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Wed Dec 21, 2011, 08:43 AM

Pioneer Bloggers in the Gulf Arab States (Sultan al Qassemi)

Dec 20 2011

Long before Facebook updates and 140-character tweets, a number of cyber activists defined the landscape of non-government led opinion in the Gulf Arab states. In less than a decade, a group of bloggers—many of whom have never met—has paved the way for the emergence of the “other opinion” that was and continues to be largely missing from the government controlled Gulf Arab media. The shake-up to traditional media that these blogging pioneers caused was no less significant than what Al Jazeera’s arrival did to the moribund government-controlled television channels of the Arab world.

Today the number of Twitter and Facebook users in the Gulf is estimated to be in the millions. Many are outspoken and critical of Gulf Arab regime policies, religious establishments, and the stagnation of social and political reform. There is no doubt that this space for online peaceful dissent would be even narrower and less tolerated than it is today had it not been for the courageous activism of the Arab and Gulf blogging pioneers. A majority of these social media pioneers have incorporated new mediums into their activism, but a few chose to stop blogging altogether. Some are no longer with us today, while others have gone into hiding in fear of being jailed. Bloggers such as emoodz, Redbelt, and Silly Bahraini Girl scaled back on covering local events out of fear of intimidation or possible reprisals following arrests of high profile bloggers. Where some bloggers adopted pseudonyms, others used their real names despite the many pressures and threats they faced. Although many of these bloggers never met in the real world, their lives were interconnected nonetheless.

Back in December 2007, Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan wrote a post titled “Ten Saudis I never want to meet.” The controversial list included a senior cleric, a judge, and a Saudi prince, among others. Al-Fahran had also previously written in defense of a group of conservative academics who were arrested for holding meetings and demanding reforms. Shortly thereafter, he was detained and placed in solitary confinement for almost four months. Chillingly, al-Farhan had predicted his own arrest. A source informed him that he would be “picked up” for investigation by the Ministry of Interior “anytime in the next two weeks,” after which he ended his blog entry with: "I don't want to be forgotten in jail."

During al-Farhan’s 137-day detention the most vocal support came from Hadeel al-Hodaif, the twenty-five-year old Saudi female author of the blog Heaven’s Steps. Al-Hodaif was unique for blogging in her real name and launched a “Free Fouad” campaign and Facebook page that attracted the attention of global media such as the BBC Arabic, who hosted her to speak about al-Farhan’s plight. Sadly, a few days before al-Farhan’s release on 26 April 2008, al-Hodaif fell into a coma and passed away in a hospital twenty-five days later. Saudi Arabia’s blogosphere was inspired by al-Hodaif and is enriched today by other brave female bloggers such as Manal, Fotat, and Ghada as well as Eman Al Nafjan and Manal Al Sharif, both of whom were chosen amongst Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list in early December 2011.


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