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Top Saudi Cleric Calls Twitter "Corrupt," As Government Plans to Monitor Chat Services

BY Julia Wetherell | Tuesday, March 26 2013

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on an official U.S. visit at the White House (photo: United States Government Work)

Of all the Middle Eastern countries that have been touched by the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia is known as one of the few where social media discourse has flourished, with Saudis from all walks of life sharing their experiences in the country on sites like Twitter, often under their own names.  That relatively open landscape may become more limited, after recent online outcry related to the criminal trials of several major political activists has brought forth a heated response from religious leaders and governmental officials.

The top Saudi cleric targeted Twitter earlier this week, calling users of the social networking site “corrupt” and attributing the spread of civil unrest to microblogging. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheikh made the comment in a speech given to other Muslim clerics on Friday.  This denouncement came in spite of the fact that the most popular Twitter accounts in the country are linked to religious leaders.  Yet activist groups coming out of the Arab spring movement have encouraged a critical online discourse against the government, such as efforts to inform the families of political prisoners of their right to seek a fair trial.  This conversation is not drawn on strictly Islamic-versus-secular terms – one commonly emphasized theme is that it is not un-Islamic to be critical of the government and royal family. 

Late on Monday, Saudi officials announced a plan to monitor chat programs like Skype and WhatsApp, giving the companies a week to respond or face a potential ban in the country.  No official reason was given for the crackdown. In addition to opening up social communication channels, in tandem with sites like Twitter and Facebook, such online calling services have edged in on the official telecom infrastructure, a sector that the Saudi government may be trying to protect.

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