August 9, 2013

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus warned of the dangers of casually bad-mouthing the ruler in ancient Rome: “A soldier, dressed like a civilian, sits down by your side, and begins to speak ill of Caesar, and then you too, just as though you had received from him some guarantee of good faith in the fact he began the abuse, tell likewise everything you think, and the next thing is you are led off to prison in chains.”

History has a knack of repeating itself. The Internet and the social media it spawned initially offered safe spaces for citizens in closed societies to express their views. Yet authoritarian rulers unaccustomed to criticism were quick to monitor and infiltrate those virtual spaces and whisk critics and malcontents off to the physical confines of a jail cell.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the hereditary monarchies of the six Gulf states, where rulers are struggling to come to terms with the concurrent rise of social media and increasing desire of emboldened citizens to speak their minds. A recent spate of convictions for bloggers, tweeters and Facebook users across the region is part of an emerging trend that reflects the Gulf rulers’ fear of free speech and open debate.

On July 24, the government-linked Emirati television channel 24.ae aired a piece analyzing in detail the Twitter account of Khalifa Rabia, whom authorities had arrested the day before. The segment accused Rabia of “affiliation with secret cells” — a reference to his support for members of a peaceful Islamist group convicted on July 2 of plotting to overthrow the government after a manifestly unfair trial. The segment repeatedly referred to Rabia’s use of hashtags, such as #UAE_freemen, as evidence of his sedition. Authorities have yet to charge Rabia, and his whereabouts in detention, unlike the contents of his Twitter feed, are unknown.

On July 17, the Kuwaiti court of appeals confirmed a 20-month sentence for a teacher, Sara al-Drees, on charges of offending Kuwait’s emir via tweets sent from her mobile phone. In one of her tweets, al-Drees called the emir “a great placid actor before the cameras, and tyrant behind the scenes.”

On June 24, Saudi Arabia sentenced seven government critics to prison, convicting them of joining Facebook pages to “incite protests, illegal gathering, and breaking allegiance with the King.”

In April, Bahrain amended its penal code to provide for harsher sentences for insulting the king, and officials have taken steps to unmask anonymous [Internet] users. On Jan. 25, Lt. Faisal Al Sumaim of the Interior Ministry’s Cyber Crime Unit said on state television, "People think that they are unreachable using anonymous accounts...but it has never been easier finding them." An investigation by the rights group Bahrainwatch concluded that the Bahraini government had been targeting anonymous social media accounts using IP spy links, a technique that Bahrainwatch analysts describe as “unreliable.”

On Feb. 9, nine Omani activists began a hunger strike to protest sentences handed down in 2012 on charges including “defaming the sultan” and violating Oman’s cybercrimes law through their Facebook posts and Twitter accounts.

Qatar, unlike the other Gulf states, has not had domestic unrest, but it has taken pre-emptive measures to dissuade its citizens from following the example of their neighbors. On May 30, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to the emir to express concerns over a new cybercrime bill that “would restrict online expression on news websites and social media.” The Qatari authorities have not released the content of the draft law, but a glance at the restrictive way Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have interpreted “cybercrime” causes concern.

Human Rights Watch described the UAE’s cybercrime decree as the act of a government that was “out of step and out of touch” with international norms on free speech. Since international law unequivocally requires political figures to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than ordinary citizens, this assessment can be applied to all six of the Gulf monarchies, each of which criminalizes criticism of its respective rulers.

The political scientist Marc Lynch has described the heavy-handed response of the Gulf states to this marked increase in online criticism as “a desperate rearguard action with zero chance of actually purging the new public sphere of dissent.”

The Gulf rulers will continue to dig in their heels and aggressively declare that they are acting in defense of national security or religious propriety. Their allies in London, Washington, and Brussels will continue to bite their tongues in public and restrict human rights issues to private diplomacy.

Yet the greatest threat to the monarchs of the Gulf is their own failure to adapt to evolving technology and changing demographics in a digitized, globalized age.

Nicholas McGeehan is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. On Twitter:@Ncgeehan