The Twitter monarch
King Abdullah’s 79-year-old brother Salman, ascended the throne soon after his stepbrother’s death. By changing his name on Twitter only a few hours after Abdullah’s death, King Salman addressed his first words to his 1.3 million followers. Twitter has quickly become a popular communication channel for the Saudi’s, and has become an important arena for the Royal Family, housewives and not least political activists. In 2013 over four million active Twitter-users tweeted more that 50 million tweets every day.
A religious state
Saudi Arabia was established in 1932, based on an alliance between the al Sa’ud family and the Islamic reformist al-Wahhab. This alliance resulted in a state where the ulama, religious scholars, and the king ruled the country based on sharia (islamic law). So far, six of al Sa’ud’s sons have ruled the Saudi state.
Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest oil-producing countries in the world. The oil revenues have enabled the state to develop into a powerful state apparatus serving both military and civilian means. The royal family is also providing Saudi citizens heavy subsidies on household product, free education and health care. This is often described as an “unwritten pact” for maintaining the citizens’ loyalty towards the King and Royal Family.
McDonalds and Gucci
The modern skyscrapers dominate the capital, Riyadh, and walking into American and European food and clothing-chains are now a normal part of a Saudi’s lifestyle. Still, the ulama and King advocates how technological developments shall not overrule the importance of Islam in the Saudi society. The king is the supreme legislative and executive authority, and the Consultative Council, run by the people, only has an advisory function.
The Royal family and ulama therefore continually have to legitimize their religious governance, while suppressing actors or movements in favour of a more democratic government. How can islamic principles be sustained in a society going through fundamental capitalist and technological changes?
Internet has opened an arena for political debate and awareness on critical conditions in Saudi Arabia. Recently we have been hearing about the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi’s harsh ten year prison sentence and one thousand public lashes for starting the blog “Free Saudi Liberals”. This has raised awareness to how critical voices in Saudi Arabia are treated by the government. Despite ratifying human rights conventions, sharia prevails over human rights. Criticizing the royal family or Islam leads to severe punishments, something Badawi now has become the symbol of.
News from the royal family
King Salman recently suggested there would be no major change in Saudi Arabia. He has proceeded as the royal family previously has in times of turbulence; 29.3 billion dollars will be distributed to public employees and students, among others. The last time money was handed out to Saudi citizens was during the Arab spring in 2011, which might have been one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia is often referred to as the “the exception” in the Arab Spring.
With over half of the Saudi population under 21 years old, King Salman’s treatment of the Saudi youth could be vital. Will the King’s money and welfare system buy their support, or will they still demand reforms on Twitter?