Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative societies in the world. Strict social norms, deferential respect for authority and a censored media aim at keeping society in the Kingdom within strict boundaries.
Yet in a country where around 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30, and where internet penetration is around 40 per cent, social media are driving public debate on a host of subjects that were once seen as strictly off-limits.
A report by Reuters says that a YouTube spoof video satirising a new state agency to combat corruption, has attracted 2.2 million viewers in a kingdom where Saudi online comedians are tackling once-taboo subjects — and gaining a wide following. Another video satirises a prince for mishandling anti-corruption demonstrations, while mobile phone footage of the so-called morality police harassing a family in a shopping mall went viral this year with over 180,000 hits.
“[Our] team is very careful not to cross the red lines and instead reflects all the issues that have caused controversy or debate that have been discussed in the media,” said Lama Sabri, a writer for ‘Aaltayer’, which translates roughly as ‘On The Fly’, one of the popular YouTube shows. The media is censored and reporters who cross unofficial red lines can face the sack, hefty fines or even prison sentences.
The government of King Abdullah is trying to move slowly to modernise society. The recent change of the Head of the religious police, whose arbitrary methods had become an embarrassment to the leadership, is seen as a sign of this. Central to the debate is the issue of women’s rights and freedoms. An announcement this week that Saudi Arabia will be fielding an all-male team at the London Olympics dismayed women activists who were hoping for some signs of change in this area also. Some Saudi women are still expected to participate on an individual basis.
Change is slow to come in Saudi Arabia, but young people are now challenging taboos and testing the limits of the red lines that tradition has drawn around them.
source: LINKS Analysis with Reuters News Agency
photo: Saudi Comedian Group Uturn (picture courtesy of Reuters)