July 9, 2009 / 1:10 PM / in 8 years

Bloggers test boundaries in Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH (Reuters) - Armed with a computer, an internet connection and his own intellect Ahmed Al-Omran is one of a few Saudi bloggers trying to push for change and make themselves heard in the conservative Gulf Arab monarchy.

Blogging provides a rare platform for speech in a country which has no elected parliament, where clerics have strong influence on public opinion, newspapers often parrot the official line and public demonstrations are banned.

“I want to do this because I want to be part of the change that is taking place in the country, I want to push for the changes to go faster,” said Omran, a student who writes on his Saudi Jeans blog (saudijeans.org).

King Abdullah has tried cautious reforms since taking office in 2005 and removed two hardline clerics from top positions in a cabinet reshuffle in February while promoting reformers.

Saudi Arabia recently allowed foreign media to expand their presence in the kingdom and the new information minister even signed up for his own facebook page, but analysts and diplomats say conservatives remain wary of changes.

“In the end, we care about something, we desire something and through blogging we call for the change. We ask for it. We sponsor it,” Fuad Alfarhan said in a rare gathering of bloggers in Jeddah, the kingdom’s most liberal city.

“Now for the first time we, as individuals in our society, have this power in our hands to call for change,” Alfarhan told the meeting which was meant to encourage bloggers to continue despite difficulties.

PROBLEMS

Farhan himself has not resumed blogging since he was arrested in 2007 and held for five months after campaigning on behalf of nine detained reformers. He was released without charges.

Saudi researchers say there are up to 10,000 blogs in the kingdom. But many are now inactive or have refrained from discussing politics since Alfarhan’s arrest.

Many blogs also steer clear of Islam, a sensitive issue, focusing more on daily life and challenges for society.

“Alfarhan’s incident showed that there are red lines that are not known,” said Khaled al-Nasser, another blogger.

Abdulrahman al-Hazza, spokesman for the information ministry, said blogs were generally not monitored.

But bloggers are worried about a law enacted earlier this year under which anyone who “touches upon the general order, religious values, or general conduct” can be prosecuted, according to the information ministry.

“Anyone can accuse me of that,” said Omran. “My only fear is if the government would use the law against people who want to express themselves freely online. It could be used as a scare tactic.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists listed Saudi Arabia in April as one of the worst countries for bloggers, citing detentions, monitoring and blocking of 400,000 websites.

But Abdullah Al-Alami, a columnist and blogger from the liberal enclave of Khobar, said things would improve over time.

“When King Abdullah instituted reform in February (the cabinet reshuffle) he started a social revolution against ‘old age thinking’,” he said.

Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Dominic Evans

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