This is a chapter from the e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.
Social media platforms are a well documented socio-political game changer in the GCC region, with individuals, institutions and governments using these channels to exert influence and manipulate perceptions to serve their interests. Even more so than the applications available on them, the high penetration of mobile phones has introduced fundamental changes in how people across the globe communicate, share stories and even organise protests. According to World Bank statistics Arabian Gulf countries have some of the highest mobile phone subscription rates in the world, which, coupled with the latest broadband technology, means access to new social media platforms is both convenient and immediate. This has caused a dramatic shift in the behaviours of the first generation to grow up alongside the new modes of online social interaction, the smartphone generation, for whom social networking sites have almost replaced even fairly new inventions like email, a generation used to voicing opinions on a daily basis and presenting an autonomous narrative of life from their unique perspective.
This demographic is particularly ubiquitous in the GCC where the majority of national populations is in the youth bracket (25 and under), which has forced those who want to remain relevant and influence these future leaders to have an active social media presence perhaps more so than in other regions of the world. Whereas statesmen in other countries are not so burdened with keeping up with social media platforms, the head of the Saudi National Guard, Prince Mit’ib Bin Abdullah al Saud, called a lack of social media knowledge the new “illiteracy”. At the 2016 Misk Social Media Summit in Riyadh foreign and defence ministers from GCC states described their personal social media interactions as tricky but necessary. Now even foreign embassies in the Arabian Gulf states have a more overt social media presence, and engage directly with local youth through promotions by online influencers, eliminating the need for governmental or civil society assistance.
What is interesting about social media use is the interplay between formal and informal networks. This is a worldwide phenomenon with regards to how politics are played out online, but in the Gulf the absence of many voices, especially young voices, from socio-political debates has been upended by the frequency and prevalence of social media use. Opposition in the GCC is informal and with the exception of Bahrain consists of independent civil society movements.
According to the 2015 Arab Social Media Report, online sharing has become one of the “life values” of these youngsters and the region regularly tops world indexes for frequency of (per capita) use of these social media tools. Young people in the GCC have become adept at transforming key applications such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to vehicles for social, economic and political expression that were not necessarily part of their inventors’ original vision. Governments have quickly followed suit, both to regulate and to interact with a populace that is now engaging in public service critiques, inclusion demands and the creation of new commerce in ways that require immediate feedback.
The first mass adoption of these “self-expression” enabling technologies coincided with the Arab Spring protest movements, and meant that these platforms were used for unrestricted political discussions and mobilisations. The ability of opposition groups to disseminate information, organise and engage both local and global audiences was a challenge that GCC governments, with their traditional control of news agencies, were not prepared for. It not only up-ended the controlled status quo of ruling and governmental elites, the open exchange of ideas and opinions undermined many social taboos that prevented the young and the marginalised from having a voice. In terms of gender, social media has been viewed as a tool for inciting dangerous and deviant behaviour like demands for equality by some religious figures and traditionalists, especially in Saudi Arabia, because it has allowed women for the first time to engage in political and social spaces that have been the reserve of men. In many ways social media tools not only introduced governments and ruling elites to the true sentiments of their people, they also introduced nationals to each other and allowed them to cross the public/private divide in a way that was not possible offline. This has brought to light a multiplicity of narratives that challenge the homogenised national identity manufactured by governments that were predominantly Arab, Sunni and tribal by allowing different groups, ethnicities, and civil society organisations to share experiences that included texts and visual representations of alternative histories.
The continued existence of Ministries of Information tasked with “regulating the media and communication sector” within GCC states, an increasingly difficult task in the age of “citizen journalism” where everyone with a phone camera and an opinion is a movable information feed, is indicative of how intractable the official position on dominating communication channels remains. In most Arabian Gulf countries there has been a tripartite approach to regaining governmental control of the political narrative and curbing the appetite for defiant discourse. The reactionary laws attempting to break the habit of political chatter on Twitter by introducing fines and even jail time for “political” tweets is symptomatic of governments’ need to control the flow of information through state run media agencies and state funded satellite channels.
The mass adoption of social media tools has not ended the hegemony of the state on communication channels, it merely complicated it. The introduction of laws that aim to enforce self-censorship on users was only one facet, another was the investing in sanctioned social media exchanges, either through encouraging government officials and entities to promote themselves online, or by focusing on cherry-picked “influencers” that would deliver a government friendly message. For example, the Emirate of Dubai regularly flies in young influencers from other GCC and Arab states to cover events, bestowing on them as much credibility, if not more, as traditional press. This also sends a clear message to those seeking online celebrity; remain pro-government, optimistic, upbeat and you will reap the rewards. These attempts to win over online support by encouraging only influencers who report favourably on governmental activities will become more insidious with time and as increasingly accurate data metrics make targeted ads more precise.
In countries where citizens have never truly participated in power sharing social media has made it possible for the silent masses to exert some influence, however small, instead of being mere onlookers. From the Sultanate of Oman, where state controlled media makes it impossible for any dissent to be voiced, to the State of Kuwait where despite half a century of democratic engagement there has yet to be a national referendum taking public opinion into account before introducing legislative changes, being able to express an opinion, and being able to hold some entity or individual publicly accountable, has had a heady effect. How accountable is another story. Where videos leaked on social media have resulted in swift firings of ministers and officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that type of consequence has yet to manifest elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf. Most GCC countries continue to suffer from high levels of corruption despite the supposed increase in transparency and the pressure that social media users are exerting on governments today, contributing to the disillusionment with online political discourse in the “post-truth” era.
As users of new media platforms continue to develop a parallel dialogue to the official one pushed by governments, it remains to be seen to what extent this will enforce social change, or delay it because of the gratification that comes from online participation. There has been global debate around the nature of online activism itself, and if “clicktivism”, the act of venting online, has actually been detrimental to real life opposition movements because people feel that they have contributed to change while exerting a minimum of risk and effort. The morphing of WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook into political action tools during the height of the Arab Spring turmoil in 2011 and 2012, when protests were organised anonymously and through social media and mobile networks, has alerted governments to the need for more online presence, officially and unofficially in bots and tracking systems that use data mining techniques to uncover, persecute and to contribute to the overwhelming amount of contrary information online. The actual impact of social media campaigns varies greatly based on geographical location and socio-political context. The hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian reportedly garnered more than 15,000 signatories but it has not translated into increased emancipation for Saudi women on the ground. Similarly, in Qatar, online campaigns with a “moral” nature and domestic concerns, like those against the hosting of certain Western films or pop stars, are more successful in terms of invoking government action than political ones such as the campaign for citizenship rights for the children of Qatari women (#IAmHalfQatari).
The struggle for political authority over social media channels is reshaping the patronage agreement in GCC rentier state in one clear way that may have profound implications in future, especially when viewed alongside the challenges presented by the changing economic situation. As figures of the political, religious and ruling elite are forced to share and over-share in order to satisfy a growing appetite for online engagement, their actions and the actions of those in their personal and professional circles are being opened up to scrutiny as never before. The questioning, berating and diminishing of the halo of authority and mystery that surrounded these guarded stalwarts of the status quo in the past can not be maintained online unless their digital identity and that of their cohorts is meticulously managed; a nearly impossible act. Even though they continue to dominate social media celebrity lists in terms of the numbers of followers, the intellectual tyranny of religious figures, and their veneer of respectability, are being challenged on social media networks, with visual proof of materialistic and hypocritical behaviours.
The benign authoritarianism of leaders who are beyond reproach because they are above legal persecution also depends on the maintenance of a personality cult that is becoming increasingly fragile and difficult to protect online. The debate around the interactions of ruling family members that do not hold official positions and how far they can share as normal citizens do while retaining the privileges of their last names is a public relations headache for those who are in office. Members of the Saudi ruling family were instructed not to engage in political discourses online as far back as 2012, but elsewhere ruling family members can be the biggest social media stars in the GCC. Kuwait’s Majed al Sabah and Sharjah’s Sultan al Qasimi are both critical commentators and occasional endorsers of governmental agendas, and their growing numbers of local and international followers continues to cloud the issue. As does the presence of future rulers such as the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashed al Maktoum, as a seemingly spontaneous user of social media platforms, with open accounts on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, a precedent for GCC leadership.
During times of painful transition such as the economic transformation that the GCC is undergoing with slashed public sector salaries and the inevitable introduction of taxes that is slated for early 2018, social media platforms can be an important vessel for making citizens feel included in the decision-making process. However, the message delivery has to be handled in increasingly sophisticated ways so that it does not feel like propaganda. The New Kuwait development plan is meant to herald a positive “rebranding” of the country. It has been started with Instagram and Twitter accounts where the latest infrastructure projects were displayed as evidence of progress and future prosperity. This project fell short of expectations because it failed to capture citizens’ imagination and their buy-in. Over-reliance on flashy social media tools can contribute to creating a disconnect instead of fostering engagement if it is not done in conjunction with stakeholders’ own outreach offline. The issue of how to translate “likes” into real life impact is complicated, and just as complicated is how to kill a popular online story. Ignorant or agenda-driven online commentators could hijack the narrative and derail it, which is what happened to Kuwait’s Economic Reform Policy last year. The country’s relatively high freedom of expression meant that the message that government officials are corrupt and not to be trusted gained momentum online, and became increasingly difficult to diffuse and counter with positive spin.
Many of the negatives associated with social media inaccuracy are inherited problems. The lack of transparency by governments created problems with finding credible sources for breaking stories and some sloppy journalistic standards have migrated online from traditional media. The echo chamber effect of repeating and retweeting has amplified the reach of leaked footage, inaccurate or unethical as it may be, and has brought the universal problem of “fake news” to scandal hungry audiences in the GCC. Kuwait’s current House Speaker Marzouq al Ghanim dedicated much of his final rally speech in the 2016 elections to a social media smear campaign he claimed was fuelled by his opponent’s deep pockets. The rise of divisive and racist discourse has been made more acute by the silo effect of following debates on social media, with people taking positions with little awareness or knowledge, and keeping stories alive far longer than their traditional media life span. Even the fault lines of intra-GCC competition on state funded satellite stations like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have resurfaced online, with some countries accusing others of political interference in domestic affairs through official and unofficial social media channels. This collective muddling of social media reporting, and the overwhelming amount of contrary information online has led to people turning once again to traditional media sources for confirmation of news, thereby returning some of the power back to governmental and established media agencies.
Communication tools are being factored into the future plans of GCC states alongside economic reform, security concerns and managing a youth population that is markedly different in its expectations from that of their parents generation. Even the 2020 Dubai Expo aspires to be a “reflection of the modern world, connected as never before, and changing with great speed…made possible by new technology.” As security measures tighten and penalties continue to de-politicise online discourse, it is unclear whether social media will be a reform tool or disrupt the status quo in ways we have not yet begun to predict. The change of social dynamics as young people bypass formal hierarchies within households by sharing online what they could not share with family members could translate into the disruption outside the home. The digital space has become a lucrative and somewhat unregulated new market for young people who are trading services and products in a way that has diluted the chokehold of merchant elite monopolies on certain industries, including media channels. The success of these influencers and the companies they started means that government channels have started aping their creative practices in their own media offerings. Yet, these efforts have had mixed success as they scramble to stay constantly vigilant not only for online infractions, but also to counter accusations and false stories. The biggest challenge for GCC leaderships will be how to manage these young people’s expectations of immediate and effective responses in the era of instant gratification during the upcoming economic transition. The increased political awareness and perception of influence that voicing criticism on social media has given these young people must be carefully handled to ensure that their current frustrations do not harden into disobedient cynicism in future.
Dr Al-Sharekh is a Consulting Partner at Ibtkar Strategic Consultancy and a Research Associate at the London Middle East Institute at SOAS, and has held senior consultative and teaching positions in academic, governmental and non-governmental institutions in the Arabian Gulf and abroad. Her academic research won the Arab Prize for best publication in a foreign journal in 2014, and includes books such as The Gulf Family and Popular and Political Cultures of the Arabian Gulf States. She was awarded the knighthood of the National Order of Merit by the French Government in 2016 for her dedication to improving women rights in the region.
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