It is hardly a secret that the authoritarian regime of Saudi Arabia detains political prisoners. But the first arrest of a blogger in the kingdom has drawn an unusual amount of international attention. The Saudi government has even attracted some criticism from its long-standing ally, the United States.
Fouad al-Farhan, Saudi’s most popular blogger, was arrested in Jeddah last month. It hardly came as a surprise. Mr al-Farhan, who wrote under his real name, had made his reputation railing against the corruption of the Saudi royal family. He had previously been warned that he risked being detained because of his support for a group of men arrested early last year and held without trial. They are accused of supporting terrorism, but their real offence appears to have been that they planned to form a civil rights group. If this were not provocation enough, Mr al-Farhan also listed his 10 least favourite Saudi figures online, which included a businessman prince, a prominent cleric, a minister and the head of the judiciary.
Yet the whole affair has thrown a spotlight on a new phenomenon in Saudi society: the rise of the internet as a forum for political debate. The ruling regime has always banned political parties, free association and civil rights organisations. But the great question is whether it can control cyberspace?
Blogging has grown impressively in the kingdom in recent years. Such websites were initially interested in innocuous matters such as fashion and gossip, but they have since turned increasingly political. Not all of Saudi’s 500-odd bloggers are liberal or reformist, but the very fact that there is a lively exchange of ideas taking place is a new development in such a restrictive society.
Also telling is the existence of a sizeable contingent of female bloggers. Some sites have been shut down by the authorities. But the protean nature of the internet means they can be re-opened under a new name or address.
Unsurprisingly, Mr al-Farhan’s arrest was not reported in the mainstream Saudi news media. But it quickly became common knowledge on the internet. More than 200 Saudi bloggers have criticised his detention. Some have even set up a “Free Fouad” website. Farhan’s friends have also maintained his blog since his detention.
This arrest was most likely designed to scare the kingdom’s bloggers into line. But there has been no sign of that occurring so far. If anything, Saudi’s online activists appear to be emboldened. These are early days, but the internet seems to be having a liberating effect in this most closed and repressive of regimes. It will be fascinating to see where this online insurrection will end.