When most people want to become involved in Twitter, they open an account. Leave it to Prince AlWaleed bin Talal, the Saudi media mogul who is King Abdullah's nephew, to buy a chunk of the microblogging site. The prince's company announced on Dec. 19 that it was investing $300 million in Twitter, officially bringing the site into the mainstream of the Saudi media scene.
Rightly or wrongly, social media is perceived as a revolutionary tool in Saudi Arabia -- one of the many factors that contributed to the Arab Spring. The association was so strong that a few days following the Egyptian uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak, a Saudi official had to deny a rumor that the Saudi king had offered Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg $150 billion to buy his social networking site -- a bargain, the thinking went, if it helped him ward off further revolutions. And indeed, sites like Twitter and Facebook are rapidly growing in the kingdom, precisely because they allow voices that otherwise would not have been able to find an outlet to flourish.
For example, the hashtag #AlwaleedTwitter was quickly formed after the news of the prince's investment broke. Saudis commented, asked critical questions, and even poked fun -- imagining what would happen if the purchase of this "strategic stake" meant that the kingdom's religious police (officially known as The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) would now be allowed to rule the Twittersphere.
"Now that Twitter is Saudi, you will have two options when you log-on: Men's Section and Women's Section," commented @Noni_Alk, writing in Arabic.
Another user, @badeeeerQ8, sarcastically suggested that the site will now be forced to shut down during the five daily prayer times for Muslims, in line with the kingdom's enforcements on shopkeepers.
That's not to say all Saudis on Twitter saw AlWaleed's purchase in a negative light. Veteran Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who next year will be launching the prince's news channel, Al-Arab, from its newly announced headquarters in neighbouring Bahrain, dismissed any political dimension to the decision, tweeting that "it is a purely an investment and a belief in social media which isn't restricted to Twitter." Shortly afterwards, Khashoggi was retweeted by another highly active Twitter user: Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, AlWaleed's wife, beaming his views out to her 92,000 followers.
Princess Ameerah, too, received her fair share of jests. Many tweets suggested that the princess's fondness for the site was the main reason behind Alwaleed's investment; a matter that is likely to spark competition between Gulf royalty, insinuated @N6911a, a user who humorously suggested that Sheikha Mozah al-Missned is now demanding that her husband, the emir of Qatar, buy her Google! Another tweep, @reenadT, jokingly asked Ameerah if she would allow others to play with her "Twitter" until each got their own.
One of the Saudi tweeps who frequently challenges the country's established norms is the Saudi-American Nora Abdulkarim (@Ana3rabeya). "I breathe Freedom. I bleed Oil," reads her Twitter profile.
Although Nora only joined the site this year, she has managed to upset many of her fellow citizens in Saudi Arabia by discussing social issues considered taboo in the kingdom.
A few days ago, she launched a series of tweets organized under the hashtag #SaudiMcCarthyism, where she made observations such as, "Citizen Rights are *always* Sacrificed at the Feet of National Security." She even drew an analogy between the U.S. portrayal of communists during the Cold War and current regional rivalries in the Middle East, tweeting, "Dirty Red Commies = Backstabbing Persian Shia."
"A reoccurring comment that I get is to mind my own business," she explains, adding that other angry comments were directed at her choice of writing in English as well as Arabic, or for displaying an unveiled picture of herself. And of course, there's the matter of a woman asserting her right to be involved in Saudi Arabia's notoriously restricted political and cultural space.