While the kingdom of Saudi Arabia escaped much of the violence associated with the Arab spring, the monarchy still has to deal with challenges created by protesters. Increased investment in the economy and arrests of dissidents eased the tension temporarily. However protests have occurred regularly since 2011 and the government has struggled to limit the organizational power of the opposition. In a country where protests are legally forbidden how does the kingdom deal with the challenges of expanding freedoms and controlling the spread of information and opinions?
In late March of 2013 Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) released a statement claiming that some “internet-based communication tools” (Skype, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc.) do not comply with the rules and regulatory conditions of the country. Increased access to smartphones and the internet by Saudis has become a useful tool in organizing protests and demonstrations, which are illegal in the Kingdom according to Sharia law. The government has forced all mobile phone users to register their SIM cards ending the anonymity of text messaging. Despite this there are now around 16 million internet subscribers in Saudi Arabia and on average these users watch three times as many online videos a day compared to the United States.
The lack of control over cyberspace is a threat to the power of the Saudi monarchy, and the government’s actions show fear exists of widespread political opposition to the throne. The CITC claims they are attempting to “protect society from any negative aspects that could harm the public interest” but the Interior Ministry explicitly mentioned Twitter as a tool used by those opposed to the government to cause trouble. The government of Saudi Arabia is now arresting and imprisoning those they view as committing “internet crimes,” or using websites to question or oppose leadership and policies. Public discussions on topics such as politics and religion are often illegal and can easily be controlled, but by bringing these debates on-line information and opinions can spread freely and quickly.
The Saudi monarchy has not had to deal with the same level of social unrest as other members of the MENA region resulting from the Arab Spring. This has been done by carefully negotiating what level of control over the population is needed to stay in power with allowing eased restrictions over the daily lives of its subjects. Access to the internet has become a serious threat and one proposed solution has been to limit access to certain websites like Twitter for those who register their true identity. This would only be a temporary solution to the constantly changing world of high speed transmissions of ideas, concerns, and demands and will not end protests of corrupt or brutal authoritarian regimes. A female Saudi who tweets as Saudiwoman states “the issue is if they ban the internet or if they don’t provide internet services. As long as the internet is available, there’s no way they can end freedom of speech – it’s gone beyond the point of no return.” Time will determine how desperate the monarchy becomes in attempting to control the seemingly uncontrollable World Wide Web.