Twitter in Saudi Arabia is big. In fact, it’s huge.
In July 2012, al-Arabiya reported that Saudi Arabian Twitter users had increased by 3,000%, making Saudis the fastest growing group on the social media network. This is somewhat at odds with the usual images wheeled out about Saudi Arabia, but reflects increasing mobile phone usage, 3G connectivity, and a large youth demographic.
Used by Saudis of all ages, Twitter functions as a source of news, entertainment, gossip, and titillation. It is the social forum for debate and discussion in a country where physical forums are restricted by both a conservative society and a controlling government. This has led to a strong, vibrant, and colourful variety of Saudi Twitter accounts.
These accounts range from the serious political ones (Fouad al-Farhan), to the human rights activist (Mohammad al-Qahtani), to economics and society (Essam al-Zamil), or to comedy (Fahad al-Butairi), with many other accounts also providing vital and interesting insight into the Kingdom.
However, for a true glimpse into the Saudi Twitter scene – and with a little help from Google translate – the following five accounts will give a very nuanced, interesting and different perspective to the traditional viewpoint of Saudi Arabia. They were chosen, not for the number of their followers, but for the perspectives and information they bring to the Saudi Twittersphere.
Waleed Abu Al-Khair - @abualkhair
Many Saudi prisoners, specifically those arrested for political reasons, are held without trial. Some have thus languished for a decade or more. Waleed Abu Al-Khair is a lawyer representing those Saudi Arabians held without trial. He does so by using all means the Saudi legal system offers in order to gain trials or have his clients set free. He is also the founder of Monitor for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA).
His Twitter feed is followed by many in the Kingdom who seek information and news on trials, procedures and the legal process of political prisoners. He is often considered an invaluable source of legal information in Saudi Arabia. As such, following him on Twitter allows for a perspective not often heard in the context of Saudi Arabia, one of a Saudi human rights lawyer.
Manal al-Sharif - @manal_alsharif
Manal al-Sharif is a well know Saudi woman activist, who has campaigned on many issues during the past decade. However, her most famous stance has been over the right of women in the Kingdom to drive. This is a hotly debated and argued topic in the Saudi Twittersphere, and as such her voice is even more influential owing to her quite outspoken, and internationally recognised, campaigning.
Following her account would provide some very interesting insights. Manal al-Sharif also frequently engages in debates with her followers and detractors, and she is emerging as an important Saudi Arabian female voice. Currently based outside of Saudi Arabia, but still writing articles, she will most likely be an even more important opinion-former within the next five years. One to watch closely.
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Ahmed al-Omran - @ahmed
Ahmed al-Omran is softly spoken and mild mannered, but he is one of the most up-to-speed, vocal and active Saudi users of Twitter, as well as a very good journalist. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, he is a one-stop-shop for Saudi news, analysis, and debate, in both English and Arabic. His website “The Riyadh Bureau” and blog “Saudi Jeans” throw up insightful, informative and highly relevant information on Saudi Arabia.
His Twitter feed is the same, with his tweets being read and followed by many interested in both Saudi Arabia, and the wider Middle East. He does not attempt to use this platform as a means to spin political yarns, but seeks to bring out all aspects of Saudi Arabia. In a country still under tight press regulations, his Twitter account is an invaluable tool for teasing out the highlights – and low-lights – of the Saudi Arabian newscycle.
Malik Nejer - @nejer
A comedian and actor, Malik Nejer has a wide following – especially among the youth – in Saudi Arabia. His show "Masameer" is one of the most widely viewed in the Kingdom, having achieved cult status among many young Saudis. In his show, he regularly criticises and references public policies and practises perceived to be outdated, unnecessary, intrusive, or wrong. Corruption in political life, for example, is a theme he often brings forth.
On Twitter he is provocative, a true social media personality. He will also not duck controversial issues such as women’s rights in his discussions and tweets. One Saudi described him as being: “Someone that does not just occasionally tweet something interesting, but tweets excellent stuff all the time.” Although he undoubtedly treads a fine line for one in such a prominent position, his stance and ideas – as well as his fearless willingness to tweet them – make this Twitter account indispensable. On a side note, he’s also very funny.
Adel al-Kalbani - @abuabdelelah
Saudi Arabia is renowned for the strength of religious orthodoxy. It is a country that has strict religious laws and practises, which govern much of life within its tightly controlled society. For a different perspective Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani is worth following. As a former Imam of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, he is well placed to comment on affairs deemed Islamic.
Yet, on Twitter his personality is less strict religious sheikh and more about being inquisitive and thought-provoking. Recently, he described the Emirates as having better services than Saudi Arabia, which shocked many conservatives as the Emirates are usually seen as the archetype of earthly corruption. Certainly an account to follow to see the often unseen other side of Wahabbi Islam.
These accounts are all known for their outspoken nature, ones that give an insight into Saudi society that might otherwise pass unnoticed. This, in the context of a country that remains tightly controlled, provides invaluable access into other aspects of Saudi Arabia.
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