Shadow of Government at Twitter Event in Riyadh

According to its website, Saudi Tweeps is an “an annual interactive event that brings together the best young Saudi Twitter users to discuss several important issues and increase awareness of the youth in order to use their will to serve the development in their country.”

This first of its kind of event was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh last week. More than 600 attendees reportedly listened to 20 male speakers. There was no female speakers, but women were allowed to attend. The event was organized by an initiative of Prince Muhammad Bin Salman Philanthropist Foundation. Two days before the event, the prince was appointed the head of the court of Crown Prince Salman and his personal adviser with the rank of a minister.

The fancy venue, the list of speakers and the event backers all made some people like blogger Saad Al Dosary “feel like there is something behind the scene.” He writes:

My dispute with the conference comes in the way it was presented. Those are not the best Saudi Tweeps there is! And when we say best, we may need to agree first, best in what exactly? Experiencing Twitter comes in multiple flavors. It is not all about politics, businesses, and collecting followers. Still in the core, for a lot of users, it is nothing but a way to communicate, a channel to babble to the universe.

Moreover, the shadows of governmental support discredited the conference. It looked like it was mainly organized to deliver certain messages on behalf of the government. I cannot totally agree with such conspiracy-soaked-claims, but I can understand where they’re coming from. The governmental umbrella may not dictate what you have to say, but it would definitely allow, or reject, certain views of being publicly discussed.

Saudi Minister of Culture and Information said last month that the government is having a hard time monitoring Twitter due to the high volume of usage on the social network from Saudi Arabia. With more than 4 million active users posting an average of 50 million tweets per month, it is no wonder that the government is admitting how to difficult it is to censor the service. That’s why, the minister said, “awareness in society must be upgraded to address the problem.”

In that light, the event in Riyadh seemed like an attempt of containment, former Middle East editor of the Guardian Brian Whitaker said. He wrote, “it will not be totally surprising if today’s Ritz-Carlton event turns out to be some kind of semi-official attempt to encourage the sort of tweets that don’t give the authorities a headache.”