In Saudi Arabia, Do Young People Still Want Change?

Friday 28 October 201611:37 am

It is not a surprise that many of those who join social media such as Facebook or Twitter are looking for a place to express themselves. The latter especially gave the Saudi youth a chance to discuss and spread their ideas. Twitter was used as a platform to demand change, to campaign for the release of prisoners of conscience, and to hold officials responsible. It was also used to point out those who are responsible for corruption and other problems in the Kingdom.

The Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdelaziz Al Sheikh, warned repeatedly about the dangers of Twitter. In October 2014 he called it “a source of lies and untruths”. But this did not stop the number of new Saudi accounts on Twitter from growing. Many celebrities, politicians and religious personalities joined the site. Sheikh Mohamed Al Oreifi, and Sheikh Aaed Al Qorni are some of the first Saudis to join Twitter, and they now have a huge popularity. Many YouTube shows also promote themselves on Twitter, and expand the popularity of the site.

However, this large increase in Twitter use has its negative side. Public concerns and issues become matters of emotional investment. They are seldom discussed for more than a few days. Furthermore, the level of freedom has itself deteriorated, and discussion spaces shrank with red lines becoming much clearer. The spread of fake accounts resorting to insults and offense has played a role in deterring many from actually expressing their own ideas for fear of being insulted or hurt, or for fear that those fake accounts belong to the security services.

Another important aspect, is that the level of freedom changes from one circle to the other. One might feel free to discuss with their friends, but when they suddenly find themselves surrounded by colleagues, school friends, parents, and family, their ability to express whatever they would in another more intimate setting is reduced. Many young men and women had their share of long discussions with family members and colleagues about ideas that were either shunned or ignored. Whether these ideas were rejected, or the arguments were weak, or yet for fear of social and legal repercussions, these discussions sometimes had a negative impact on many young Saudis.

The level of repression increased and the authorities were repeatedly interrogating tweeters and anyone demanding change. Some people were even secretly arrested without any official documents or notification. If people would be made aware of such arrests, it was through the accounts of friends of the person arrested, or someone who would know the password of the person arrested (a spouse or a friend for instance).

Arrests would be made suddenly: One person was arrested while having a coffee at a Starbucks branch, others were taken from their houses without warning. Authorities were going after many of the figures calling for change. Accusations range from “manipulating public opinion” to “spreading chaos” and other such examples that can carry prison sentences from 5 to 25 years and a travel ban.

This campaign coincided with two governmental decisions that contributed to limiting the youth movement that was increasingly demanding change. The first decision was to fire any public servant or employee in the public sector who would criticize the policies of the state in the media, including social networks. The second was banning any gatherings that do not have pre-approval from the state or relevant authorities.

This shrinking of discussion spaces and decrease in freedom of expression, had a great impact on the youth movement demanding change. Many people deactivated their social media accounts or at least deleted old tweets, especially those written before 2012. It was clear that if the government digs into the tweets of that period many would get in trouble. They would at least get a bad reputation and could be framed as criminals, spies, heretics, or any other accusation that would create a problem between them and the authorities, or society. Most YouTube programs that used to comment on the government’s decisions were discontinued, while some moved on to criticize social issues only. Furthermore, organizations that used to have conferences and other forms of gatherings such as TEDx also disappeared.

These conditions combined deeply affected the social media environment. It moved from being a vibrant place to one that had little relation to its previous state. Today it looks like young people are mostly preoccupied with entrepreneurship and small economic projects. Since the government announced economic reforms, most discussions taking place on social media have been focused on the internal economic situation. The political and religious discussions, on the other hand, if they exist are mostly concerned with external issues such as Turkey.

In addition to the all these conditions the young people in question who were active several years ago, have graduated from the universities that gave them a space to be politically and socially active. All this contributed to the end of that era of youth activism that saw an increase in discussions and expression. Political and philosophical books remain on library bookshelves. Discussions about the thought of Azmi Bishara, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx and other philosophers and thinkers are absent. Instead, discussions seem to be geared towards more peaceful subjects such as art, music, literature, and translation. Reading, an activity that was connected to change, became a form of addiction, and an innocent pleasure. In the eyes of many, change has become impossible, instead immigration became the dream.

The youth movement found itself fearing for people’s personal safety and livelihood. It was either nihilism, or instead focusing on academic specialization, using the resources available to get a higher education from renowned universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries in the first world. These were options that were more positive than nihilism. Some of these people ended up married and have families that enjoy a certain level of freedom higher than the norm within the confines of their home.

Finally, I find myself surrounded by questions that I cannot answer. Was the youth movement simply a fleeting moment, inspired by foreign ideas that are incompatible with our conservative societies? Was it a way to become famous? Was it related to a desire for change and anger about the reality one is living in? If change is necessary, should we bring this movement back to life? When it comes to politics, economy, health, and services, is there a need for popular oversight? Or are the institutions able to develop by themselves without the participation of different sections of the population? If the popular movement is a necessity, can it be resuscitated without reactivating the civil society organizations and without guaranteeing a space for freedom of speech and dialogue? Or is the limited freedom that exists now enough for such a development, and perhaps more freedom is bad rather than good? What do you think?

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