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‘Uniquely Captive Audience’

Matt Smith reports for Reuters:

The restrictions on Saudi society, where morality police patrol public spaces to enforce approved modes of behavior, has created a uniquely captive audience for web-based news and entertainment, media experts say.

With a population of 28.3 million, Saudi Arabia is now the biggest user of YouTube per capita in the world, and according to analysts Semiocast was the eighth most active country on Twitter as of April, accounting for 2.33 percent of all tweets.

Countering the Apparent Dominance of Public Piety

The Economist:

Young Saudis, bypassing the kingdom’s strictures on public entertainment with the aid of new technology, have taken to producing comic videos, musical performances and serious theatre in their homes and beaming them into the ether. A subculture of irreverence forms an increasingly strong counterpoint to the apparent dominance of public piety.

Video: Saudi Man Playing on the Hood of Speeding Car

This video of a Saudi man playing with his phone on a car hood as the driver cruises in Riyadh has gone viral since it was uploaded to YouTube few days ago. The uploader of the video wrote that the car was moving at a speed of 90km/h on Makkah road, one of the main highways in the Saudi capital, while the man who has covered his face with a red checkered shumagh can be seen on top of a Ford Crown Victoria vehicle sitting on the hood and later lying on the windshield and shaking his legs in the air.

Reasons for Optimism

Khaled Almaeena says most of the cynicism about Saudi Arabia’s future is not justified:

There is an urgency, a fire that flows among the nation’s youth, to work hard, produce and be part of this great drama as the Kingdom strives hard to take its place in a progressive world.

The human element is an integral part of growth and progress, and thus thousands of young Saudis have been sent abroad to acquire knowledge and skills to put to use upon their return.

This is a country that has talent. Young people playing musical instruments, athletes, writers, poets and those with many other talents all look to the future with energy.

Is this youthful urgency matched by the government? Can elderly bureaucrats keep up with these talented young people and their dreams and aspirations?

Saudi Youth Idle No More

Sabria S. Jawhar says the perception that “Saudi youths are idle, humorless and disengaged from the political and societal movements” was probably true for previous generations, but it is not the case for the new generation. You can see that, she says, in the many YouTube comedy shows produced by young Saudis over the past two years:

More important than simply entertainment, the Saudi government can learn a great deal about what young people think, especially as ministries prepare to introduce new regulations that affect society in general or more specific issues like employment. Their comedic commentaries are a constructive way to express disappointment without being confrontational.

The Young Saudi Dilemma

Omar Johani, a Saudi student in Los Angeles, tweeted today:

Translation

Definition of dilemma: To choose between living in Saudi Arabia in order to try build a better country for your children, or immigrating to live abroad because life is too short and you don’t want to waste it in Saudi Arabia.

This is something a lot of young Saudis who have the choice to leave their country find themselves forced to tackle and think about. King Abdullah Scholarship Program has given hundreds of thousands of young men and women the chance to experience living abroad. As they become more worldly, they begin to increasingly ponder such choices in life. Some feel that they are citizens of the world who happened to be born in Saudi Arabia and they don’t feel bound to come back. Others feel that, no matter where they go or how long they stay away, they have to return home one day to contribute to the development of their country.

Majority of Saudi Youth Engage in Forbidden Behavior, Morality Police Says

I was leaving a restaurant with friends in Jeddah last October when a member from the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stopped me. He gave me a warning about the T-shirt I was wearing, then he let me go. My T-shirt had the face of Gandhi with a line of text underneath that said: “Give peace a chance.” Clothes with images on them, especially of humans or animals, are apparently a serious offense in the eyes of the morality police.

The Research and Studies Center affiliated with the Commission has recently published a study which concluded that at least 59 percent of Saudi youth engage in “undesirable and forbidden behaviors,” the Saudi edition of al-Hayat reported today. The newspaper continues to explain that wearing cloths with images on them tops the list of such behaviors, followed by wearing necklaces and bracelets. The afro hairdo came a close third.

The study recommended that the government should adopt an official concept of what they described as “foreign behaviors.” Because once such concept is officially adopted, it would be easier for the Commission to crack down on these behaviors. The study, however, did not offer any answers regarding if such obsession with social control would push our country over the cliff of sanity.

UPDATE: The Commission have denied that they have commissioned the study reported by al-Hayat. A spokesman for the Commission told Sabq that they have rejected this study that was conducted by a research center at King Saud University due to scientific errors. “Those who misled public opinion by promoting these numbers and publicizing these inaccurate studies must be held accountable,” he said. He added that the Commission would seek legal against those who published such information and attributed them to the Commission.

UPDATE II: Al-Hayat responds by publishing two photos. The first shows the cover of the study which clearly bears the name of the Research and Studies Center at the Commission. The other photo is a copy of a letter from the Commission’s vice president to academics asking them to review the study.

Karwa

A new mockumentary by filmmaker Bader al-Homoud is making the rounds on the Saudi interwebs. The film is called Karwa, and it tackles the issue of unemployment, featuring some familiar faces who worked with him previously on another mockumentary about the lack of housing. The film, which runs for 29 minutes and 36 seconds, is available on YouTube with English subtitles and is embedded below.

As with al-Homouds’s previous work, the reception of the film on Twitter seems generally positive. The director, who dedicated the film to “he whose job is searching for a job,” said he was “very very proud of your reaction to the film.”

Lawyer Bandar al-Nugaithan was one of the few who did not like the film. “I am afraid of the tremendously negative message the film is sending to the youth who are about to enter the job market,” he said. “The situation is not this bad!”

So how bad is the situation? A recent study by the Kuwait-based Gulf Investment Corporation (GIC) said the unemployment in the country exceeds 10.5 percent. Numbers are even higher among 19 to 25 year-olds, reaching 30 percent unemployment.

Burning Young Bridges

Summers in Jeddah are hot and humid. As the air conditioner hummed loudly to keep the temperature down in a small but brightly painted room, two women in their early twenties sat behind a simple white table with a serious look on their faces.

Amna Fatani and Refaa Sindi are two founding members of a youth group dedicated to spreading healthy debate and raise awareness among young Saudi females, or, as Fatani likes to put it, “to poke their minds, to make them think.”

During that sizzling afternoon in the first week of June, the two women interviewed five candidates who want to join the group. Dressed in a dark brown abaya and a silky headscarf that kept slipping off her hair, the olive-skinned Fatani was ready to ask some uncomfortable questions to the girls who sat across the table as Sindi took notes on her Toshiba laptop.

“We ask for example if they are bedouin or urban, not because we are racist but because we want to achieve diversity in the group,” Fatani, 24, told me about the interview process. “The group is a platform for people to express themselves and develop. We want to be inclusive.”

“We won’t shut anyone out,” said her colleague Sindi, 22, who kept pushing her rimless glasses up her nose. “Tolerance is very important to us.”

Words like debate, diversity and tolerance are relatively new items in the Saudi lexicon. Thanks to the Internet, the conservative country that has been for long dominated by a strict interpretation of Islam is slowly opening up to new ideas embraced by the new generation in the Kingdom. Sixty percent of the country’s population are under 30. In the lack of a true civil society and under heavy restrictions on free speech, this young generation of Saudis are struggling to find their voices as the world changes around them.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. But when King Abdullah came to power in 2005, many people hoped that the new King, widely known to be a reformist, would spearhead a new era of openness. Seven years later, most of those people seem dejected and disappointed. While some reforms have been implement, they left much, much more to be desired.

Human Rights Watch released a report last September assessing the first five years of King Abdullah’s rein. The report found that “reform has manifested itself chiefly in greater tolerance for diverse opinions and an expanded public role for women, but that royal initiatives have been largely symbolic, with only modest concrete gains or institutional protection for rights.”

One of the areas where reform lagged is civil society development. The Shoura Council, a consultative body whose members are appointed by the King and that serves as a quasi-parliament, discussed in 2006 a proposal to allow and regulate civil society organizations. It took the Council more than 18 months to okay the proposal. On January 6, 2008, the proposal was sent to the Cabinet to get the final approval before implementation.

The approval never came. Almost five years later, the civil society law is still held by the Cabinet for unknown reasons.

Abdulrahman al-Enad, a member of the Shoura Council, told local media earlier this month he is “hopeful” that the law would be approved soon.

In the lack of a legal framework, many youth groups that were born in the aftermath of the Jeddah floods in 2009 operate in a grey area with a constant fear that the government could crack down on their activities at any time. Without proper licensing, they cannot raise money, organize events or have a space to hold their meetings. Instead, they use private homes or coffee shops to meet.

A favorite spot for youth activists to meet was a café called Jusoor, or Bridges. Located in the district of Hamra in Jeddah, the place was frequented by many young men and women who found in it an oasis to meet, work, play and debate their issues.

Hamza Kashgari was a regular at Jusoor. The skinny 23-year-old was an aspiring poet who wrote a column for al-Bilad newspaper. In February 2012, he published three tweets about an imagined meeting with Prophet Mohammed. His tweets caused a huge controversy as many considered it blasphemy. Religious conservatives in the country called for Kashgari to be tried for apostasy, a charge that, if convicted, could lead to a death sentence.

Kashgari apologized and deleted the tweets, but that did not calm the storm. The King reportedly issued an order to arrest him. On February 7, He fled to Malaysia on his way to New Zealand where he said he wanted to apply for political asylum. But the Malaysian government arrested Kashgari and deported him to Saudi Arabia, despite objections from international and Malaysian human rights organizations. He remains in jail to this day, without a trial.

“It was a shock,” said Abdul-Mohsen Bellini, 25, who worked as the coordinator for cultural programming at Jusoor. He said that what Kashgari said on Twitter was “nothing” compared to what he would usually say to provoke his friends intellectually.

“We did not expect this reaction. We did not expect it at all,” he told me as he fixed a red scarf that he wrapped loosely around his neck.

Religious conservatives continued to mobilize even after Kashgari’s arrest. A group of clerics released a statement on March 14 acalling on the government to crack down on places like Jusoor where the youth meet to talk about culture, arts and politics. They described such places as “incubators of atheism.”

On May 7, 2012, the authorities shuttered Jusoor.

The closure of Jusoor left those young men and women who spent long hours there with a tremendous feeling of loss. They said they felt ”orphaned” when they realized that the place which gave them a sense of belonging together no longer exists.

The conservative-led campaign that followed Kashgari’s arrest has sent waves of fear among the youth community in Jeddah, but several people who knew him told me what happened won’t deter them from continuing to… simply be themselves.

“It’s okay,” said Renad Amjad, 22, a law student who knew Kashgari and who still has his name on the lower left corner of her Twitter avatar. “We get a little frustrated, but we quickly get up and rise again.”

“Ten years from now, Hamza will be a hero.”