Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.
The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.
The Saudi move comes against the backdrop of debates about political reform and popular Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah—who has more than 2.5 million followers on Twitter—mocking government attempts to crackdown on Twitter. Al-Awdah may have broken with Usama Bin Laden, but no longer being an al-Qaeda sympathizer is a pretty low bar by which to describe reformism. Al-Awdah may be a reformer in the Saudi context, but no one should conflate reform with liberalism.
Nevertheless, Al-Awdah has become increasingly strident in his calls for political change in Saudi Arabia. According to the Open Source Center, he warned on March 16 that the Saudi people “will not remain silent.” Ten days later, he followed up by suggesting that should the Saudi government ignore calls for reform, “the only solution would be to go out into the square and counter argument with argument.”
I speculated six months ago that Saudi Arabia could be next. The autocratic kingdom is strictly off-limits to most Western journalists. Those who get in seldom move outside Riyadh or Jeddah. But if a riot breaks out in the Saudi hinterland and no one is around to cover it, that does not mean that all is well. It will be interesting to see if Saudi Arabia manages to constrain Twitter. Cutting communications, however, is a poor substitute for true reform. And the royal family is kidding itself if it believes it can remain aloof from political modernity forever.