Decades ago, Saudis trekked across their desert kingdom to pledge allegiance to their new kings at their palaces. Now they are just using Twitter. Thousands of Saudis have poured into the palace of King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz who acceded the throne after the death of his half-brother Abdullah last week.
Many others exercised the entrenched tradition at the palaces of provincial princes. But thousands of others have pledged their allegiance to the new ruler online, taking advantage of social media networks. Chief among them is Twitter, whose popularity has exploded with an astounding 40 percent of Saudis now using the microblogging website.
Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia, but authorities have stopped short of banning Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, unlike in Iran. Conservatives tweet as much as liberals in the country, with clerics attracting the most followers, like Mohammad Al Arefe who has 10.8 million of them. However, several users have faced jail over their posts that have been deemed offensive to the authorities or to Islam.
King Salman himself has an account that saw its number of followers surge to 1.6 million as he became the monarch. “I pray to God to help me serve our dear people and achieve their aspirations, and to keep our country secure and stable,” read a tweet posted on the account following his accession. A hashtag in Arabic declaring “I pledge allegiance to King Salman” spread quickly among Saudi tweeps after King Abdullah died on Friday, as users of the site mourned the late monarch.
“I have pledged my allegiance through Twitter because as we progress technologically, we do not abandon our identity and traditions,” said Twitter user Salman Al Otaibi. “This pledge is a duty on every Muslim,” he said.
Metab Al Samiri tweeted: “With full obedience, I pledge allegiance to you Salman.” The pledge is both an Islamic obligation to provide the ruler with legitimacy and a tribal commitment to obey the new leader.
Twitter has also proven to be a headache for authorities in Gulf countries as social media blogging sites render their censorship largely helpless. Users calling for reforms in the kingdom have taken to the platform to voice discontent and demand concessions from the ruling family.
“We want a consultative Shura Council that is elected by the people, capable of legislating laws and holding the cabinet to account,” said one tweet. “This way, the alleged reforms could be achieved,” it added, using another popular hashtag that said: “Demands for King Salman.” Despite timid steps to introduce reforms, Saudi Arabia under Abdullah remained a tightly controlled kingdom, where conservatives continue to play a strong role.
The case of blogger Raef Badawi serves as an example of the Gulf state’s ever-tightening freedom of expression. Badawi is serving a 10-year jail sentence for allegedly insulting Islam, and he has also been sentenced to 1,000 lashes, having received 50 of them in public this month.
Twitter is “the source of all evil and devastation”, said the kingdom’s top cleric Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh in a fatwa edict in October. “People are rushing to it thinking it’s a source of credible information but it’s a source of lies and falsehood,” he said. Despite such warnings, there are no signs of Twitter’s popularity waning in Saudi Arabia, whose five million users give the kingdom the world’s highest penetration.