Social media grows across the Gulf

The Gulf monarchies have, in recent years, invested considerable resources and efforts in finding ways to censor interactions between their citizens, and between their citizens and other parties. As such, each new communications technology that has become available in the region has either been sponsored by the state, for example, the state-backed newspapers, radio stations, and television stations; or it has been blocked, such as unpalatable foreign newspapers, unwanted foreign radio and television signals, satellite broadcasts and foreign books.

A case can even be made that the internet itself — predicted by many to lead to sweeping changes in such tightly controlled societies — was also successfully co-opted by the Gulf monarchies, at least in the early days.  The blocking of offensive websites, including blogs critical of the regimes, has occurred, while many other basic internet communications methods such as email or messenger software can either be blocked or — more usefully — monitored by the state so as to provide information and details on opponents and opposition movements.

Moreover, some Gulf monarchies have actively exploited internet communications, arguably having done so much better than most governments in developed states, with an array of e-government web services having been launched, most of which allow citizens to feel more closely connected to government departments and helping to echo the earlier era of direct, personal relations between the rulers and ruled.

Meanwhile, the rulers themselves have often established presences online, and their self-glorifying websites usually also feature discussion forums to facilitate interaction between themselves (or rather their employees) and the general public. Many other lesser ruling family members, ministers, police chiefs, and other establishment figures in the region have also set up interactive Twitter feeds and Facebook fan sites for the same purposes, and some of these are now ‘followed’ by thousands of citizens and other well-wishers.

Unsurprisingly, all six Gulf states have slipped further down Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index. In 2012, the highest ranked Gulf monarchy was Kuwait — in 78th position — with the UAE, Qatar, and Oman ranked firmly below dozens of African dictatorships, and Saudi Arabia and Bahrain ranking among the very worst countries in the world. Although superficially successful in the short term in limiting opposition voices, the various censorship strategies employed have been leading to heightened fears and widespread criticism and condemnation of the regimes responsible, not only from the international community, but also from resident national and expatriate populations, and most especially in the wake of the region’s “Arab Spring” revolutions.

Nevertheless, the seemingly unstoppable wave of new, participatory and user-centred Web 2.0 internet technologies — from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to video-sharing site YouTube — seem to be finally having the expected impact on the region’s population and its political consciousness. While these and other Web 2.0 applications can still be blocked in their entirety by cautious regimes, this is now unlikely to happen in the Gulf monarchies, as the inevitable outcry from the large numbers of users would be difficult or perhaps impossible to appease.

Inevitably these applications are being increasingly used to host discussions, videos, pictures, cartoons, and newsfeeds that criticise ruling families, highlight corruption in governments, and emphasise the need for significant political reform and increasingly even revolution in the Gulf.  Leading opposition figures are now attracting as many followers on these applications as members of ruling families. While there have been some attempts by regimes to counter-attack against this cyber opposition, often by deploying fake social media profiles so as to threaten genuine users, or by establishing so-called “honey pot” websites to lure in activists and help reveal their identity, for the most part the applications are effectively bypassing censorship controls and the mechanisms used to control earlier modernising forces.

As such they are facilitating an unprecedented set of horizontal connections forming between Gulf nationals and between Gulf nationals and outside parties — connections which are crucially now beyond the jurisdiction or interference of the ruling families and their security services.

Christopher Davidson is the author of Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success