Twitter is providing a new way for the people of Saudi Arabia to talk to each other, and for the rest of the world to look in.
Social media cracks open the black box of Saudi society
When the Corruption Perception Index 2012 was published last week, the Saudi Twittersphere wasn't very thrilled.
Transparency International's annual study of perceptions about corruption among public-sector officials showed that Saudi Arabia had fallen nine places, and ranked number 66 out of 174. This provoked a storm of discussion on Twitter.
Saudis expressed openly how they felt: most were not very surprised, but they were disappointed. Some commentators went so far as to say that the number could not be accurate - not because the country had fallen nine places, but because it had not hit the bottom of the list.
In a country that is known as a black box to the outside world, issues are now being brought to the public's attention as many Saudis find their voices online via Twitter. Saudis are discussing the issues that relate to their lives - no matter how sensitive they are - in public for the first time. Twitter has allowed Saudis to cross social and political boundaries and collectively address delicate subjects.
Riyadh is the most active city on Twitter in the Middle East, according to the Paris-based analyst group Semiocast. More Twitter users have come online recently in Saudi Arabia than in any other country in the Middle East, in large part because of the launch of Twitter's Arabic language interface and hashtags this year. Many of the most interesting Arabic hashtags are coming from the kingdom.
In any given society, the internet and social media can reflect the social order and play a role in social - and in some cases, political - change. And in Saudi, this trend has shown many people's disappointment with the current state of affairs. Twitter users often express their frustration in a humorous way. Sometimes they criticise the state, sometimes they focus on famous personalities, and many times they address the society and culture.
I've been following the most active Arabic Saudi hashtags over recent months and have come across many interesting ideas that indicate that Saudis, like many people in the Arab world, long for progress and a brighter future. Many Saudis, especially young people, are now questioning authorities publicly and asserting their rights.
Recently, when the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission announced new punishments for cyber-related crimes, Saudi youth launched two prominent Twitter hashtags to discuss the issue. The law stipulates a 3 million riyal (Dh2.9 million) fine and a five-year prison sentence for people who use social media to harm public order, religious values, public decency or privacy rights. The penalty applies to anyone who writes, shares or saves the offending material on a computer. But - crucially - the law does not spell out the definition of "harm".
Under the two hashtags (translated from Arabic as #3_million_fine_for_spreading_harm and #5_Years_in_prison_for_retweet_or_favourite), many Saudis expressed their shock by making fun of the law. "Watch out! Do not write freedom or democracy. It will be a life sentence," one woman tweeted. Others questioned the law's ambiguity. A man tweeted that the law was intended as a catch-all provision, allowing prosecution in the absence of substantive charges. "Speaking the truth can be considered 'harm'," he tweeted.
"Three million what? Give me three million and I will shut up. Is there a citizen who has a million and speaks?" another tweeted.
Another Saudi woman was even more pointed in her criticism: "You hold a person accountable for interaction on a website, but you do not hold some people accountable for stealing millions."
That hashtag took a decidedly political angle, but many others are more concerned with general trends in society. Another hashtag I came across is #Socially_imposed_negative_phenomena, with Saudis criticising a range of social norms. They are discussing issues such as gender relations and the treatment of women, racism and judgements based on appearance, and how society doesn't differentiate between culture and religion. Some of them described the Saudi society as self-contradictory.
One recurrent criticism focused on how many Saudis raise their children, and the way in which society gives boys more freedom.
After the Arab Spring, young Saudis are acquiring a new awareness about their country. This is reflected by a focus on limited job opportunities, with many taking to Twitter to demand greater prospects. For example, one Twitter campaign, using the hashtag #We_want_jobs_for_the_unemployed, is asking the government to provide jobs for every citizen. Another campaign is urging residents to boycott Saudi chicken after price rises.
Referring to opportunity in another sense, women are increasingly using Twitter to demand the right to drive, which is of course a controversial subject in the kingdom.
Although social media do not drive change unilaterally, the influence is reflected in the underlying social and political dynamics. In Arab countries, where public criticism of authorities has been almost entirely absent for decades, social media are now an important channel for free expression and public debates.
In one of those Twitter conversations recently, I asked the prominent Saudi blogger and tweeter Ahmed Al Omran about his opinion of these new Saudi hashtags. His response was measured: there is both good and bad discourse, and a lot in between. But in general, he says he favours "anything that pushes the line".
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui