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Social Arabia: social media is transforming the lives of young people in Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative societies in the world.

For many young Saudis, life is all about their apps.

They don't have free speech, so they debate on "Twitter. They can't flirt at the mall, so they do it on WhatsApp and Snapchat. Since women are banned from driving, they get rides from car services like Uber and Careem. And in a country where shops close for Muslim prayers five times a day, there are apps that not only issue a call to prayer from your pocket but also calculate whether you can reach, say, the nearest Dunkin' Donuts before it shuts.

Confronted with an austere version of Islam and rigid social codes that sharply restrict their lives, young people in Saudi Arabia are increasingly relying on social media to express themselves, make money, and even meet potential spouses.

Many of the country's 31 million people, in fact, have multiple smartphones and spend hours online each day. This explosion of digital communication has been revolutionary because it's taking place in one of the world's most tradition-bound places.

"On one level, it looks like any modern city," says Janet Breslin Smith, who lived in the capital, Riyadh, for five years when her husband was the U.S. ambassador. "But as your eyes gaze down to people walking, it almost takes you back to biblical times. People are dressed as they have for thousands of years."

One of the most powerful nations in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. ally in the region. Its influence comes from two factors: It has more than 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves; and it's the birthplace of Islam and the guardian of its two most sacred sites, in Mecca and Medina.

A strict fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism governs all aspects of life, with the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad effectively serving as a constitution.

Unrelated men and women are completely segregated from one another. Girls and boys attend separate schools, and separate classes in college. Females must wear black head-to-toe coverings called abayas in public once they hit puberty. When they go out, they must be accompanied by a male relative. Religious police zealously enforce these rules, arresting and sometimes flogging violators.

Some Freedom on Twitter

The nation is a near-absolute monarchy led by King Salman, a member of the Al Saud family that has ruled Saudi Arabia since 1932. A push for reform resulted in local council elections being held for the first time in 2005, but the councils are largely symbolic and have no real power. Women, who in recent years have been pushing for basic rights like driving, will be allowed to vote in local elections this month (see "A Push for Women's Rights," p. 10).

But it's technology rather than political reform that's rocking the conservative culture of Saudi Arabia.

The nation has the ideal conditions for a social media boom: speedy Internet, disposable income from oil wealth, and a youthful population--more than half of Saudis are under age 30--with few social options. Unlike China and Iran, Saudi Arabia hasn't blocked sites like Facebook and Twitter, although it doesn't tolerate commentary against the government or Islam. The Saudi monarchy appears to have decided that the benefits of social media as an outlet for young people outweigh the risk that it will be used to mobilize political opposition.

For now, some of the biggest changes brought by technology have been in how young Saudis find a spouse. In a society where dating--or even friendship between boys and girls--is forbidden, marriages have long been arranged by families. In fact, most Saudi girls have traditionally met their husbands for the first time when they became engaged. Now, social media is enabling romance to spring up without violating traditions outright.

When Raqad Alabdali, a conservative 22-year-old from a Riyadh suburb, made some melancholy posts on Twitter not long ago, a man she didn't know responded to her with a private message. They were soon messaging constantly.

"He kept checking on me to make sure I wasn't sad anymore, and then we tweeted with each other daily," she says.

They exchanged phone numbers for an occasional call, and she eventually sent him a photo of herself unveiled, in a white dress with bare shoulders and eye makeup on her face. He said he wanted to marry her, so his mother called hers. The couple is planning a family meeting to make then-engagement formal, Alabdali says. It will be their first time in the same room.

"I don't have any doubt that he'll marry me or is serious about me," she says. Why so sure? Her older brother and his wife met on Facebook.

'A Window to the Outside World'

The boom in social media has also created opportunities for young Saudi entrepreneurs. Ali Kalthami is in charge of content for a company called Telfazll, which produces comedy videos for YouTube. The company now employs more than 30 people and has branched out into commercials, games, and talent management for its actors.

"A lot of people are stuck to their phones--and really bored, " says Kalthami.

In a country where movie theaters are banned, YouTube and Internet streaming have provided an escape from the censors and a way to see what's going on beyond Saudi Arabia's borders.

"Everything to do with technology is a window to the outside world," says Hoda Abdulrahman al-Helaissi, a female member of the Shura Council, an advisory body appointed by the king.

But technology hasn't brought Westernstyle liberalization. Many young Saudis remain committed to and proud of their culture, and religious conservatives use social media as adeptly as liberals.

And the power of social media is limited in a society lacking political rights. The Saudi monarchy takes a hard line against dissent, doling out punishments viewed as barbaric in the democratic world. For participating in antigovernment protests three years ago, Ali al-Nimr, 20, was sentenced to a public beheading. Raif Badawi, a young blogger who called for women's rights and freedom of speech, is serving 10 years behind bars; he's also been sentenced to a flogging of 1,000 lashes.

But most young Saudis are challenging the status quo in more subtle ways. For Haya al-Fahad, 27, social media has become her livelihood. She quit her first job after graduating from college because one-third of her pay went to the driver she needed to get to and from work.

She now works from home, making bracelets she sells online. That gives her more time to manage her three Facebook pages, three Instagram accounts, and two Twitter feeds.

"This is my identity," she says, waving her smartphone. "I don't know how people survived 10 years ago without it."

Ben Hubbard covers the Middle East for The New York Times; additional reporting by Patricia Smith.


51 million

Number of cellphone subscriptions; the country's population is 31 million.


Percentage of the population under age 25, compared with 32 percent in the U.S.


Unemployment rate, compared with 5 percent in the U.S.

2.4 million

Number of Twitter users-- 40 percent of the total in the Middle East.


RELATED ARTICLE: A push for women's rights.

Women will vote for the first time this month, but what they really want is to get behind the wheel

On paper, it looks like a sea change for women's rights in Saudi Arabia: For the first time ever, women will be allowed to vote in municipal elections this month.

But in reality, experts say, it probably won't make much difference. For starters, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia aren't very important since local elected officials have little power.

And even if the elections mattered more, many women won't be able to register to vote or get to the polls in a nation where they're not allowed to drive.

Despite small steps forward, Saudi women are still denied basic rights that women in other countries take for granted. Under the Saudi interpretation of Islamic law, a woman's testimony in court doesn't carry the same weight as a man's. Saudi women need written permission from a male relative to enroll at a university, to marry, to have medical procedures, and to leave the country or even apply for a passport.

"For the entire course of your life, you have to have a man to give you permission to do basic aspects of your life," says Rothna Begum, a Saudi Arabia expert at Human Rights Watch in London.

This system affects all aspects of life--and severely limits the impact of any political reforms. For example, the government has said that women may run in the municipal elections, but they can't interact with unrelated men. How can they run for office without speaking to potential voters?

It's the ban on driving that's troubled Saudi women the most and drawn the most attention worldwide. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. The kingdom's ultraconservative clerics say allowing women to drive would promote "licentiousness." Several years ago, Saudi activists launched a campaign to lift the ban: Women got behind the wheel and posted videos of themselves driving as a protest.

Last year, a royal advisory council recommended lifting the ban--though only for women over 30 who have permission from a male relative to drive. So far, no action has been taken.

But there's evidence that younger Saudi women are finding other ways to assert themselves. Excluded from an all-male convention of computer gamers in Riyadh, a bunch of 20-something Saudi women organized their own computer gaming convention in 2012. It has drawn 3,000 women annually.

--Patricia Smith

LESSON PLAN 1: close reading


Lexile level: 1175L

Lower Lexile level (available online): 980L

Social Arabia

A social media boom is rocking the conservative culture of Saudi Arabia by allowing young people to mingle, find spouses, and express themselves without violating strict religious and social codes.

Before Reading

1 List Vocabulary: Share with students the challenging general and domain-specific vocabulary in this article. Encourage them to use context clues to infer meanings as they read and to later verify those inferences by consulting a dictionary. If desired, distribute or project the Word Watch activity to guide students through this process.

2 Engage: Ask students to describe how they use social media and to name other countries where they think social media use is popular. Ask whether they'd include Saudi Arabia.







Additional Resources

Print or project:

* Word Watch (infer word meanings)

* Up Close: Social Arabia (close reading)

** Article Quiz (also on p. 8 of this Teacher's Guide)

* Analyze the Graph (also on p. 11 of this Teacher's Guide)

Video: Love in Saudi Arabia

Analyze the Article

3 Read: Have students read the article, marking the text to note key ideas or questions.

4 Discuss: Distribute or project the close-reading activity Up Close: Social Arabia for students to work on in small groups. (Note: The questions on the PDF also appear on the facing page of this Teacher's Guide, with possible responses.) Follow up with a class discussion. If you're short on time, have each group tackle one or two of the questions. Collect students' work or have each group report its findings to the class.

Extend & Assess

5 Writing Prompt

How do you think your everyday life compares with that of a Saudi teen? Write a brief essay, using evidence from the article to support your claims.

6 Classroom Debate

Defend your view: As an ally of Saudi Arabia, should the United States do more to encourage that country to grant its women greater freedoms? Why or why not?

7 Quiz

Photocopy or project the article quiz (p. 8 of this Teacher's Guide).

8 Graph

Analyze a graph on social media use in selected nations, including Saudi Arabia (p. 11 of this Teacher's Guide).

* Summarize the author's purpose in the first three paragraphs of the article.

Author's purpose, text structure

(The author's purpose is to introduce the central idea that Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic law and rigid social codes do not keep young Saudis from enjoying social media. In fact, the rigid culture may even give young people more reason to use social media apps. The author notes, for example, "They can't flirt at the mall, so they do it on WhatsApp and Snapchat. ")

* Use evidence from the text to explain why social media use has become so widespread in Saudi Arabia.

Analyze cause & effect, cite text evidence

(Saudi Arabia has oil wealth, so citizens have disposable income they can use to buy cellphones and other devices. The country has "speedy Internet ... and a youthful population" with "few social options." In addition, its monarchy has decided not to block social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. All of these factors have contributed to the country's social media explosion.)

* How does the author support the claim that "some of the biggest changes brought by technology have been in how young Saudis find a spouse"?

Analyze authors' claims

(The author explains that dating is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, so families have traditionally arranged marriages. But with social media, young people are meeting online and getting to know each other before discussing marriage. He writes, "social media is enabling romance to spring up without violating traditions outright. " He then goes on to describe how one couple met via social media.)

* In the article, Hoda Abdulrahman al-Helaissi, a female adviser to the king, says that technology is a "window to the outside world." What do you think she means, and why might Saudi Arabia need such a window?

Make inferences

(Al-Helaissi means that technology gives Saudis a chance to see what's going on outside of their own country. Movie theaters are banned, so Saudis are rarely exposed to other cultures. However, social media, YouTube, and some other forms of contemporary technology are not restricted.)

* Predict whether social media will lead to democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia in the next 10 years. Support your response with evidence from the text.

Make inferences, cite text evidence

(Responses will vary but should be supported with text evidence. Students may argue that reform is unlikely because the Saudi monarchy continues to aggressively punish dissenters. In addition, "Many young Saudis remain committed to ... their culture, and religious conservatives use social media as adeptly as liberals." Other students may argue that reform will come soon because social media allows Saudis to see how things can be, and because women have begun pushing for rights.)

* Read the sidebar, "A Push for Women's Rights." What does it add to your understanding of Saudi Arabia?

Integrate multiple sources

(The sidebar illustrates just how restricted women are in Saudi Arabia. It notes that although women have recently earned the right to vote in municipal elections, these elected positions hold little power. What's more, Saudi women are still not allowed to drive and must have a man's permission to do almost anything.)


Social Arabia

Choose the best answer for each of the following questions.


1. According to the article, a main reason for Saudi Arabia's influence in the Middle East is

a its vast oil reserves.

b its Western-style government.

c its alliance with China.

d its booming manufacturing industry.

2. Laws in Saudi Arabia are largely based on

a a 250-year-old democratic constitution.

b the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

c the whims of the near-absolute monarch, King Salman.

d none of the above

3. Which of these is NOT one of the rules that women in Saudi Arabia must live by?

a They must be accompanied by a male relative when outside the home.

b They must wear a head-to-toe covering when in public.

c They may not drive a vehicle.

d They may not attend college or work outside the home.

4. Which statement best describes the Saudi Arabian government's stand on social media?

a It blocks most social media sites, including Facebook.

b It permits use of social media sites but is quick to crack down on anti-government commentary.

c It embraces social media as a tool for Westernization.

d It has created its own social media sites that are in keeping with Islamic teachings.


5. Which of these is NOT a central idea of the article?

a Some Saudis are meeting spouses on social media.

b Some Saudis are using social media to make money.

c Social media is bringing democratic liberalization to Saudi Arabia.

d Social media is giving Saudis a window to the outside world.

6. Which conclusion can you draw from the article?

a Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a religious civil war.

b The Saudi economy is built on the technology industry.

c Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia is more rigid than in many Muslim countries.

d Saudi Arabia is slowly moving away from Islamic law.

7. Select the sentence from the text that best supports your answer to question 6.

a "The nation has the ideal conditions for a social media boom ..."

b "Many young Saudis remain committed to and proud of their culture ..."

c "A strict fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism governs all aspects of life."

d "... it's the birthplace of Islam and the guardian of its two most sacred sites, in Mecca and Medina."

8. The author mentions that movie theaters are banned in Saudi Arabia to show

a that social media isn't the only banned media.

b that Saudis have little interest in Western pop culture.

c one reason Saudis are flocking to the Internet.

d one reason young Saudis are leaving the country.

IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS Please use the other side of this paper for your responses.

9. What kind of changes has social media brought to Saudi Arabia so far?

10. The author writes that "the power of social media is limited in a society lacking political rights." What do you think he means, and do you agree?


1. [a] its vast oil reserves.

2. [b] the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

3. [d] They may not attend college or work outside the home.

4. [b] It permits use of social media sites but is quick to crack down on anti-government commentary.

5. [c] Social media is bringing democratic liberalization to Saudi Arabia.

6. [c] Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia is more rigid than in many Muslim countries.

7. [c] "A strict fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism governs all aspects of life."

8. [c] one reason Saudis are flocking to the Internet.


Who's the Most Social?

You may think you and your friends spend a lot of time on Snapchat, Twitter, and WhatsApp, but check out the graph at right. It turns out that people in a number of other countries use social media more than people in the United States do. One of the countries where users spend a lot of time on social media is ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, where social media sites allow young people to express themselves and interact online--in contrast to the rigid religious and social codes that govern their everyday, "nondigital" lives (see article, p. 8).

This bar graph shows the amount of time social media users spend on social media each day in selected countries. It also includes a global average for social media use.


1. Social media users in Saudi Arabia spend about--hours a day on social media.

a 2.7

b 3.0

c 3.2

d 3.4

2. Social media users in the U.S. spend more time on social media than users in --.

a China

b Mexico

c South Africa

d all of the above

3. According to the graph, the global average for time users spend on social media each day is--.

a 2 hours

b 2 hours, 5 minutes

c 2 hours, 25 minutes

d 3 hours

4. The time users spend on social media in Argentina is about--.

a double the time spent in Canada

b triple the time spent in Japan

c equal to the time spent in Malaysia

d none of these

5. Which conclusion can you draw from the graph?

a Social media use is starting to drop.

b Social media is used across many continents.

c People in Spain spend little time on social media.

d all of the above


1. Argentina currently has more people ages 15 to 24 than it's had at any other time in its history. How might that "youth bubble" be connected to the data you see on the graph?

2. Aside from the age demographics of a nation's population, what factors might affect the popularity of social media in a country? Why?

3. What's one thing you find surprising or interesting about the graph? Why does this grab your attention?


1. [b] 3.0

2. [a] China

3. [c] 2 hours, 25 minutes

4. [a] double the time spent in Canada

5. [b] Social media is used across many continents.
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Title Annotation:INTERNATIONAL
Author:Hubbard, Ben
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Dec 14, 2015
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