The rapid development of new social media platforms is forcing regional governments to confront a formidable threat: online activism.
Twitter and Facebook proved to be vital tools in the fight by activists to unseat unpopular governments during the Arab Uprisings, while also providing a platform for airing their grievances to the outside world.
This situation poses a major threat to the hegemony of conservative governments in the region, but particularly in the Gulf, where a massive and growing youth population is increasingly demanding its right to be heard.
Not surprisingly, the crackdown has been sharp and decisive in countries including the UAE and Bahrain. The case of the ‘UAE 5’, involving five jailed Emirati activists accused of insulting the country’s leaders online, has attracted headlines around the world.
In Bahrain, long-time government opponent and human rights activist Nabeel Rajab is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for ‘participation in illegal demonstrations’. Rajab is renowned as a prolific Twitter user and prior to his incarceration regularly tweeted his criticisms of the government. Rajab’s supporters continue to maintain his Twitter account, providing updates on his fight for freedom and publicising ongoing human rights issues in Bahrain.
Jailing rather than engaging these activists draws further attention to their cause and highlights the challenge regional governments face.
Some Gulf leaders blame meddling by the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood for the emerging threat posed by these activists. But this simplistic response ignores the rapidly evolving nature of technology and its role in society. The growing discontent also supports the theory that rising wealth and rapid macroeconomic development naturally encourage public demands for greater social freedoms.
Short of banning social networks, Gulf governments have little choice but to adapt to this brave new world and engage with those who will otherwise use these platforms against them.