One of the more interesting take-aways from my trip to the Middle-east last week is the extraordinary enthusiasm for social media amongst Saudi Arabians.
Consider the following:
- The Kingdom accounts for the highest penetration of Twitter in the world (see chart below)
- Virtually half (47%) of the total tweets produced in the Arab world are produced in or by Saudis, despite the Kingdom’s relatively small population of 29m, according to the 5th Arabic Social Media Report (pdf)
- Saudi Arabia boasts the highest number of YouTube views (90m per day) in the world per Internet user (source: Google).
To westerners, Saudis’ enthusiasm for social media may seem obvious: where else would they go for the facts when the mainstream media is little more than government propaganda? (This is also an argument regularly trotted out to explain the enthusiasm for all things social amongst Chinese, Malays, Singaporeans, Vietnamese and others living under the shadow of authoritarian regimes.)
Yet it seems this line doesn’t quite stack up in Saudi Arabia:
- As The Economist recently noted, Saudi’s media has liberalised markedly in recent years
- A huge majority (84%) of Saudis believe mainstream news reporting has improved significantly
- Local/regional Arabic TV (specifically Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera) remains much the most trusted source of news and information
- According to Northwestern University’s Media Use in the Middle East survey, Saudis appear confident of talking online with little fear of retribution, so long as the regime itself is not seriously questioned.
I am no expert on politics or the media in the Middle East, but the Saudi authorities appear to have struck a reasonable balance between permitting general freedom of expression on the one hand and meeting the enduring conservatism of broad swathes of its populace on the other, at least for now.
(I have not been able to find the relevant data for Saudi Arabia on internet regulation so I am working on the assumption that the below is largely accurate. Please let me know if I am mistaken).
If the Arab Spring tells us anything, it is surely that the internet amplifies and deepens existing prejudices and behaviour (of all types).
For how long Saudi Arabia’s current social balancing act will last is another question.