Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Twenty-one Saudi tweeters are making preparations to participate in Saudi Arabia’s first-ever Twitter forum today. During the forum’s four sessions in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, the participants hope to bring their shared experiences in the virtual world to bear on the real world, with plans to discuss how Saudi tweeters can further harness this giant social network’s potential. The participants come from different walks of life, and will including lawyers, business men, journalists, and others.
At the end of 2010 Twitter management indicated to Asharq Al-Awsat that the number of subscribers had increased by 295 percent compared to 2009, and that the increases were not being calculated in the hundreds, but in the thousands. In July Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said that Saudi Arabia represented the “fastest growing network.”
According to Alexa—a website specializing in internet statistics—Twitter is now the sixth most visited website in Saudi Arabia on a daily basis.
As the number of Twitter users has increased, so too has celebrity participation. There is widespread consensus that Twitter has created a vast venue that gives everyone the freedom to chat, communicate, and exchange ideas, albeit occasionally leading to slander and the public settling of scores. All walks of life are finding expression in 140 characters or less, and the site’s detractors have little influence on the serious users who are convinced of the site’s importance and potential.
As the micro-blogging site grew, senior Saudi officials were quick to tap into the services it could offer. Public figures such as culture and information minister Dr. Abdul Aziz Khoja, labor minister Adel Al-Faqih, and commerce minister Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah are some of the kingdom’s most prominent tweeters. Spokespeople for ministries and government agencies have also generated a significant following, yet this is marginal compared to that of the ministers.
Official participation is not limited to officials; at the end of 2011 Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, CEO of Kingdom Holding Company, announced a $300 million investment in the website. He said, “The move demonstrates our ability to identify promising investment opportunities with high potential for global impact.”
Returning to today’s forum, the participating Saudi tweeters—with their varying backgrounds in commerce, media, and law—are only a fraction of the country’s total four million users, according to recent social media statistics.
It is expected that the subject of young tweeters and their opinions will dominate the forum. Mazen Darrab, one of today’s speakers, said, “My speech will focus on converting Twitter from a social accessory into a venue for commercial trading, by taking a look at the experiences of several major companies in this regard. I’ll also touch on how to make this website a platform for business and marketing.” Bandar Anakithan, a participant who will be speaking on legal matters, revealed, “I will talk about the role of censorship and other regulations in the Twitter universe, something which is required so that users know the limits. In Saudi Arabia we enjoy many freedoms; no one can deny that. But social networking is in need of more clarity.”