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Social Networking & Activism in Saudi Arabia

by | Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Thursday, 15 July 2010

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Over the past 20 years it has been clear that Saudis, particularly the young, are falling in love with technology.   Given that until recently more than fifty percent of the population was under 15 years old, Saudi youth and their drive to adopt technology have become a considerable force. Cultural meanings associated with technology have evolved over the years through a number of stages. In recent months, in the hands of a new generation, it has even become the focus of a new kind of activism previously unheard of in the kingdom.

 

Distrust of technology characterized the earliest stages in this long process of change. The Arabian Peninsula under Ottoman rule was largely ignored, except for the power gained from controlling the holy lands.  So it declined culturally into something like a dark age.  When the oil money started to come in and people were able to afford some twentieth century technology, the initial reaction from the older generation was to be suspicious of the new arrivals, e.g. radios, to the extent of considering them the work of the devil.

Gradually, however, people started to embrace technology for convenience, comfort and a generally improved standard of living. Thus technology started also to convey status, accompanying the kind of wealth which was then necessary to have a car, television, VCR etc. at home. Then the communication of status evolved to include enthusiasm for technology as a sign of being educated, cultured and the kind of cool person who keeps up with what’s new. This process was accentuated with the introduction of satellite dishes into Saudi Arabia in the early 1990’s around the time of the First Gulf War. This facilitated leadership on the part of the ‘cultured educated’ people in terms of connecting with the outside world, which signaled another significant cultural shift.

Even after modern Saudi Arabia was established, and the Arabian Peninsula came out of its centuries of isolation, socio-political forces had continued to keep the kingdom within a kind of a bubble. People were very proud of their heritage and felt it set them apart. The oil rush made them even somewhat arrogant about it. Satellite dishes allowed the Saudi masses to see, hear and really listen to the outside world.  Then came the age of the internet which further facilitated breaking through the barriers to connection with the outside world. The internet and wireless also facilitated more local connections as well as global ones. Young people in particular spearheaded this movement, which cascaded into other age segments. With these developments the idea of connection and mutual influence came increasingly to replace an us vs. them attitude and to be embraced for an enriched life experience.

A more educated generation better connected with the world started to feel the need to exert more influence to create the kind of world they wanted to live in. There remained, however, sociopolitical constraints on the development of grass roots movement – no unions or youth clubs, for example, and no large gatherings without special permission. So there evolved, in response to these constraints the technology-savvy ‘Soft Rebellion’ generation – using social networks to develop such movements and assuming a leadership role within them , albeit still in the form of virtual participation alone. Some initiatives did start to move towards more active participation, particularly via the setting up of charitable projects. The key requirement in these cases was to find the right sponsors – usually attracted by a smart use of technology to generate PR and word-of-mouth publicity.

A decisive moment of breakthrough finally arrived in December 2009 when Jeddah was flooded after a couple of days with very high levels of rainfall. Many of us, in the modern parts of Jeddah, spent the morning watching and marveling at how heavy the rain was. By late afternoon reports started to go around about the damage done in other parts of the city. The heaviest rain fell in the hills to the East of the city then came gushing down natural valleys where urban development had taken place. Videos were immediately posted in YouTube showing houses, cars and people being swept away by the force of what was dubbed ‘The Jeddah Tsunami’.

Anger mounted and was expressed in many blogs as people started to focus blame on municipal and local government. The turning point came that evening when a website called ‘Rescue Jeddah’ was set up. Rather than being just a site just for complaining Rescue Jeddah became a call to action. The young team who set it up called for public action to gather whatever resources could be mustered to provide immediate relief for all people affected. It also called for those responsible for the tragedy, to be brought to justice: that is the municipality and local authority representatives who authorized urban development in ‘natural valleys’ prone to dangerous flooding coming down the hills. Experts were invited to join their discussion posting presentations of their full analysis of the basic errors made in the urban planning of the city.

Overnight numbers of people expressing support for this initiative rose into the thousands. Videos and stories continued to be posted, further inflaming popular anger. Volunteers signed up and donations poured in. It was widely expected that the government would clamp down on this activity at some point. Instead, about 10 days later , the King issued a statement that exactly mirrored the language of the people (as expressed in this site and others). He indicated that he was ‘enraged’ by what had happened, that he had set up a special panel to investigate and that he promised to bring to justice every single person responsible. In Jun 2010 the local government honored the young men and women who led the public into an unprecedented relief effort where people waited in line, not just to donate, but to actually physically pitch in.

From virtual participation, in time, active participation may yet emerge.

© Habiba Allarakia 2010

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