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.

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Produced in association with the International Reporting Project