The Caravan

Social Media And The Gulf States: A Revolution That Is Not Revolutionary

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

“One of the startling discoveries of our time,” the author and social philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote nearly half a century ago, “is that revolutions are not revolutionary.” Hoffer’s insight has aged well. All across our world, particularly in the emerging world over the past three decades, we have been witnessing quiet revolutions that are “not revolutionary” driven by urbanization, growing middle classes, and increasing access to information coupled with the rocket fuel of rising aspirations.

Consider China, urban India, parts of urban Africa, large swathes of East Asia. Individuals are connected and expectant and aspiring in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago, in ways that are, well, revolutionary. As the author Evan Osnos astutely points out in his fine book, “The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China,” the greatest change to come to China has been “aspiration, the sheer ability to make a better life.”

The contagion of aspiration has spread far and wide, including the Middle East and North Africa region. The story of the Arab Uprisings is largely a story of aspirations unmet, and heavy-handed governments slamming the doors on young populations seeking opportunity, dignity, hope, and freedom. Social media helped break down the walls that protected the palace, but also the walls that disconnected and disaggregated people. Facebook became, in some instances, the connected coffee house where the pamphleteer could challenge the unjust ruler, and slip quietly away.

In Egypt’s case, al-Shabab al-Facebook (the youth of Facebook) played a considerable role in the early days of the uprising, particularly the Facebook page known as Kullena Khaled Said (We are all Khaled Said, the Egyptian blogger beaten to death by police authorities). Before there was Tahrir Square, there was “Khaled Said square” on Facebook, masterfully administered by Wael Ghonim, the Dubai-based Google executive.

Over the next few months, uprisings led to the fall of dictators from Tunis to Tripoli, Cairo to Sana’a, threatened the ruling family in Bahrain, and rattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, prompting the son of the “Lion of Damascus” to display his own terrible claws with unrelenting ferocity.

The crowd’s fist-pumping slogan -- “ash­shaʿb yurīd isqāt an­niẓām” (the people want the fall of the regime) -- echoed through a history of autocracy, underdevelopment, and corruption. Over a one year period, rulers with more than 100 years on their various “presidential thrones”, with sons in waiting, fell to the crowds. The “burned generation” - the name given to the young whose lives have been burned by the state’s inability to provide them a decent life -- did some burning of their own. The world was turning.

This brings us to the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. With the exception of Bahrain, none of these states faced a significant uprising. Perhaps, one simplistic narrative suggests, that the gleaming skyscrapers, the five-star hotels, and the Western consultant-driven economic development plans, suggested a facile modernity imposed over traditional, de-mobilized, de-networked societies. This, coupled with a mix of petro-patronage and repression ensured a quiet Arabia.

This neat and imprecise narrative, however, understates the dramatic transformations taking place in Gulf societies, accelerated and in some cases catalyzed by the information revolution. These are not hermit Kingdoms, and political uprisings should not be the only barometer of change.

The GCC states are among the most wired places on earth. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar all have higher internet penetration rates than the United States, according to the International Telecommunications Union. The UAE ranks as one of the most advanced countries globally when it comes to broadband access. Meanwhile, three-fourths of Kuwaitis and two-thirds of Omanis have access to the internet, considerably higher than the Middle East average, and above global levels. Among Arab states, only Lebanon can keep up with the GCC states in internet penetration.

In 2011, Bahrainis took to Pearl Roundabout, echoing the chants of other Arab publics, but also displaying a remarkable sense of incipient nationalism in chants such as “birūh, bi­dem, nafīdak ya­l ­Bahrain’ (with our blood, our soul, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Bahrain).” The state responded with force, decimating Pearl Roundabout and then hunting out protestors with the help of “incriminating” Twitter and Facebook posts. The state has jailed several social media activists specifically for their postings, and continues to aggressively monitor social media activity.

Every Gulf country monitors political activists closely. Tough anti-terror laws with loose interpretations make it difficult to speak out against ruling royals. Whereas intelligence services in the past often physically tracked dissidents, they now track them in cyber-space as well.

This, then, surely explains why there were no uprisings in other GCC states, some might say. But could there also be a less dramatic, if less satisfying, explanation? Perhaps Gulf youth are largely not dissatisfied with their lot. Perhaps they do not feel burned as did Egyptian or Tunisian youth. Perhaps they are not politically mobilized because, well, life is not bad for the majority of young men – the ones that tend to lead uprisings.

The recent Arab Youth Survey, an annual poll conducted by the public relations firm ASDA’A Burson Marsteler, reflects this narrative. In interviews with the 18-24 demographic across the Arab world, a striking picture appears, a picture of two Middle Easts: satisfied, contented youth in the Gulf Arab states and dissatisfied, frustrated young people more broadly across the region. Asked if they feel their country is going in the right direction, a startling 85% of GCC youth said: “yes.” In nine years of polling, Gulf Arab youth have been more optimistic about their futures than other Arab youth.

If you are a young Emirati of both genders, you have opportunities available to you unavailable in most of the world: well-paying jobs, incubator and accelerator programs if you want to be the next Steve Jobs, scholarships for education, easy access to a global commercial hub like Dubai with creative class talent mingling with world-class firms. You also have the envy of your neighbors. For five years running, when the Arab Youth Survey asked young Arabs if they could live anywhere in the world, the answer has been the same: the United Arab Emirates. The US comes a distant second.

If you are a young Saudi with even modest ambition (women included) over the last five years, you could get a full scholarship with gold-plated health benefits, a monthly stipend for you and a spouse (if you have one), and four years or more studying in the United States or somewhere else in the world, with annual return tickets home. Up to the year 2014, the Kingdom had spent $6 billion funding more than 200,000 students, more than half of whom studied in the United States. It might be one of the most extensive scholarship programs ever to emerge from the developing world.

But, one might say, the Shah of Iran also granted scholarships to young Iranians in the 1970s and many of those same students became part of the vanguard of the revolutionary movement that toppled the Iranian monarch in 1979. True, but Iran’s society in the 1970s was far more politically mobilized against the ruler than Saudi society today.

But political agitation is not the only kind of agitation that transforms societies.

Today, Saudis are the most active per capita users of Twitter, YouTube and Instagram in the world, with one of the deepest smart phone penetrations globally. Not long ago, in the year 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait, Saudis were largely kept in the dark in the immediate aftermath: newspapers and television were banned from reporting the news. Today, in Saudi Arabia, such a ban would be meaningless, even laughable. The news would spread in seconds via Twitter and other social media. Saudis produce more than 200 million tweets per month.

Saudi social media has produced some stars, like the comedian collective known as Telfaz11. They are the ones behind the “No Woman, No Drive” viral video mocking the Saudi women driving ban to the tune of Bob Marley’s famous “No Woman, No Cry.” Saudis were also among the first of many countries to produce a Gangnam Style parody video (“Saudi Gangnam Style”), shortly after the Korean pop song went viral globally. There is even a young, Saudi-based female comedian, and a bevy of aspiring Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube wanna-be stars. If nothing else, social media has showed us that, yes, Saudi Arabia has hipsters and snarky young people too.

Young Saudis took to Snapchat, in particular, because the social media site allowed them momentary acts of self-expression that would be deleted and sent into the netherworlds of cyberspace, but they also began to populate Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube with vigor. Many young Saudi women run Instagram businesses, selling cakes or crafts based on their large followings. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- the prince of the internet generation -- virtually runs the government on the social media messaging site WhatsApp, insiders tell me.

Meanwhile, start-up culture has also landed in the Gulf states, most notably in Dubai, where companies like Souq.com, the e-commerce retailer, was recently sold to Amazon for $650 million. Young Arabs dream of becoming the next Rolando Mouchawar, the CEO and co-founder of Souq.com, or Samih Toukan, the pioneering Internet entrepreneur, or Fadi Ghandour, the Dubai-based founder of Aramex (think FedEx for the Middle East and Africa) and angel investor. A bevy of incubators and accelerators are proliferating across the UAE, a country that, in its own way, has become, as one Emirati commentator put it, “a start-up nation.”

Still, such widespread access to social media means that future political activists will have an infrastructure in place that they could not have dreamed of a decade ago. Facebook remains a potent tool of organizing.

Shortly after the 2011 uprising in Egypt, a joke made the rounds, one that imagined deposed President Hosni Mubarak in the afterlife meeting his former compatriot and fellow President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by an Islamist extremist in 1981.

Sadat turns to his former Vice-President Mubarak and asks with intense curiosity: “Who did it? Was it the Islamist extremists?”

“No, it was an even more powerful enemy,” Mubarak responds.

“More powerful than the extremists?” Sadat asks incredulously. “Who can this group possibly be?”

“Facebook,” Mubarak says.