In Saudi Arabia, Dissent Is Alive and Well, but Only Online or in Private

Riyadh polices its streets and cafés with a fearsome rigor, but it doesn't seem to know how to shut down the chatter on Twitter and Facebook

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Every Tuesday night, a few dozen people squeeze into Waleed Abu Alkhair’s living room in the port city of Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Over tea and dates, they share opinions that could get them arrested if uttered in public. “If you ask people, they are afraid because they know the costs are very high,” says Abu Alkhair, a former civil rights lawyer and activist. “You can see this is a very small house, but we don’t have any other place.”

The topic jumps from religion to revolution. “We are not far away from the uprisings that are happening in other countries,” exclaims a young man wearing the traditional Saudi thobe. His statement ignites a debate about the state of free speech in Saudi Arabia, where thousands are behind bars for simply speaking out against the government. “We live in a prison,” one patron comments from a cramped love seat, “the cell has gotten a little bigger, but it’s still a prison.”

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The conversation is broken up by the ring of the doorbell, injecting a moment of tension into the otherwise friendly conversation. Many at the gathering fear that the government will raid Abu Alkhair’s apartment at any point and put an end to the meetings, which have been happening at the location for the past four months. When a familiar face enters the room, their relief gives way to a roar of welcomes, and the chatter picks up again.

Thanks to social media, it’s becoming much easier to carry on these conversations in Saudi Arabia. Many of Abu Alkhair’s guests will head home and speak to thousands across the world, on sites like Twitter and Facebook, without the strict censorship they live with in the off-line world. “Can you imagine going to the street corner and speaking to 10 people? The government would round you up immediately, but now we are speaking out to thousands,” says Mohammed al-Qahtani, a prominent human-rights activist in Riyadh and co-founder of the Saudi Civil & Political Rights Organization. He says the government underestimated the power of social media in Saudi Arabia, and now it’s too widespread to censor. “They will not shut it down because it would be a big embarrassment,” al-Qahtani says.

Saudis are some of the most active social-media users in the Arab world. According to a recent study by the Dubai School of Government, Saudi Arabia has more Twitter users than any other nation in the region, with around 400,000. They also have around 4 million people on Facebook, second only to Egypt. “I think we’re so thirsty for freedom of expression and a forum for expression that you see that Saudis particularly are far more involved [in social media] than their neighbors,” says Aiyah Saihati, a political activist and popular Saudi blogger. She says Twitter and Facebook are filling a void created by the lack of civil society in Saudi Arabia, where organized gatherings remain restricted to religious meetings and government-sponsored events. “Before this, we were living on islands. We had thoughts, but we did not know who was like-minded, if people really cared about those issues that moved us.”

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“I can remember my feeling of my first tweet,” says Abu Alkhair, who now has around 40,000 Twitter followers. “I said ‘People, my friends, the government, here I will start to use my freedom clearly.’” But in February of this year, Saudi Arabia’s online freedom was pushed to its limits when a 23-year-old blogger named Hamza Kashgari tweeted about the Prophet Muhammad on a day when millions around the country were celebrating his birth. The tweet said in Arabic: “I have loved things about you, and I have hated things about you, and there is a lot I don’t understand about you … I will not pray for you.” It sparked outrage across the country. On Twitter, Hamza Kashgari the dog became a popular hashtag, while on television, Muslim clerics called for the death penalty.

“Sometimes these kids get confused,” al-Qahtani explains, referring to the Kashgari case. “They don’t know whether they are living in a liberal state or an extremely conservative one, and they don’t know their limits.” After fleeing the country and being extradited back by Malaysia, Kashgari now sits in prison awaiting his sentence. “A funny thing happens here in Saudi Arabia,” says Abu Alkhair, “you can be hosting someone in your home one day, and the next day they will be in jail.” Kashgari was a friend of Abu Alkhair and a regular at his weekly salons. He is now a regular topic of conversation. “Are you saying Hamza is wrong only because he provoked the masses?” asks Ali Shabaan, one of the more vocal participants at the gathering, of the bearded man sitting across from him. “If he said it in this salon, I wouldn’t have a problem,” the man replies. The Kashgari case is an extremely touchy subject at the salon. Many knew him personally and support his right to voice his opinion. But, some admit, speaking about the Prophet Muhammad can be very dangerous and must be done with extreme delicacy. “As soon as you speak of Muhammad critically, you’re seen at a stage close to apostasy,” says one of the guests, who requested that his name not be published.

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Abu Alkhair says it became much more difficult to gather as a group after Kashgari’s arrest. Many of his guests used to congregate informally, at different coffee shops around Jidda, but they no longer feel that it is safe to do so. Their most frequent hangout, Bridges Cafe, was recently raided by the religious police and has been closed indefinitely. And that’s when Abu Alkhair began hosting the meetings in his living room. He insists on keeping them open to the public and has published his address and phone number online, even though that has put him and his wife in a vulnerable position. Abu Alkhair says they woke up one morning to a small fire lit outside their apartment door. “I didn’t ask for revolution, I didn’t ask to change the system. I just have my small house and a lot of young people; I just speak freely on Twitter, a very basic thing in the world, in other countries, so why do you punish me?”

The government has targeted Abu Alkhair: he has just emerged from a monthlong investigation by the Ministry of the Interior. Abu Alkhair says the process involved two or three meetings a week with an investigator at the ministry’s head office in Jidda, where intense questioning lasted for up to eight hours. His investigator probed him about his weekly salons, his Twitter account and whether or not he would ever take his criticism to the streets in protest. At the end of the month, he was charged with “disrespecting the judicial system” and could face a year in prison if convicted.

Despite his own uncertain future, Abu Alkhair is optimistic that freedom of speech will continue to grow, both online and outside the walls of his living room. “In just 10 years, I have seen young people become very brave, and I wonder what will happen in the next five years. I think a lot will happen.” As one week’s meeting winds down, Abu Alkhair and his wife pile up the empty teacups, and he describes one of the last interrogation sessions he went through before receiving his charges. “I did not know how long these interrogations would last, so I told my investigator I was going on a hunger strike until they finished,” he says, smirking as he repeats the investigator’s reaction. “He said ‘Fine,’ then asked me nicely not to tweet about it.” Abu Alkhair says little victories like that give him hope for the future.

MORE: Meet Saudi Arabia’s Heir to the Throne

Produced in association with the International Reporting Project

42 comments
ThadeusSimon
ThadeusSimon

I was imprisoned in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for sharing the gospel to my fellow Filipino Workers. They imprisoned us for few days, while some were beaten and got lashed. There is no freedom of religion in that country, and the Saudi police are very cruel to the foreign workers. The religious police pretend to be religious but actually they are only doing their religiosity for their own benefits. May the Lord Jesus bless them and open their eyes for the truth.

ThadeusSimon
ThadeusSimon

I was imprisoned in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia for sharing the gospel to my fellow Filipino Workers. They imprisoned us for few days, while some were beaten and got lashed. There is no freedom of religion in that country, and the Saudi police are very cruel to the foreign workers. The religious police pretend to be religious but actually they are only doing their religiosity for their own benefits. May the Lord Jesus bless them and open their eyes for the truth. 

ThadeusSimon
ThadeusSimon

I was imprisoned in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia for sharing the gospel to my fellow Filipino Workers. They imprisoned us for few days, while some were beaten and got lashed. There is no freedom of religion in that country, and the Saudi police are very cruel to the foreign workers. The religious police pretend to be religious but actually they are only doing their religiosity for their own benefits. May the Lord Jesus bless them and open their eyes for the truth. 

ThadeusSimon
ThadeusSimon

I was imprisoned in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia for sharing the gospel to my fellow Filipino Workers. They imprisoned us for few days, while some were beaten and got lashed. There is no freedom of religion in that country, and the Saudi police are very cruel to the foreign workers. The religious police pretend to be religious but actually they are only doing their religiosity for their own benefits. May the Lord Jesus bless them and open their eyes for the truth. 

 ♥ .✈.✈.✈.
♥ .✈.✈.✈.

But these Jerks represents no body amp; How the have not been arrested yet if there is no freedom for them. Beside they aint Pure saudi+Big agenda behind them

Anon11112233
Anon11112233

 and what does a pure Saudi means to you? how can you say something like that? it is because of ignorant people like you there is hate in this world! we are all people and saying something like that is just plain wrong.

Ahm Shee
Ahm Shee

حبيب سمر انتيالاقوى انتيااحسن ماعليك من احد

انتي كذااااا

ووووووووووه بسسسسسسسس

امواااااااااااااااااااااااه

Thomas Brunswick
Thomas Brunswick

I believe that for any thinking person, the idea that the religious police also known as the "muttaqun" will attempt to force anyone into religious obediance is in direct opposition to the Islamic Holy Scriptures of the Qur'an.

"If it had been the Lord's will, they would all have believed-all who are on earth!

Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will to believe?

No soul can believe, except by the will of Allah."

(Yunus Surah 10:99-100).

Imposing a religion on others by physical compulsion, or by any other forms of compulsion such as social pressure, or inducements held out by wealth or position, or other adventitious advantages. FORCED FAITH IS NO FAITH.

Please review my page "Islam In Society" on FaceBook that calls into question the premise of any social benefits derived by violence or threats by religious zealots.

KryKey Web Radio
KryKey Web Radio

also we have many from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region on our network talking and playing content - KryKey.com

coty
coty

that time working in the pipelines dept., in the desert right in the  middle of nowhere i found out that a native Saudi will be able to talk his hearts out in the company of expats  re: almost anything about Saudi Arabia.  as soon as  another Saudi joins the crowd he clams up automatically! it's just but a natural thing for them they couldn't be more too careful, they simply cannot trust each other, who knows the other will inform whatever gripes he's been talking about!

Bryan Corts
Bryan Corts

these books were meant to create order and peace and harmony is fact. Also on the double edge of the sword is that its trying to promote good behavior and not evil. Learn to share your materialistic bullshit you have and get on with life.

Amanda Brooks
Amanda Brooks

my best friend's step-aunt makes $74/HR on the laptop. 

She was just fired from her Job but last month her income was 

$14,395 just working on the laptop for a few hours. 

Read more here :   http://MakeCash123.com

flippy05
flippy05

Its a shame that expressing your own beliefs can lead to such hatred, I am not muslim so I do not know how it feels for them to hear someone to disrespect muhamad; however, I strongly believe that no one should be chastised for questioning their own beliefs.

Guest
Guest

Its a shame that questioning faith can spark such hatred, I am not muslim so I do not know what its like for them to hear someone disrespect muhamad; however, a man expressing his feelings should not be chastised.

Gregg Mather
Gregg Mather

Anybody who is even attempting to compare the problems they might have with the US government to the authoritarian horrors faced by Saudis ought to try and live over there for a couple of days. I guarantee you, they'll be grovelling on their knees at the gates of the White House as soon as they're back--if they make it back.

Graham Fowler
Graham Fowler

I hope people continue to remain brave and voice their opinions.  There is nothing wrong with open dialogue, everyone should be allowed to speak.  If you are afraid of a voice you are admitting there are systemic problems with in your society.  In America we are able to speak openly but everyone is medicated to the hilt so we remain complacent.   Intelligent reform is necessary and not an evil thing that it is made out to be.

yodadog
yodadog

KSA is probably the biggest ticking time-bomb the USA faces, given our unending support of it's government for it's oil, instead of it's severely repressed people. Unfortunately, it's what our government does best, being on the wrong side of right.

punuhan
punuhan

We the Muslims can't listen a single word against our beloved Prophet MUHAMMAD (SAW). This is not extremism and 

Hamza Kashgari should be punished because he is the worshipper of devil.  

Gregg Mather
Gregg Mather

And what about the people who don't believe in the divine inspiration of an illiterate farmhand writing a thousand-page book? Are they to be murdered simply because what they believe doesn't chime with what you believe? Step into the 21st century, you disgusting excuse for a modern human being.

yodadog
yodadog

He should be punished for simply speaking his mind? Simply speaking his mind makes him a devil worshiper? 

punuhan, I'd really like to hear your definition of what extremism is.

punuhan
punuhan

Currently one fourth population of world is Muslim and according to you it is belief of a Muslim to take lives of innocent people, then one fourth population of world would have been killed by now. But the reality is this that each year millions of innocent Muslims are killed against war on terror(e.g Iraq). The extremism done till now is labeled as done by Muslim. Islam is religion of peace, harmony and tolerances. 

I just request you to read Quran for all your misunderstandings and questions.   

Arbaminch
Arbaminch

Your still an idiot!

And your logic is idiotic too...!!

yodadog
yodadog

punuhan: "according to you it is belief of a Muslim to take lives of innocent people". All that I have written is here for the world to see-just where did I say that? I'd like to keep this discussion going, but if you are going to keep putting words in my mouth, and distorting what I say, it's not worth it. Best of luck to you and your family and friends.

punuhan
punuhan

What's extremism in your point of view please?

Arbaminch
Arbaminch

Your extreme! And an extremist....

Your manner of writing...as well as your dogged refusal to consider other opinions or accept other views reveals you for what you really are.....Need I say anymore..

yodadog
yodadog

punuhan-only the last sentence of your response is showing on this post-here's what I received from Disqus: "If the mind of person in any corner of  world speaks to kill any other person, then why is he punished???........simply acting his mind thoughts makes him killer??? In west wearing hijab is extremism......I think wearing hijab is not extremism but following Islam."

The only reference advocating death in the article are the Islamic clerics, for a kid expressing his confusion and uncertainty about the Prophet Mohammad. I'd have to say that advocating death for that is extremism in one form. Intentionally taking innocent lives to promote a cause, or because it does not fit your beliefs, is extremism. As for the hijab, I think it would be more accurate to say wearing one is often seen in the west as a SYMBOL of extremism, and not an act of it.

oo
oo

I think Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which is named after the family that rules it (the house of Saud). They act as if the country belongs to them, and this includes the oil revenues.

People who even dare compare Saudi Arabia to the Western world live in a dream world. They should go and see how KSA is. I have. With all of its oil revenues, basically the majority of the people are poor.... and I only went to Jeddah amp; Riyadh!

 

But of course the US administration will not say anything against their pals in KSA, but only point their finger at Iran (which by the way is far more liberal than the Wahibbis running KSA)

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

This is nonsense. In the US, people are rounded up. You have to watch what you say or you will be picked up by the authorities. Political gatherings are limited to government approved events. Maybe TIME should hunt down the dissidents living in the US. 

Oh, I forgot....you call them terrorists

Thomas S. Tucker
Thomas S. Tucker

Greg you are obviously a lying muslim trying to get sympathy for your stupid, loser muslim point of view.

flippy05
flippy05

that is almost as offensive as what greg said

oo
oo

 Sorry Greg, but in the US you can openly call Obama names. You can burn the American flag. Try that in Saudi with the Royal family and see where it gets you!

susanai
susanai

Isn't this true of the western world? How many big protest marches have you been to lately if ever? Or do you protest via Twitter/FB?

TomCat84
TomCat84

The tea party protests, for one. To try and compare freedom of speech within Saudi Arabia to that found in the U.S. or any other developed nation is ridiculous. You can pretty much say whatever you want to here.

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

The

USDA cut its corn crop forecast by 12% to 12.97 billion bushels. Corn futures

finished down 3.5% during today's trading after initially popping on the

report. Corn is at its highest price level since September, up more than 40%

since the beginning of June. The US trade deficit narrowed in June to -$48.7

billion, which was in line with expectations. The EIA petroleum report was

released this morning and crude inventories fell by 4.7 million barrels. This

drop is even greater than in the previous report. West Texas crude oil rose by

2.5% Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced a 65 billion euro budget

deficit cut. This will include cutting unemployment benefits, lowering public

wages, raising taxes, and reducing pensions. The IBEX (Spanish index) was up

1.17% during today's trading. The Fed released minutes from the last FOMC

meeting. There were a few members that believed that further stimulus will be

needed. Markets traded lower after the news was released as there was no

definitive mention of the next quantitative easing measure. The Samp;P 500

finishing dow What we ought to do is like the carom

game or the billiard. Put pone in one tablet or the ball one at a time and not

try to gather all in the corner thinking that you will get a chance to pot all this

together. It just does not work that way. EURO and Barclays, Barclays,

Barclays, nothing but Barclays this week Top

Barclays Plc. shareholders fear that

regulators will rush through the appointment of a new chief of the

scandal-struck bank and not take the time to search for an outsider to bring

about a root-and-branch culture change. Now the bank has started sounding out

larger shareholders, who have urged it to look for external candidates to fill

the two top jobs at the bank. The shareholders have expressed concern that

financial regulators, eager to limit long-term damage caused by a lack of

leadership at the bank, are pressing for quick appointments. "We, I LOVE

THIS WORD, we, feel they are going to get pushed by the regulator to make these

appointments quite quickly so that would lead them to look to internal

candidates," one top-10 investor said, the bank wants to quickly appoint

its deputy chairman, Michael Rake, as its

new chairman and is preparing to present the case to the Bank of

England and the Financial

Services Authority, Rake has reportedly told investors he will stand

down from his role as chairman of both BT and easyJet to concentrate on the

chairman's role at Barclays, if it is awarded. Barclays is looking for new

blood after it became the first, and so far only, bank to admit errors in a

global rate-rigging scandal that has led to the departures of Chief Executive

Bob Diamond and Chairman Marcus Agius.

The scandal has enveloped a dozen or more banks across the world, which are

being probed over whether they manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate

(Libor), a benchmark that underlies hundreds of trillions worth of financial

contracts Chief Operating Officer Jerry del Missier has also left. External

appointments would help draw a line under the Libor fixing scandal, the

shareholders said. A second large investor who has had meetings with Barclays

board members told Reuters that the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and the

Bank of England had urged the board to "get their house in order as

quickly as possible," ideally appointing a new chairman and

chief executive within the

next 3 months. Euro-zone leaders have made important progress on

reforms aimed at addressing the causes of the region's debt crisis, but must

continue to press toward deeper integration, European Central Bank President

Mario Draghi told a European Parliament committee on Monday. Those steps

include increased sharing of fiscal and financial sovereignty, he said, while

praising a roadmap to tighter fiscal union outlined by European Council

President Herman Van Rompuy ahead of the June European Union summit. Draghi

said the summit sent an important message that leaders have a long-term vision

for the shared currency. That message is centered on the idea that the euro "is

here to stay and the euro area will take necessary steps to ensure that,"

he said. In my opinion EURO is

gone. The original idea of having one stable unit has failed and I have no idea

if any help will come in any near future so I would say forget EURO and look

for BRIC and I feel this part still clings on and the population is with the

economy.  Should you shield the canyons from

the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.

-Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, psychiatrist and author (1926-2004)

I

thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA