Look to Social Media for the Gulf’s Burgeoning Debates

As the GCC crisis, which saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt sever diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar, gathered momentum this June, social media users took to Twitter and Facebook to express support for both sides of the rift. Since then, active engagement with the issue on social media has been sustained by both governments and citizens, with pro- and anti-Qatar hashtags emerging in both English and Arabic as the crisis continues. The tweets have been wide-ranging in nature, demonstrating humour as well as frustration, anger and solidarity.

The buzzing online activity around the crisis demonstrates that social media, arguably Twitter in particular, is a crucial tool for political messaging in the GCC which goes beyond traditional routes of using state-controlled print and online news media.

The governments involved in this crisis have employed social media as part of their wider information campaigns. And they have done so with good reason: the Gulf has among the highest internet and social media penetration rates in the world. According to the 7th Arab Social Media Report published by the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government, Qatar and the UAE have the highest penetration of Facebook users in the region, at around 95% each, while Saudi Arabia has the most Twitter users.

In fact, it is hard to overstate the importance of social media in the Gulf. At a recent Chatham House workshop, cohosted by Kuwait’s Alsalam Centre, speakers and participants argued that social media has driven a ‘cultural revolution’ in the Gulf. It has engendered a new sense of freedom to discuss and debate key issues in the GCC, and has begun to shift the relationship between state and society in the region. Winning the battle for the social media narrative is now a crucial policy goal for many Gulf states.

Social media has created a space for critical debate on government policies and has in some cases led to changes in the way governments approach issues, pushing them to increase transparency and be more accountable to their citizenry. Social media is not just a one-way tool, with the government pushing out its message, but rather a space for conversation that is fostering a growing civic and political awareness among nationals. Social media users don’t just engage on domestic issues; they also discuss regional events, like the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. They are able to disseminate and interact with information that they otherwise would not have access to, and form independent opinions of the development of these conflicts.

This is a change from the historical norm, and many Gulf governments are worried by two-way flows of information that they cannot fully control; they see social media as both a potential vehicle for their own political messaging and a threat to carefully managed internal order. Unsurprisingly, as boundaries are tested, new and strict cybercrime legislation criminalizing perceived dissent and some forms of political expression are being implemented. Online freedoms continue to be restricted, and are vigilantly monitored by GCC governments, who are investing significant sums in technology and cybersecurity. The UAE recently criminalized expressions of sympathy or support for Qatar on both digital platforms and in real life, and Bahrain soon followed suit. In the UAE, penalties for breaking this new law range from 3-15 years imprisonment and a fine of no less than 500,000 Emirati dirhams (around $13,500).

Yet coercion can only go so far, and many Gulf states are also looking for ways to leverage social media as a tool for persuasion. During the current crisis, both Qatar and its rivals have focused significantly on the social media campaigns, with reports of bots being used by governments to push their political messages and give the impression of support from large swathes of the population. Ordinary citizens have actively exchanged opinions on developments through social media, but most have toed the lines set formally or informally by their governments.

As relations between the GCC states and within them continue to evolve socially, politically and economically, social media and digital platforms will continue to serve as barometers of public mood and will play an increasingly important role in information campaigns. Understanding their role is essential to understanding the forces shaping the future of the GCC.

Nicole El Khawaja, Programme Coordinator, Middle East and North Africa Programme.

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