Middle East Activists Muzzled and Arrested in Arab Gulf States

From Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, online protesters are finding themselves imprisoned or restricted. Vivian Salama reports on the battles being fought for freedoms in the Gulf countries.

Within hours of being handed a two-year jail term for allegedly insulting the ruler of Kuwait, 27-year old Hamed Al Khalidi turned to Twitter—the very apparatus that got him into trouble—with a poem:

“I said: why prison?

I’m not a thief; I’m not a criminal… neither deliberate nor accidental.

But when I realized my sentence serves my country, I began to enjoy prison as though it is paradise.”

Al Khalidi is part of a growing list of young activists in Kuwait and across the Arab Gulf being targeted for “electronic crimes”—for voicing the very same longings for freedom, justice, and opportunity as those in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, where online activism catalyzed mass street protests. Days before Al Khalidi’s sentencing, the Kuwaiti appeals court extended the jail term of another opposition Twitterer, Bader al-Rashidi, from two to five years on charges that he attempted to instigate a coup and insulted the country’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Kuwait, home to the most dynamic political system in the Gulf, has already sentenced some 10 online activists to various prison terms on charges ranging from insulting members of parliament (or the emir) to inciting protests.

“The government of Kuwait and other Gulf governments have begun to feel the danger of Twitter that toppled presidents and governments in the Arab countries and it is clear from the way they are abusing many Twitter users with these false charges,” said Mohammed Al Humaidi, a lawyer and director of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights. “Most of the Gulf governments don’t have a law specifically linked to electronic crimes, and so this is unconstitutional.”

Many of those living in the Arab Gulf countries share the same burdens as people across the Arab world—including unemployment and, in some nations, poverty, a fact commonly overlooked given the region’s vast oil and gas wealth. And government intolerance to online activism is certainly not exclusive to the Gulf: Syria had a notorious record for restricting Internet access, and post-revolutionary governments in Tunisia and Egypt have already begun targeting online activists.

However, unlike in many of those countries, activism in the Arab Gulf countries lacks the same power in numbers that rattled some of the most menacing governments in the region, due in large part to smaller populations, but also since many in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait are wealthy or enjoy various government benefits and privileges, which have made limitations on certain freedoms easier to overlook. The governments have sought to appease those who are unhappy via various quick-fix concessions.

Citizen demands vary from country to country, but many across the Gulf region have called for greater freedoms and more inclusive political systems that allow citizens to vote and run for government seats. Women have demanded more rights, particularly in Saudi Arabia where they recently won the right to vote and participate in the advisory Shura Council. But some claim that these and other concessions were too little, too late, particularly in Bahrain, where Saudi-led forces arrived in March 2011 to support King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, sparking bloody crackdowns that are still the source of great resentment.

“No one assumes that these arrests are strategic and that's why [the governments] don't care that this tactic of arresting these online activists has failed in the past,” said Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent Egyptian blogger who has been arrested by the old and new regimes of Egypt for his online activism. “More petty and immediate dynamics are at play” where you have “the prosecutor or police or ruling party cadres or whatever trying to prove loyalty” to those in charge.

In Oman, at least 50 activists were arrested in 2012 for involvement in online and offline protests, and many received prison terms of up to 18 months. The country's public prosecution issued statements threatening to take legal action against anyone publishing "offensive writing" or “inciting protests” via Facebook, Twitter, or personal blog pages. However last month, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who has ruled for 43 years, issued a royal pardon for anyone convicted of "information technology crimes," a move—albeit only temporary in nature—hailed by human rights organizations.

But Saudi Arabia, which has significant poverty and unemployment levels despite the abundant wealth it generates as the world’s largest oil exporter, has been seen to be taking increasingly unapologetic measures to limit online activism in the name of national security. This week, state-run media confirmed reports that it is mulling over a ban of web-based communications applications like Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber if the providers do not comply with its requests for surveillance rights. A report that ran prominently on the front page of Riyadh-based Arab News this week also stated that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for Twitter users by requiring residents to register their national identification numbers to hold an account.

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A spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry recently noted that social media websites including Twitter have been used by militant groups to incite social unrest, while the country’s top cleric last week described bloggers as “clowns” who waste time with harmful discussions.

Analysts say these actions point to more than a simple power play. “Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are clearly trying to influence and infiltrate events in the Arabian Peninsula,” said Theodore Karasik, security analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “What’s different now is that both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are using more sophisticated tools to achieve their infiltration like social media, but also traditional methods such as family relations and business networks, so it’s causing great concern for these governments.”

However activists like Kuwait’s Al Khalidi say imprisonment is a small price for freedom of expression.

“I love to live a life of dignity; not chained, not in terror; not in humiliation,” he wrote the day of his sentencing. “If I fall, I fall carrying my dignity while the blood of the liberators boils in my veins.”