In the days following the diplomatic row between Saudi Arabia and Canada, Montreal-based activist Omar Abdulaziz composed several tweets about the developing situation.
The diplomatic spat began early last month with a call from Global Affairs Canada for Saudi authorities to release Samar Badawi and other arbitrarily detained activists. Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry fired back, condemning the statement as an “attack” on the kingdom’s sovereignty. A slew of reprisal measures followed, with Riyadh expelling the Canadian ambassador and transferring students out of Canada, among other steps.
King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a meeting in Mecca on 11 June 2018 (Bandar al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AFP)
On 7 August, two days after the online exchange, Abdulaziz - who was born in Saudi Arabia and granted asylum in Canada in 2014 - told his followers on Twitter that Saudi authorities had threatened to detain his brothers and friends if he continued tweeting about the crisis. Within weeks, Riyadh followed through, and Abdulaziz confirmed the arrests of his two brothers and seven of his friends.
Despite the state’s blackmail, Abdulaziz did not back down, and neither should the international community. Saudi Arabia’s actions deserve condemnation.
The speed and efficiency with which the kingdom was able to identify and target him also warrants a discussion. Just as activists are taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to voice their opposition to the regime, so too are government actors taking steps to vigorously stifle them.
Just as activists are taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to voice their opposition to the regime, so too are government actors taking steps to vigorously stifle them
In the age of social media, Saudi Arabia is suppressing free speech in a number of ways. One tactic is to prevent critical voices from reaching their audiences. The case of Feminism FM, a radio station launched earlier this summer, stands as a prime example: known on Twitter by its handle @nsawya, the group is comprised of several Saudi women broadcasting from an undisclosed location. Their inaugural post on Twitter in July made clear their goal of being “the voice of a silent majority”, including, presumably, millions of their fellow female citizens.
This mission is unsurprising, given the state of women’s rights in the country. While female empowerment has scarcely been synonymous with Saudi Arabia, conditions have worsened considerably since the ascension of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The young monarch has imprisoned dozens of female activists in recent months, ironically amid the backdrop of lifting the ban on female drivers in June.
Meanwhile, Israa al-Ghomgham faces potential execution for her human rights activism. She would become the first female activist in her country’s history to receive the death penalty - one “first” for Saudi women that has not been aggressively advertised to Western audiences.
Assault on women’s rights
Such oppression extends far beyond a few outspoken women. Despite media buzz over bin Salman “empowering Saudi women”, the reality is much bleaker. Guardianship laws still prevent women from obtaining many basic rights, including education and travel, without the permission of a male relative. “Had he wanted to, the king could have abolished the guardianship system,” Ashtar, a presenter with Feminism FM who spoke under a pseudonym, told BBC Arabic. “All it takes is one signature.”
Despite media buzz over bin Salman 'empowering Saudi women', the reality is much bleaker
Amid this assault on women’s rights, it is easy to see why more are raising their voices - and in turn, being silenced.
On 19 August, Feminism FM posted a screenshot of a message stating that the station on audio-streaming website Mixlr was “unavailable” within Saudi Arabia, erasing a crucial channel through which they could connect with listeners and readers.
Two days later, Twitter penalised @nsawya for “violating” its rules, temporarily limiting some of the station’s account features. Feminism FM immediately appealed, citing Saudi censorship and maintaining that they had committed no offence. Scores of Twitter users rallied behind the besieged station, using hashtags such as #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen.
As a #Saudi woman I stand in solidarity with Iranian women like #MaedehHojabri. We are both dominated by backwards rulers who do not respect basic #HumanRights. Dancing is not a crime! 🇸🇦❤️🇮🇷 #مائده_هژبری @AlinejadMasih @Imamofpeace pic.twitter.com/VwC0D4FiRL
— Sarah Al-Otaibi (@SarahAlOxoxo) July 9, 2018
Besides limiting the reach of dissenting opinions, Saudi Arabia relies on Twitter users loyal to the monarchy to identify activist individuals and organisations. In this writer’s own experience, a post expressing solidarity with Iranian teenager Maedeh Hojabri garnered the attention of these cyber-vigilantes.
Hojabri’s plight went viral in July after she was arrested for posting “indecent” videos of herself dancing on Instagram. After I posted in support of Hojabri, as a Saudi woman empathising with the plight of Iranian women, the pro-Saudi trolls attacked. Many tagged @kamnapp, an official handle of the Saudi government dedicated to “communications security”. Some directly called on Saudi authorities to take action. “Go for it!” encouraged one user. “Police? Are you there?” inquired another.
As I am based in London, I never faced any danger of arrest or in-person reprisal. But the ease with which users can report on activists highlights the Orwellian reality that those within Saudi Arabia face.
While blackmail and censorship serve to stamp out existing critics, cyber-vigilantism creates an ominous Big Brother that deters would-be dissenters. Under these conditions, it is easy to see why initiatives such as Feminism FM, which speak for the “silent majority”, have become necessary.
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Taking stock of the ways in which the Saudi government silences criticism informs concerned individuals about how to combat such suppression. Whether authorities target dissidents’ friends and families, limit the reach of their messages, or threaten them with outright arrest, it is imperative that those who believe in human rights stand up to support these victims.
Support means amplifying the stories of victims and raising awareness of their plights. Concerned individuals should vouch for activists and organisations facing trumped-up penalties on Twitter, while Saudi accounts aimed at surveillance must be reported. Even a simple direct message conveying solidarity can mean the world to those being attacked for their views.
As Saudi Arabia migrates its oppressive practices to the world of social media, we must learn how to fight back.
- Sarah Al-Otaibi is a women’s rights activist based in London. Her insights on female empowerment in Saudi Arabia have been published by Women’s March Global.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: A Saudi man browses through Twitter on his desktop in Riyadh on 30 January 2013 (AFP)