Shutting the Door After the Horse Had Bolted

It is still unclear why Arab News pulled their front page story quoting unnamed sources at the Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) about plans to link accounts of Saudi Twitter users to their national IDs. By the time they pulled the story, it was already too late as the story was already picked up by global news agency Reuters. Carrington Malin of Dubai-based Spot On PR speculated over what happened:

Removing the story in the wake of global media coverage, was clearly shutting the door after the horse had bolted and so one can only assume that the newspaper succumbed to pressure. Did the Arab News jump the gun on breaking news of CITC plans or was Saturday’s story a brave exposé? Either way, all eyes will be on the CITC as it considers regulation for social media and online communication services.

It is worth noting that this actually was not the first time the topic of linking Twitter accounts to national IDs as a way to monitor users has been mentioned in local media. Saud al-Fozan wrote an article for al-Sharq newspaper last month urging the government to do just that. “If we linked the numbers of national IDs for Saudis and Iqama numbers for expats as a condition to open a Twitter account, I’m sure that 60 percent of accounts would disappear, let alone the offensive tweets,” he wrote.

Saudi Arabia to Allow Women’s Sports Clubs

Saudi Arabia is to license women’s sports clubs for the first time, al-Watan daily reported, in a major step for an ultra-religious country where clerics have warned against female exercise…

Watan said on Friday the Interior Ministry had decided to allow women’s sports clubs after reviewing a study that showed flaws in the existing system.

You would think that the General Presidency of Youth Welfare, the government organization responsible for regulating sports in the country, would be the body to have the last word on this.

CITC to Take ‘Suitable Measures’ Against Apps Makers if They Fail to Comply

Apps like Skype and WhatsApp could be blocked because they do not meet the regulatory requirements and laws in Saudi Arabia, the Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) said today. The regulator said in a statement it has asked licensed mobile operators in the country to work with developers of these apps to ensure that they meet the regulatory requirements.

“CITC reiterates that it would take suitable measures against these apps and services if they fail to meet the requirements,” CITC said in the statement published Sunday by the official Saudi Press Agency. “We are keen to encourage companies to provide the latest services that meet the requirements of the licenses they have been granted. Additionally, CITC puts great emphasis on users privacy and its protection.”

CITC said it has taken this step as part of its mission not only to regulate the communications sector but also to “preserve values and principles” and “protect society of any negative aspects that could harm the public interest.”

The statement attracted mockery and anger by Saudi users on social media who said it represents a veiled threat to ban the apps. The vague statement did not say what are the requirements these apps are expected to meet, and comes only one day after the English-language daily Arab News pulled a story about plans by CITC to link Twitter accounts of Saudi citizens to their national IDs. The newspaper has not explained why they pulled the front page story which said the plan was inspired by CITC’s successful implementation of a government decision to add user’s ID numbers while topping up mobile credit.

The government decision to link mobile prepaid cards to national IDs was justified as a security measure taken to prevent criminal uses of mobile phones. Linking mobile numbers to IDs means it is now harder to obtain numbers for temporary use, aka “burners,” which makes surveillance easier for authorities. The same security concerns seem to be behind the latest move to ban encrypted communications apps, unless their developers allows the government to monitor them.

However, an industry source told AFP today that telecom operators in the country are behind the move, accusing STC, Mobily and Zain of asking CITC to impose censorship because of the “damage” caused by free applications.

That unnamed industry source quoted by AFP could be correct, but this could also be a case where the interests of the government and mobile operators met at the expense of users. The government needs to monitor these apps for security reasons, and mobile operators don’t mind if people stop using these apps because they dent at their revenues as people would use them to communicate for free instead of paying the operators for calls and messaging services.

In 2010 Saudi Arabia threatened to ban BlackBerry instant messaging and demanded that the company install local servers to censor the service. Instant messaging services on BlackBerry continued to work, but it is unclear how far the Canadian smartphone manufacturer RIM, makers of Blackberry, went to comply.

Local Newspaper Deletes Story About Saudi Government Plan to Link Twitter Accounts to National IDs

Saudi English-language daily Arab News published a front page story today saying the government may try to end anonymity for Twitter users in the country by limiting access to the site to people who register their national identification documents. That story was soon picked up by international news agency Reuters, but it seems that the original report in Arab News has been deleted since then.

A screenshot of Arab News front page shows the newspaper leading with the story today:

Here is a screenshot of how the story appeared on the site before it was deleted, via Google Cache:

The story was reportedly also accessible using Arab News app on Android smartphones:

It was widely reported last week that Saudi Arabia may block access to encrypted communication apps such as Skype and WhatsApp unless the government finds a way to monitor messages sent through these apps. While Twitter was not mentioned as one of the apps to be blocked, the social network has become a popular platform for Saudis to discuss news and issues in the conservative kingdom. A recent survey said 51% of internet users in Saudi Arabia are active Twitter users, putting it in first place worldwide. A senior Saudi official said last month that the government is struggling to monitor and censor the site due to the huge volume of messages posted by users inside the country.

Playing Favorites

Andrew Fitzgerald:

What is also disturbing is the Obama administration’s relative silence throughout the trial and in the aftermath of Qahtani’s conviction. While the US has been quick to condemn human rights violations in China and rally behind persecuted activists there, President Obama has seemed hesitant to do the same regarding Saudi Arabia.

If the Obama administration wants to use the global movement for democracy and human rights as a rhetorical and diplomatic tool, it needs to apply equal criticism not only to its rivals but to its own policies and the policies of its allies as well.

Obaid to Be Honored at Janadriyah

Female member of the Shoura Council Thoraya Obaid will be honored during the annual national heritage and culture festival, better known as Janadriyah, local media reported Wednesday. She will be decorated with King Abdel Aziz medal. Obaid was the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund and an Under-Secretary General of the United Nations from 2000 to 2010. She was one of 30 women appointed by the king in January 2013 to the Shoura Council, an advisory body that serves as a quasi-parliament, marking a historic progress for women’s rights in the country. Obaid will be the first woman ever to be honored at Janadriyah. This will be another first for the former UN executive who in 1963 became the first Saudi woman to receive a government scholarship to study abroad.

Saudi Prince’s Paris Hotel to Get Facelift

Nazanin Lankarani reports for the International Herald Tribune on the planned renovation of the Hôtel de Crillon, a Paris icon now owned by a Saudi prince:

Until 2005, the Crillon was French-owned. From 1788 to about 1906, it was the private residence of the Crillon family who gave the property its current name. In 1907, the Société du Louvre, a holding of the Taittinger family known for its Champagne label, acquired the property along with adjacent buildings to create a luxury hotel.

In 2005, the Crillon was sold to the American group Starwood Capital, owner of the chain of the W hotels and St. Regis hotels, who in turn sold the hotel in 2010 to Prince Mitab bin Abdullah bin Abdelaziz al-Saud for a reported €250 million, about $319 million at today’s exchange rates.

Miteb bin Abdullah is son of the King and Commander of the Saudi National Guard (SANG). He is one of senior princes expected to play an important role in future succession plans in the kingdom.

On Saudi Women’s Rights, Boredom is a Sign of Progress

Aryn Baker reports for TIME:

From the outside, progress on women’s rights in the kingdom may appear to be mired in tar. After all, women are still not allowed to drive, they can’t get a job or take a loan without the permission of a male family member, and their designated male guardians, usually a husband or a father, are notified via SMS every time they leave the kingdom. But from the perspective of women inside the country, dizzying changes are afoot. For the first time, female athletes represented Saudi Arabia at the Olympics last year in London. An employment ban has been lifted for female cashiers at supermarkets, and women have taken the place of men in lingerie and cosmetic stores across the country. And in Riyadh on March 26, Cabinet ministers issued a new law making national identification cards mandatory for all women, granting them identities independent from their families and paving the way toward lifting the onerous guardianship system that treats every woman, regardless of her age, as a minor. That would be a crowning achievement for King Abdullah, who has done more for women in his eight-year reign than any monarch since his brother, King Faisal, allowed girls to go to school in 1964.

Saudi Modern Art Patronage

Sylvia Smith reports for BBC on Jeddah Art Week:

The first city-wide showing of contemporary artworks by established as well as young, unknown artists mostly from the Arabian peninsula demonstrated that Jeddah has been transformed into an important centre for contemporary art through private enterprise.

According to Mohammed Bahrawi, founder of the organization Arabian Wings and co-curator of the exhibition Limited Edition 2, the week represents the culmination of significant private sector funding that has been poured into the kingdom’s arts and artists.

“This exhibition links 10 years of patronage by the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives to these fresh opportunities to nurture new talents,” he explains. “We sold 90% of the artworks within 24 hours and that is a good start on which to build a future.”

Shia Leaders Urge Government to Release Alleged Spies

Dozens of Saudi Shia on Wednesday urged the authorities to free members of an alleged Iran-linked spy cell dismantled last week, accusing Riyadh of using sectarianism to settle foreign scores.

The 135 signatories, among them 36 clerics, “strongly reject the offensive accusation against them… as the detainees are good citizens who have high scientific competence and a respectable social status,” they said in a statement.

A similar statement was published last week.