Saudi Arabia is not known for its liberal approach to anything, much less the internet; the country’s morality codes, government-based media, and tight censorship rules combine to create one of the most restrictive internet atmospheres in the world. But recent reports that the country is now the most heavy watcher of YouTube in proportion to its population suggests that the citizenry’s opinion of the web greatly differs from its government’s.
Saudis contribute 90 million YouTube views a day — the most YouTube views per capita worldwide — and reports describe the numbers mostly attributing to young people’s subscriptions to web series from various homegrown networks and channels. For a country whose administration regularly threatens to black out various parts of the internet, these numbers seem high. But about half the Saudi population has reliable access to the internet, so as long as blackouts don’t occur, the roughly 13 million users can have regular access to web-based TV whereas traditional TV broadcasting largely includes state media outlets and religious content. Saudis have also become increasingly fond of other social networks.
Earlier this year, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheikh publicly denounced Twitter as a “council for jokesters” which apparently has not swayed the growth of Twitter users in the Kingdom; 2012 saw a 3000% increase in Twitter user growth. And reports from March of 2013 indicate that Saudi Arabia holds the highest number of active users on Twitter among online users and total account holders. Seeing as how Twitter is considered a communications tool, these figures are ironic in the wake of the Saudi administration’s attempt to wrangle control over other VoIP communication applications earlier this year including Skype, Whatsapp, Viber, and others.
Of course, the country is not alone in its public disdain for the open internet; it is joined by Russia, China as discussed last week, and other nations that have traditionally erred on the side of tighter public content control. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s conservative web tactics could be having a neighborly influence; Qatar — what was once considered one of the more progressive Middle Eastern countries with regards to the internet — sought to clamp down on web-based and social media earlier this year.
But even with such restrictive policies, the country tops some of the charts for internet use and participation. The issue raises the question: How influential can government policy be in the face of popular demand?