The New York Times
Saudi Arabia did not have an Arab Spring. But it has had a revolution of sorts.
Open criticism of this country’s royal family, once unheard-of, has become commonplace in recent months. Prominent judges and lawyers issue fierce public broadsides about large-scale government corruption and social neglect. Women deride the clerics who limit their freedoms. Even the king has come under attack.
All this dissent is taking place on the same forum: Twitter.
Unlike other media, Twitter has allowed Saudis to cross social boundaries and address delicate subjects collectively and in real time, via shared subject headings like “Saudi Corruption” and “Political Prisoners,” known in Twitter as hashtags.
With so many people writing mostly under their real names -- there are some 2.9 million users in the kingdom, according to one recent study, and it is the world’s fastest-growing Twitter zone -- the authorities appear to have thrown their hands up.
“Twitter for us is like a parliament, but not the kind of parliament that exists in this region,” said Faisal Abdullah, a 31-year-old lawyer. “It’s a true parliament, where people from all political sides meet and speak freely.”
Whether all this talk will lead to real change is hard to say. Some skeptics see the government’s unexpected tolerance as a deliberate ploy to let people blow off steam, not so different from the billions of dollars the government spent on social welfare programs last year in the wake of the Arab uprisings: anything to quell a real rebellion. In a country where public entertainment and street life, let alone protests, scarcely exist, and few people socialize outside their families, social media fills a crying need.
Still, the sudden lifting of taboos on public criticism has been remarkable in its own right. It has revealed, among other things, a striking depth of anger at the royal family that cuts across the political spectrum and has led some Saudis to wonder how long this deeply conservative and seemingly placid society can survive without serious reform.
“Twitter has revealed a great frustration and a popular refusal of the current situation,” said Salman al-Awda, a prominent cleric who was jailed for several years in the 1990s for his attacks on the government and is now seen as a moderate. He has more than 1.6 million followers on Twitter.
“There is a complete gap between the rulers and the ruled,” he said. “Even those who are in charge of security do not know what the people really think, and this is not good.”
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Editor's Note: Let's see if we can learn from our mistakes -- mistakes made in very recent history -- in understanding that replacing a friendly dictator with an unfriendly dictator is not bright.
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