measures includes:

1 – To prohibit advertising of any energy drink or do advertising or promotional campaigns for any energy drink via any readable, audible or visible media organ, or by any other means.”

2 – To prohibit energy drinks companies, their agents, distributors and marketing associations from sponsoring any sporting, social or cultural event, or taking any procedure leading to promotion.

3 – To prohibit the free distribution of energy drinks to consumers of all age groups.

4 – To prohibit the sale of energy drinks in restaurants and canteens in government facilities; education and health facilities; halls and public and private sports clubs.

5 – Upon the decision, factory owners and importers of energy drinks shall be committing to writing a text on the tin of any energy drink in Arabic and English languages – warning of the harmful effects of energy drinks.”

In a market that has been constantly growing for the energy drinks sector (you can find Red Bull, Bison, Power Horse and other popular energy drinks brands everywhere), this is going to be a major blow for the business. Red Bull has already put out statements defending its position, including its availability in 165 countries worldwide and a lack of evidence to show that it is harmful (you can read the statement in full here). Red Bull and other brands are major event sponsors, and it’s uncertain where the shortfall in funding will come from.

However, the one area which has yet to be clarified is social media. Red Bull has its Saudi Twitter feed (@RedBullSaudi) and Facebook pages for its events. Red Bull did put out a tweet today from its Saudi feed. How is social media classified? Is it advertising or is social media more subtle? And how do the authorities class social media? It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, both in the real world as well as on social media.

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