Weblogs soar in Gulf states

Internet blogs are giving rise to a new breed of Arab activist as ordinary residents increasingly use them to press for political rights and civil liberties in conservative Gulf states.

    Bloggers in the Gulf have soared by five times since 2004

    According to Haitham Sabbah, a Bahrain-based blogger and  Middle East editor for Global Voices, a programme launched last year by the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School in the United States that tracks and collects blogs worldwide, there are now about 1,000 Gulf Arab bloggers, up five times from 2004.

    The bloggers write in Arabic, English or a mixture of both. They  are eager to set themselves apart from both newspaper and web columnists writing for established sites as well as the hugely popular Internet bulletin boards that often have a militant Islamic bent.

    Typical was a recent posting by a 33-year-old Saudi man. "Are we destined to just listen to the news of all the big changes around the world as we await a good deed from our king?" he said in his blog.

    And in one notable case, blogs in Kuwait were used to rally support last month for street demonstrations in favour of election law reforms.

    Saudi experience

    Saudi Arabia has the Gulf's biggest blogging community with about 3O0 bloggers, more than half of them women according to a Saudi blogger. With Saudi's population of 23 million, it has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the Arab world.

    "Saudis are by nature not politically active and fear speaking  out, so it is going to take some time," says Sabbah.

    Popular Saudi blogs by women include Farah's Sowaleef, A Thought in the Kingdom of Lunacy, and Saudi Eve. They are peppered with sharp-tongued criticism of their male-dominated society and logs of rare escapades from an environment that demands obedience and modesty.
    "I wore my leopard-printed heels and strategically placed a flower in my hair," read an April posting on Saudi Eve, which has been censored by the authorities since early June.

    The Religious Policeman, a blog written by an unnamed Saudi man living in Britain, is on a mission to expose what he regards as the hypocrisy of the kingdom's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the so-called religious police, charged with enforcing the country's strict Islamic moral code.

    "The religious police epitomise what is wrong with my country," a December posting read.

    His blog cannot be accessed in Saudi Arabia. Authorities there, like other Gulf governments, censor everything deemed offensive to religious and moral values or threatening to security.
    Saudi officials briefly blocked most Saudi blogs last year, and  a group of bloggers led by Raed al-Saeed, 21, a university student who blogs in Arabic under the name Falsafat bidun Salfa (Philosophies without a tale), formed in March a blogging community that practises self-censorship by not criticising government policies, institutions or religious figures.

    Other Gulf countries

    In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has the region's second biggest weblog community, an Emirati male blogger writing in Arabic was censored one week after launching The Land of Sands in 2004.

    But he has found a way to circumvent the internet servers of  Etisalat, the state telecommunications monopoly, and continues posting his writings in which he attacks religious leaders.

    In the island kingdom of Bahrain, a small blogging community includes former political prisoners, one of whom has led an online campaign calling for a boycott of the country's dominant telecommunications company Batelco for what he deems excessive tariffs.

    In Kuwait, one of the only two Gulf countries along with Bahrain with an elected parliament, bloggers ran a "virtual" campaign for election reform in April that spilled on to the streets in a Ukraine-type "orange" revolution.

    Three university student bloggers translated a call by pro-reform MPs to cut the country's electoral districts to five to fight corruption into a catchy campaign with a distinctive "5 for Kuwait" orange logo.

    Bloggers spread the word online and hundreds of young people waving orange banners demonstrated outside the seat of government on May 5.

    The campaign escalated into further protests. A bitter standoff between parliament and the government forced the country's amir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed Al Sabah, to dissolve parliament on May 21, announcing new elections for June 29.



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