What’s ‘Appening?: Social Media Transforms Saudi Society
By Cassandra Bryan
Photograph of Saudi texters courtesy of Huffington Post
The hot, dusty sheep market full of bleating wares has been a common sight in the Arabian Peninsula for centuries. In Saudi Arabia, shepherds today are escaping the heat, creating a virtual souk for buying and selling their livestock over social media.
Saudi Arabians have rapidly become some of the most social media active people in the world. In a country that had just 13 percent of the population using the internet ten years ago, today there are roughly 17 million internet users, accounting for over 60 percent of the population, and smart phone penetration stands at nearly 75 percent. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is home to 8 million Facebook and 5 million Twitter users, and it has the most active YouTube base in the world. Saudis have also become proficient messengers, as 54 percent of its mobile internet users have active WhatsApp accounts.
Pervasive social media presence is reshaping how Saudis live their lives. Beyond the expected functions of communication between friends and family, Saudis have met, proposed, gotten married and divorced their partners all on social media platforms. These new mediums have also had a political impact on the Kingdom. Social media has become the primary news source in Saudi Arabia, frequently trusted more than the state-sponsored journalism on TV. Saudi officials have taken notice and seek to use these platforms to their advantage. The government uses social media to reach into society more easily. Conservative people can now submit their complaints to the religious police using WhatsApp.
Access to information is increasing Saudis’ exposure to their own society in disruptive ways, too. Examples of corruption and abuse shared over social media have gotten multiple government officials sacked, and criminals have begun extorting fellow Saudis by threatening to release examples of their poor behavior online. While social media allows the shepherds to escape the heat, it may create a new kind of heat for Saudi policymakers.