Saudi Arabia's rulers adapt message for social media age

Wed May 25, 2016 9:37am EDT
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By Sylvia Westall and Angus McDowall

DUBAI/RIYADH (Reuters) - The participation of tens of thousands of young Saudis in a social media debate over plans to reform the kingdom's oil-reliant economy last month marked a shift in how Riyadh's conservative rulers interact with their subjects.

Saudi Arabia's dynastic leaders, who rule by fiat and strictly limit public dissent, have historically courted public opinion only via informal councils with tribal, religious and business leaders or citizens seeking to petition them.

But in one of the most active countries on social media in the Arab world, the ruling Al Saud have started trying to shape the online debate with carefully managed media campaigns and senior officials have been sacked after social media criticism.

"It's a new focus for the government as it reaches out to a young Saudi population that is more likely to use social media," Saudi analyst and commentator Mohammed Alyahya said. "That's the most effective way to capture their attention."

One recent showcase for this was the launch of 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform plans, which used Twitter alongside traditional media to build anticipation and introduce hash tags - key discussion phrases.

"A strong and determined country with a connection between the government and the citizen," one of the slogans read.

Some 190,000 Twitter users in Saudi Arabia actively took part in the ensuing debate over Vision 2030, generating more than 860,000 messages according to France-based social media monitor Semiocast.

This meant the discussion reached 46 percent of the 7.4 million active Twitter users in the kingdom, Semiocast said, describing this level of outreach in a state-sponsored debate as exceptional.   Continued...

Saudi men explore social media on their mobile devices as they sit at a cafe in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser