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Genie Uncorked: Social Media in the UAE

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Like a capricious genie, social media is vexing United Arab Emirate leaders eager to uncork its powers. With the Arab world's highest social networks penetration rates, the formerly quiescent Gulf monarchies are now abuzz with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+ and other social media. But the free-spirited social media genie is creating a unique tension in the 21st-century Arab autocracies.

While millions of Emirate residents connect with social media, and UAE governments mandate its use, uneasy Emirati leaders have instituted draconian social-network regulations, leading to jail terms for errant SM-users, including at least one American. The emerging dynamic is undermining views of the Internet as an inherently democratizing medium.

Social media is pervasive in the UAE. Dr. Jamal A. Al-Suwaidi, director general of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), reports the UAE has the Arab region's highest percentage of Facebook users, 41 percent of the entire population, as well as the highest proportion of LinkedIn users, 14.8 percent of the population, and is one of the Arab region's top tweeting countries with 2.5 million tweets a day.

According to longtime Middle East communications consultant Alexander McNabb, social media's importance in the Arab world began to rise after the 2007 Lebanese bombing of the Nahr El Bared Palestinian refugee camp. When the state-controlled media throttled discussion, Lebanese took their concerns to the new social media in a mélange of Arabic, English and the new argot of "MSN Arabic" that incorporated slang, shortcodes and emoticons. McNabb says, "A big debate erupted on Facebook. Facebook use exploded in Lebanon. The policy debate was harrowing."

McNabb credits the unfiltered furor with inspiring social media use in the Tunisian and Egyptian upheavals, and in turn influencing the UAE and even the Occupy Wall Street movement. He says, "It was revolutionary; destabilizing. It went beyond content into a much bigger issue: the movement of opinion."

Tweeting took off in the UAE in 2006, but in 2007 authorities blocked Twitter when they saw it as a gender-mixing dating site. It was the era of primitive UAE Internet censors that blocked searches for chicken breast recipes and Middlesex University. McNabb laughs, "It was Canute-ian--to try to hold back biology. Trying to regulate the Internet is like trying to fit an anaconda into a pillbox."

Regulation didn't stop the meteoric rise of social media. The Emirates' enormous petroleum wealth financed cutting-edge communications infrastructure that made the UAE among the planet's most hyper-connected places. As of September 2013, 73.8 percent of people in the UAE have smart phones, creating a thriving handset culture of affluent and sophisticated mid-career expat executives and tech-savvy young Emiratis using the Internet to overcome their traditional insularity.

McNabb says,"Emiratis tend to keep to themselves, but on-line they can connect. There's a young cadre of Emiratis wanting change, and they are influencing the older, silver-haired authorities who control social media."

Ali Al Ammari, a 24-year-old ESSRC assistant researcher in Abu Dhabi, says the older generation is already in support. He remembers his traditional grandfather watching he and his cousin at their computers when they were boys: "He said to us, 'Good job, learn this.'"

Encouraged by authorities, the social networks are providing a way for the UAE civil society to organize, mobilize and communicate to the government. Fadi Salem, Director of the Governance and Innovation Program at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai says the highly evolved infrastructure, large incomes and limited media freedom in the region pushes people to this medium. Salem says,"People have found a channel to communicate. Nature is filling a gap."

Fadi Salem sees the UAE government encouragement of social media as part of the emirates' push to be global media centers through developments such as Dubai's Internet City and Media City, and the UAE's Smart Government initiative. He says the UAE is in social media's avant garde, with senior leaders actively using social media: "It's creating short cuts to the public, avoiding intermediaries and the traditional media. It gives a human touch."

Dubai's ruling Sheikh Mohammed has 2.72 million Twitter followers at ‏@HHShkMohd. Among his almost 2,500 tweets, he touted UAE techo-changes:"We are determined to be the pioneers in smart govt. services." Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, has 427,000 @MBZNews followers. He tweeted bulletins about UAE president Sheikh Khalifa's health and his Hague summit meetings with President Obama. In April he tweeted,"When asked which country they would like to live in, Arab youth put the UAE first."

Other UAE leaders have followed suit. Foreign Affairs minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed tweeted his 800,000 followers: "I hope we raise the UAE flag on top of every house." It quickly became a national event. UAE government departments and ministers now compete with one another for the best on-line services.

Millions of professional expats in the UAE use social media, as do their corporations eager to curry government favor. Abu Dhabi recently became the world's first city to integrate social media ratings in its official hotel classification system. Abu Dhabi's Tourism and Culture Authority monitors social media hotel ratings, awarding stars for exemplary reviews and withholding them for bad ones.

Controlling the Genie

But the revolutionary Arab Spring taught UAE leaders that useful social-media tools could be weapons of disorder when used by dissidents to organize and protest. Nervous about security threats presented by tweeting radical Islamic activists and the emirates' huge migrant-worker population, the UAE authorities began more stringent regulating social networks, including filter, then publish controls.

At the moment, UAE leaders see radical Islamic groups as the biggest threat. One longtime Middle East commentator said, "The Emirati leadership is completely fixated by the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood." In 2013, 94 members of Al Islah, a UAE Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, were arrested and tried.

Dubai's deputy chairman of police security, Lt. General Dhahi Kalfan Tamim, recently told an audience of high government officials about jailed Internet-based activists: "Terrorist organizations and armed terrorist are using social media in the worst possible way. It has good effects. Unfortunately, Arabs use it for political reasons." Noting he used his Internet assets to battle the dissidents' seditious tweets, Tamin called for a government committee to fight on-line attacks.

IIn 2012, the UAE tightened restrictions on Internet use to squelch rising political criticism on social media. The new law banned "information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures" that officials deemed threatening to national security or public order. Amendments to existing laws decreed Emiratis and expats who used the Internet to deride or damage the state or its institutions could be sentenced to three years in prison and foreigners deported.

The Internet law was intended to legislate on-line compliance with the UAE's deeply rooted respect for authority, elders and women. Alexander McNabb says, "There was a drive for some legal framework -- not to contain social media, but to bring it into line with other media law. Everyone is struggling with it here, like everyone across the world."

But the law was destined for dispute. Human Rights Watch protested the Internet law placed severe restrictions on free expression, and claimed it had a "chilling effect" on social media. Business consultants warned their clients about illegal social media use.

After an Indian man posted his cellphone video of an Emirate official beating an Indian driver with his agal, the black cord that keeps ghutrah headscarves in place, the video went viral. UAE authorities jailed the Indian for defamation. The arrest ignited a global controversy about harsh UAE regulation.

In December 2013, the State Security Court sentenced a 29-year-old American from Woodbury, Minn., Shezanne Cassim, to a year in jail for posting a YouTube comedy video. The video depicted a fictitious Dubai combat school that trained combatants to throw sandals, use an agal as a weapon and tweet fellow fighters. Though tweeters widely criticized Cassim's jailing with the hashtag #FreeShez, he still served about nine months in jail before his release.

With authorities increasingly regulating and appropriating social media, commentators began to question the post-Arab Spring premise that the Internet inexorably facilitates democratic movements. Though nuanced analysis revealed that social media could be used as both a tool for insurgency and for repression, UAE authorities nonetheless are cracking down.

It's a critical time in the emirates. For well over a generation, the UAE's seven ruling sheikhs have bought Emiratis' political compliance with a total life-support system and immense modernization programs that transformed the emirates from mud huts and dhows to a showplace of 21st-century architecture and business development. But oil reserves are now declining and the Arab world is writhing with political change.

The Gulf states' compulsion to transform their almost feudal societies has also created a massive identity crisis. The young Emiratis compulsive use of the Internet is scaring the tribal authorities. The ECSSR's Ali Al Ammari agrees: "We see more time being spent on social media, weakening family ties. Virtual reality will take more time, and may change social norms and values."

But most observers think trying to control the social media genie is a lost cause. Alexander McNabb says, "The authorities want to manage the pace of change, but the Internet, of course, runs away with that." Whatever his misgivings, Ali Al Ammari speaks for many Emiratis when he says of social media, "It is developing. It is evolving. It is the way forward."