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).


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.


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.


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.


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.

Islam, Politics and Activism – the most popular Saudi-based Muslim scholars on Twitter

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.

With over 2.3 million followers Dr Al-Arefe is the most popular Twitter user in the Middle East

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.

Dr Al Qarnee is one of the most outspoken and popular Islamic scholars on Twitter today.

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.

Dr Al Auda has a huge following on Twitter and to date he’s the most prominent user of the service having sent over 14 thousand messages to his fans

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.

Dr AlSuwaidan is the most popular Kuwaiti scholar online and on social media with just under 700,000 followers

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.

Riyadh-based Syrian religious figure Sheikh Adnan Al-Arour has just under half a million followers on Twitter. His main focus is on events in Syria

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.