Saudis and the Web

Saudis and the Web

The internet service was introduced in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 15, 1998 by a decision from the Ministerial Council. This date symbolizes the beginning of a new era in the history of the Kingdom – an era characterized by technological progress.
The introduction of the internet service has deeply affected the Saudi society’s behavior and ideas, turning the Web into one of life’s necessities for Saudis. The cyberspace, however, has left a mixed impact on Saudi culture, traditions, and values.

Freedom of Expression

The Web has launched a new age of communication and interaction in the ultra-orthodox kingdom, allowing Saudi youth to interact and express their opinions freely. On the internet, Saudis can discuss issues that they cannot talk about in reality.

In this context, the World Wide Web has turned into a tool of political activism, which was demonstrated by the various electronic campaigns launched, in which online resources were used for presenting petitions to the Saudi king. Examples of those campaigns include the Campaign for Equality for Saudi Female Teachers, the Campaign for Freeing Saudi Reformists, the Chastity Campaign against obscene satellite channels.

One of the interesting phenomena that accompanied the introduction of the internet service to Saudi society is the emergence of blogging as a form of journalism and self-expression. Saudi bloggers have turned into competitors for journalists working with official newspapers, acquiring the name of “the fifth authority” because of their deep influence. 

Blogs are extremely popular among both intellectuals and young Saudis because they constitute a platform for discussing taboos that cannot be conversed through traditional means. According to some reports, 57 percent of Arabic blogs on the internet belongs to Saudis, and the number of Saudi bloggers has tripled since the emergence of the blogging phenomenon around five years ago.  

Experts attribute the huge upsurge in the number of Saudi blogs to the lack of proper channels of expression in Saudi society. There is a widespread view that the media does not present the opinions of most of Saudis, which has urged them to take refuge in blogs.

The internet has invented new forms of social interaction that did not exist before. Also, it has enhanced communication between people who are separated by long distances, or who do not have enough time to meet physically.

The internet, moreover, has made it easier to know more about other cultures and ways of thinking to an extent that made ideas similar to goods, which has enabled us to compare our values to those of other societies in a competitive environment. 

Saudi Women & the WWW Culture

The cyberspace has also permitted Saudi women to explore and conquer new realms that were beyond their reach in the past. According to some surveys, 60 percent of internet users in the Kingdom are women.

“Saudi women is the sector that has benefitted the most from the internet since it gave them the chance to participate more effectively in social and cultural activities,” said Dr. Abdul-Qader Al Fatouh, computer science professor at King Saud University.

The internet, according to Al Fatouh, has enabled women in the Kingdom to break through the social limitations and bureaucracy, which have been blocking the way to women’s empowerment and social participation.

Also, the Web has opened new avenues for Saudi women to start their own home-run businesses. The new economic opportunities are available in fields like marketing, advertising, administrative services, and website designing.

The internet has opened new horizons for Saudi women, allowing them to take their activities beyond their small, local realm.

“Women in the Kingdom do not feel that they are isolated anymore, and that the changes to their lives are reflections of events in the outside world,” said Al Fatouh.

He also points out how women in the conservative Gulf state are reaping the educational benefits of the Web.

Globalization of Religion

Also, the internet has enabled the world to see Saudi society and Islam better. Thereligious establishment has benefitted from the internet in its own way; the Web has become a tool for preaching and guiding people in what can be called the “globalization of religion.”

Also, internally, the internet is one of the factors that contributed to changing the traditional shape of the Wahhabi thinking, which has been the dominant school of thought in the Kingdom since its establishment.

There are signs of a deep alteration in Saudis’ perceptions of religion, one of which is the transformation in the way religious rituals are practiced.

Also, the religious establishment is not the sole guide anymore, even on the local level.

Influential, well-funded Islamic websites have taken over from traditional religious players, taking part of their authority by providing fatawa (religious rulings) and alternative ideas.  

Internet Addiction

Despite its advantages, the internet has resulted in rampant social illnesses, such as internet addiction and marital infidelity.   
Around four million Saudis are expected to pay the price for their country’s entrance to the high-tech era; they are on the verge of falling prey to internet addiction.

According to a recent governmental study, around 57 percent of internet users in Saudi Arabia are among those who use the internet for more than three hours per day, which is believed to be an early stage of developing internet addiction.

Also, the study prepared by the Institution of Communication and Information Technology found that Saudis use the internet more frequently than foreign residents of the Kingdom.

According to Dr. Jamal Al Towerqy, a Saudi psychiatrist, the phenomenon of internet addiction has become worrisome because of its psychological and social effects.

He points out how social networking websites have attracted more than 231,000 Saudi subscribers. However, virtual friends, Al Towerqy argues, cannot replace real friends and actual human interaction.

Depending excessively on virtual relationships has created deep psychological problems among a large part of the Saudi youth; some of them have ignored family relationships and their educational and career paths.

Also, according to Dr. Taghreed Al Samman, a Saudi social consultant, the heavy internet use has turned some young Saudis into introverts.

“The internet addiction phenomenon in the Kingdom will get worse because of the scarcity of entertainment options for the Saudi youth. The internet has become breathtaking space for the youth, providing them with an opportunity to live in a different world and to meet different people,” Al Samman told IslamOnline.

Some people blame the internet for introducing the Saudi youth for immoral habits and extremist thoughts.

“Spending long hours browsing the internet can acquire the youth bad habits, such as gambling, and can brainwash them into adopting fanatic ideas,” Al Towerqy argues.

Sociologists also argue that the Web has been one of the main reasons behind the end of many marriages since it has never been easier for married couples to engage in casual relationships.

Statistics reveal that a big number of married people in the Kingdom use chat rooms to surf in relations that rebel against social taboos.

The Internet Blocking Policy

Saudi Arabia, together with China, is considered one of the countries with the strictest policy regarding internet access.  
The responsibility of implementing the blocking policy has been  transferred lately from the internet unit at King Abdul-Aziz City to the Institution of Communication and Information Technology.

The officials in the Institution explain that their role is confined to applying the blocking requests they receive from the Security Committee and other concerned entities.

However, due to the rapid increase in the number of pornographic websites, the Institution has been given the authority to block sexually explicit content directly without going back to the Committee abovementioned. So, the list of blocked websites is updated daily.

Apart from pornographic websites, the Saudi government has been exercising a heavy censorship recently on the internet, which is increasingly becoming a channel for political criticism.

According to a recent study by Harvard Law School researchers, the online content blocked by the Saudi authorities is far beyond Islamic regulations. Among the websites blocked is Amnesty International’s website as well as websites that deal with women rights.

The arrest of the prominent Saudi blogger Fouad Al Farhan recently caused much resentment among Saudi political activists, who considered this an infringement on their freedom of speech. Apparently, the arrest of Al Farhan has not produced the hoped-for effect, given that blogging is booming in the Kingdom.

Given the growing importance of the Web in Saudis’ life and the fact that many people find ways to get around the internet access policies, it seems wiser to give more space to personal judgment than harsh blocking policies.

Hassan Abdu is a freelance journalist based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.