Saudi Arabia uses Facebook as conduit for grievances

Many citizens greet the page as a new way to reach officials, but experts are skeptical as to whether it will help.

Facebook 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Facebook 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
In a country where public protests are banned, women can’t travel alone and only one election has even been held (in 2005 for municipal offices), having the king’s cellphone number is a giant leap foreword for citizens with a complaint.
Even as Facebook has emerged as the chief toll for spreading revolution across the Middle East, the Saudi royal court opened a dedicated page on the social network this week, where citizens can forward their grievances to the King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz Al-Saud with the click of a button.
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The face of the page, however, belongs to Khaled Bin Abd Al-Aziz Al-Tuwaijri, chief of the Saudi royal court, saying the government wants citizens to voice their appeals directly "and without barriers." The page includes the telephone and fax numbers at the royal court secretariat, in addition to Al-Twaijri's mobile phone number and e- mail.
But while some Saudis welcomed the move, experts said it hardly changed the authoritarian nature of the conservative Arabian kingdom.
"I think it’s a great initiative," Eman Al-Nafjan, a Saudi blogger living in the capital Riyadh, told The Media Line. "There already is an open-door policy for appeals, but this will make it easier for Saudis, especially women, to submit their appeals." Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have served as a rallying point and organizing tool for protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, but these tools can just as easily be used by officials to monitor opponents, experts said. Syria last week ended a five- year ban on Facebook and other social media.
In Saudi Arabia, the Culture and Information Ministry issued new regulations six weeks ago requiring electronic news and information sharing sites not to harm national security or offend the pride of individuals. News and chat websites, blogs, text messaging and group e-mails must be licensed.
The royal court’s Facebook page doesn’t allow for anonymous griping. For an appeal to be answered, the complainant must register his full name and telephone number.
Nevertheless, that didn’t appear to deter critics.
"We require proof that this web page is indeed run by Khaled Bin Abd Al-Aziz Al-Tuwaijri, so that we aren’t suckered into wasting our time on blabber at a fake picture," a commentator named Fahad Atieah wrote on the page’s Wall this week.
Another, Abdulrahman Al-Amari, claimed the new page was no better than Saudi Arabia's tedious bureaucracy.
"We want to speak with you directly without going through 10,000 offices," he wrote. "We want direct and transparent dialogue for everyone's benefit. Are you prepared for that?!" But for many Saudis, women in particular, filing a virtual grievance opens up unprecedented opportunities.
Saudis usually bring their written complaints to Saudi government offices, which are mostly closed to women, explained Al-Nafjan."Women can enter some buildings but only with a male guardian, or mahram. It's very awkward and they want the women out as soon as possible," she said.
Saudis won’t hesitate to reveal their personal details through the site, she added, since most grievances are not political but personal in nature, pertaining to issues such as land rights and inheritance disputes.
But Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on Saudia Arabia at Bar Ilan University and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, downplayed the significance of the new Facebook page, saying contact information for the royal court was readily available on other government websites.
"This is a defensive reaction, not a game-changer," Teitelbaum told The Media Line. "No oppositionist is impressed by a Facebook page." Teitelbaum said the Saudi regime has long been responsive to the population's grievances has undertaken a series of political reforms since 2000, albeit very slowly.
Access to rulers has increased through local councils, known as Majalis, similar to town hall meetings, convened by local princes The Arab Middle East ranks low in global rankings of web freedom, although some leaders have been more embracing of the Internet than others. Jordan's King Abdullah maintains a personal website through which he speaks to the nation. His wife, Queen Rania, keeps a Twitter account and an active Facebook page with over half a million fans.
Teitelbaum said rulers have had little choice but to go virtual as their traditional monopoly over information began to crack with the emergence of the Al Jazeera satellite news channel in 1996 and opened to a gaping fissure with the Internet. The new Saudi Facebook page, he added, was a small and symbolic way of adapting to this new reality.
Cristoph Wilcke, a Saudi Arabian researcher at Human Rights Watch, called the Facebook page an act of cynicism by the royal court.
"There is great irony in fact that the Saudi king opens a new Facebook page while his government continues to shut down human rights group pages that have existed for years," Wilcke told The Media Line.
Wilcke said the government was able to block access to certain Facebook accounts, such as the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi (MHRSA), a local watchdog, without shutting down the entire site. Nevertheless, he said the new page would likely be used citizens who yearn for an ear with the court.
"The general fear of complaining has subsided recently," he said. "More and more Saudis are complaining to us about their inability to gain access, and prove with mail receipts that they have tried."