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Can Twitter really change Saudi Arabia?

February 20th, 2013
05:08 PM ET

By Samuel Burke & Claire Calzonetti, CNN

The Arab Spring has largely passed Saudi Arabia by. In fact, protests are banned in the Kingdom’s streets.

But in the cyber world, protests are growing, much of it happening via Twitter.

Saudis have flocked to the social network in the millions. One recent study found that Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, is one of the world's most active cities on Twitter.

Even though many protesters on social media sites have been targeted, the Saudi government mostly permits the discourse as a way to let their citizens vent their frustration. Mohammad al-Qahtani is one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent activists, working tirelessly to expose human rights abuses in his country. For this, he says, he expects to be thrown behind bars any day now.

Twitter is among the tools al-Qahtani uses to carry out his activism.

“We are having our revolution on Twitter,” al-Qahtani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday. “We are able to disseminate our own information, team up with other activists, mobilize people to act. All these kind of things, we are doing with Twitter. And to be honest with you, the regime is really antagonized about Twitter.”

Each time al-Qahtani is interrogated by Saudi authorities he says they ask him about his tweets.

Not long ago al-Qahtani, tweeted "We are prepared to pay the price, whatever it may be, for our people to obtain their rights, and Lord we are not afraid of the Saudi regime's prisons or its political executions."

But how brave is a Saudi just for participating in the Twittersphere?

“I feel very powerful with my colleagues,” al-Qahtani said, adding that he feels that his work, including his messages on Twitter could result in him losing his right to travel outside Saudi Arabia or even lose all his freedoms and end up in prison.

“Most of these things are happening to us now.” al-Qahtani told Amanpour.

For his activism, he has faced almost a dozen charges, including breaking allegiance to the Saudi King and describing Saudi Arabia as a police state.

RELATED: Stalemate in Bahrain

The charges will “most definitely” end up in a conviction, al-Qahtani believes.

“This is a politically motivated trial,” he said. “And given the fact that Saudi judiciary is not independent and could be influenced by the government, I most definitely will be convicted and will end up in prison. But the question is: for how long?”

Despite this looming fear, al-Qahtani believes that the activism is catalyzing the Saudi people.

“The pace of events is really picking up. We are no longer a silent people. We are not passive anymore. The regime is trying to portray us as passive people who live in dark ages, which is not true. Things are improving. People are now more politically aware.”

He says the government has asked the senior clerics to issue a “fatwa” (an Islamic edict) to prohibit public demonstration, though al-Qahtani doesn’t think Saudis will obey it.

Just last week in Saudi Arabia, women were photographed protesting against the continued imprisonment of their family members – people who have been taken in on various charges.

“Things will be picking up in the future, where public protests will happen. If the regime continues to be oblivious to the demand of the people, then it will happen. It's imminent. What happened in Tunisia and Libya and in Egypt could happen in Saudi Arabia.”

CNN had repeatedly requested that a Saudi government representative appear on the Amanpour program to address political reform in Saudi Arabia. Since this interview aired, the Saudi government has accepted an invitation to tentatively appear on the program in the coming weeks.

READ MORE: The Arab Spring's bumpy road to democracy

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soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Fida Ahmed Advocate

    Muhammad Al-Qahtani has every right to think about his country's better system but any foreign intervention in the internal matters of Saudi Arabia even on the attractive pretext of the Arab Spring will definitely raise questions about its own credentials. For example, the USA poses to be the champion of human rights of the world but it has committed as many human rights violations as any country, both covertly and overtly, but adamantly opposes/suppresses all efforts to bring them to the limelight instead of genuinely trying to reform its 'sole super power' status both internally and externally as per the requirements of a modern and civilized state with a genuine right to lead the world to a safe and happy future where the overwhelming consideration is not 'might is right' as that has always been so without any enlightenment or tall claims to civilization, but the other way round, proving that it is the new age of civilization where justice prevails, not tyranny and hypocrisy.

    February 21, 2013 at 12:56 am | Reply
    • A P

      Interesting. I cannot say that I think that we will ever see a revolution in Saudi. The people enjoy their laziness too much. Unfortunately, the people are so incompetent if they did revolt they would not know what to do with their new found freedom.

      February 21, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Reply
      • Fida Ahmed Advocate

        Enjoying a luxury is ok as the Saudis do. They can and must 'improve', of course. But are you PERFECT, AP? I am sure you too are far from that!

        February 28, 2013 at 12:59 am |
  2. raj

    every country has its own challenges from political to cultural people need to take a stand and understand what is better for them emulate from others if they have good governance and good secuity procedures in place we are all different and simmilar is the ethinicity its very difficult to undertstand others view point on a religion practice if the very nature and appearance looks odd to us its all about how you have been grown up in which society.... let us all work for a better nation and respect humanity and the core values...

    February 21, 2013 at 1:20 am | Reply
  3. fatmeh

    Freedom for shias in Saudi Arabia.

    February 21, 2013 at 1:31 am | Reply
    • Fida Ahmed Advocate

      I wonder what fatmeh wants to convey by saying 'freedom for shias in Saudi Arabia'. If his/her aim is not to scandalize Saudi Arabia, then he/she should talk about freedom for Palestinians in Israel, etc. etc. as well.

      February 21, 2013 at 1:48 am | Reply
    • Citizen

      fatmeh, what "Shia" freedom you wish to have? Stop being foolish and disloyal to your own country! If your loyalty goes to Iran, then you're more than welcome to live your alleged "freedom" concept there. In fact, please take all your Shia folks who demands free to Iran and never come back..

      February 23, 2013 at 8:23 am | Reply
  4. gecooper

    Reblogged this on Drop by Drop We Fill the Pot.

    February 21, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Reply
  5. A P

    The problem with the entire Arab world is Arabs. They fight and always will. There will never be peace in the region because they will never worked together.

    February 21, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
    • Fida Ahmed Advocate

      Your views are too judgmental AP, you must be an angel! Disclose yourself, then talk. I will see how can you tarnish the image of the Arab nation.

      February 28, 2013 at 1:07 am | Reply
  6. empresstrudy

    Amanpour I suspect blames the Jews for all of this.

    February 22, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  7. Citizen

    It's funny and shameful how CNN is trying to sell a fabricated story! The subject of this disappointing report should be renamed to "Can CNN really change Saudi Arabia?"! The answer is "NO"! Of course like any other country, Saudi is not perfect and change to better future is inevitable.It's already happening and I'm proud! Comparing what has already happened to Tunisia, Libia and Egypt is a crime! In fact, if you're seeking a good cause to report and fight for instead of attempting selfishly to ruin a country's good image and create chaos in a peaceful region, try to save a single human life at Syria where Bashar's regime is killing hundreds of kids and women daily! Let Saudi deal with their own business the way they see fit to prosper without any outside interference. Please stop interfering with others own business and stop trying hard to make easy money on other people expenses! This Qahtani is mentally retarded citizen and shouldn't be interviewed. He only represents himself and others who committed crimes against law. In fact, I would be happy to see him at psychiatric ward. I won't mind to see this news reporter in same ward too.

    February 23, 2013 at 8:13 am | Reply
  8. rory

    You want to change and save the world.Stop buying or have anything to do with US

    February 27, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  9. Tahir

    Most of Human rights activists are foreign agents which promote foreign agenda and are used to blackmail Governments.The agents work in the same way as the Islamic scholars who produced terrorist in London.

    March 1, 2013 at 6:10 am | Reply
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