January 30, 2017

The Virtual Gulf Empowers Young Voices

An Emirati man leaves a press conference announcing Facebook's opening of its first Middle East and North Africa office at the Armani hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, May 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

The emergence of social media marked a turning point in Gulf public engagement. Due to the strictly regulated space for expression and association across most of the Gulf states, social media is an attractive medium to freely express opinions about public matters, and to connect with kindred spirits. This is especially true for young people, who have found a respite from the more hierarchical structures of influence, heavily weighted by respect for age and position. In the formative crucible of the years of political uprising and then political turmoil, young Gulf commentators emerged as influential public voices, supported by a growing blogosphere to share opinions and intellectual content. Gulf governments have recognized the social power of these social media influencers, and have courted them. Meanwhile, foreign media outlets have found new means to connect with Gulf publics beyond the traditional political and economic elite.

The Twitter Revolution

The boom in social media usage coincided with dramatic unleashed popular uprisings. The urgency of the political questions raised formed a crash course in public affairs, with social media initiating many youth into public discourse. The absence of a gatekeeper as with traditional media, and the initial absence of government regulation, encouraged wide participation in the public conversation. Rather than just receiving news, young people were engaging in it, adding their views and finding their public voice.

Facebook and especially Twitter have served as the premier vehicles for intellectual discussion and debate. Through these outlets, a crop of young intellectuals and influencers have emerged from among the multitude of avid users. In Saudi Arabia, for example, these include Abdulhameed Alamri and Essam Alzamil who tweet about economic issues; Sultan Alamer and Eman AlGuwaifly who write blogs analyzing sociopolitical issues; and Malik Nejer who presents social issues in a cartoon comedy YouTube show. These individuals would not have become so popular and influential in such a short period of time without the rise of this new media environment and the space it created for interaction and debate. In addition to advancing new public voices, social media also proliferated the diversity of views in the Gulf on both social and political affairs.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain lead Twitter usage in the Arab countries according to the 2015 Arab Social Media Report, and rank among the top users in the world. Yet among the Gulf states, Saudis and Kuwaitis dominate when it comes to sociopolitical critique and commentary on Twitter hashtags. During the recent Kuwaiti parliamentary elections, Kuwaiti newspapers reported that social media, and Twitter in particular, has become the main source of information about candidates and their campaigns, with “electronic diwaniyas” replacing the physical diwaniyas and election tents that used to be the central venues for candidates to communicate with voters in their districts.

In Saudi Arabia, issues like the ban on women driving have been publically discussed among people with different standing on the issue in a way that is unprecedented. Before social media, there wasn’t a venue where Saudi women could have a direct discussion with the most conservative religious scholars and preachers. Even discussion among women with different socioeconomic backgrounds was rare. This platform brought to the table important issues that have been left undiscussed for decades. Even though discussions on Twitter don’t solve these issues, it has become very difficult for one point of view to control society without being challenged on social media.

In addition to the elevation of popular influencers, social media has facilitated the expansion of a blogosphere that constitutes much of the individual and collective intellectual contributions to the virtual Gulf. An example is the origination of online translation projects, which make accessible the views, questions, and analysis of prominent and foundational scholars and intellectuals from abroad. Blogs such as Nathr, Hekmah, and Ma-Alamal are examples of sites specialized in translating into Arabic articles and papers on philosophy, political-philosophy, sociology, and humanities, thought to be relevant to issues confronting the Gulf today. Meanwhile, the public blogs of Arabic news sites such as Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Al Jazeera, and the more intellectual Ewan24, have allowed writers from across the Arab world to participate, contributing their views and analysis of regional and international politics. Other blogs such as Aawad Qash provide a venue for young Arab scholars and academics to present positions on the political questions of the day in addition to commentary on academic publications.

This virtual Gulf reaches beyond the borders of the Gulf Cooperation Council states; it has enabled young people in the region to connect and interact with the rest of the world. Through social media, people in the Gulf were able to closely follow and discuss the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, for example, with other Gulfis as well as Americans. Furthermore, Gulf citizens have been empowered to react to international reports and documentaries about the Gulf, providing an insider’s perspective. When The New York Times posted its documentary “‘Ladies First’: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates,” the journalist who made the documentary invited reactions from Saudi society, placing a survey on Twitter in which 6,000 Saudi women participated. This formed the basis of a second report by The New York Times on Saudi women.

The governments of the Gulf states have realized the significance of this rapidly developing virtual Gulf, and have taken measures both to control and court this sphere. On one hand, red lines have been drawn and enforced on social media sites and individual users. On the other hand, there have been efforts to engage with popular social media personalities. Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s MISK Foundation has been holding annual conferences for youth on Twitter since 2013, hosting officials, experts, and social media influencers. He has also engaged young social media influencers in meetings during both the launch and implementation of Saudi Vision 2030. Also, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, UAE vice president and prime minister, and ruler of Dubai, has launched the Arab Social Media Influencers Summit in Dubai, inviting more than 500 active and influential people on social media to present and discuss issues important to the field.

While social media has allowed for the elevation of new voices and a broader range of topics for public discussion, there is a danger in overestimating the ability of this virtual environment to contribute to the resolution of socioeconomic problems, much less political ones. Twitter and its associated blogosphere can expand access to information, but it does not ensure the accumulation of knowledge and necessarily value intellectual distinction and expertise. Eagerly engaged in their social debates, young people should not forget that there is a broader society that is not part of the virtual world.

Reham Jambi is a contributor for Millennial Gulf.