THE REVIEW - 17 JULY 2009
It was a little after 8pm when I entered the Second Cup cafe on Thalia Street, Riyadh's main shopping district. It was a Wednesday night - the end of the work week here - so Riyadh's cruisers were out. Alongside big Suburbans manned by teenaged Saudi boys just old enough to grow wispy moustaches were Maseratis piloted by cool, princely men in immaculate thobes. Also crawling through the traffic were Mercedes and BMWs with blacked-out windows. Inside were girls.
But I hadn't come to see Thalia's infamous cruising scene. I wasn't here to see boys scrawl their cell phone numbers on pieces of paper held against car windows. I wasn't here to see teenagers use Bluetooth to exchange flirtatious notes. I was at the Second Cup to meet another of this country's struggling young subsets: The Riyadh Twitterers. For the uninitiated: Twitter.com users post mini-updates (tweets) of no more than 140 characters at a time, then choose which twitterers' tweets they wish to see displayed on their home page. It's been a raging success in the United States for more than a year, with Facebook bidding to buy the company for millions, movie stars and musicians twittering about their new projects, politicians twittering about their campaigns and legislative agendas, and normal people twittering about their normal days. In mid-June it became an essential tool for tracking developments in post-election Iran, sparking widespread debate about whether tweets foretell the future of online communication.
But Twitter is just starting to catch on here in Saudi Arabia, in large part because of its English-only interface. It's impossible to determine exactly how many active users live in Saudi Arabia, but anecdotal assessments from regular users here put the number in the low hundreds. One of the most prolific is Turki al Balla, the jolly, mustachioed, 25-year-old founder of the Riyadh Twitterers, who tells me it's actually this limited membership that makes Twitter so alluring. The English-only hurdle doesn't mean that everyone tweeting here is a liberal reformer, Turki explains, but it does mean that everyone has a certain level of education and exposure to the world.
"Am at Second Cup," Turki tweets, the electronic message instantly broadcast into the hot desert night. We're reclining on leatherette booths in the pleasantly lit male-only section of the cafe. This is the second ever Riyadh "tweet-up", and so far six men have shown up (40 people total signed up to attend). Turki tells me that he could only convince one woman to attend the first gathering, held last month. I figure he's managed to wrangle a few more this time, and they're probably all sitting upstairs in the family section. Right?
"No," Turki says, chuckling. "There's again only one woman upstairs. That's it." I start talking to Abdullah Hamed, 26, a tall and confident graduate of Oregon State University with a handsome beard and sad brown eyes. He's been back in Riyadh just a month now and he's going stir crazy. Twitter is a major help, he says. "What do you talk about on Twitter?" I ask. "Computer stuff, whatever I'm thinking," Abdullah says quickly, as if I'm a bit daft for asking.
"Is your family OK with this?" I ask. "This place is so obsessed with secrecy and privacy." Turki leans over to explain that tweeting isn't actually a breach of privacy: unless you already know a twitterer, you won't really understand the stream of quite personal and idiosyncratic details he or she is likely to be sharing. "Nineteen people at the tweetup right now," Turki tweets. I take a look at the assembled men. Body sizes speak to hours at computer desks. Everyone is on an iPhone, Blackberry, Nokia smartphone or sometimes all three. Abdullah and Turki are arguing spiritedly about Microsoft versus Apple.
"Microsoft is evil," Turki says emphatically. "Steve Jobs is Hitler," Abdullah counters, his voice rising. A handful of thuggish looking Saudis walk by, giving the twitterers hard looks. These toughs likely do not speak English. They are not twittering. I look back at my guys. They're friendly-looking tea-sippers. They're not out cruising Thalia for chicks. They're looking for something else, 140 characters at a time. But what?
Turki tells me more about why Twitter is so awesome in Saudi. Arabic-language discussion boards, he explains, are the hottest online communities here. People go nuts debating, arguing and flaming each other. There's some room for thoughtful debate, Turki says, but with hordes of anonymous people free to sink their teeth into each other, it's not as friendly and hospitable as Twitter's more rarefied streams of links, personal news, and pithy observations (postable from and readable on expensive English-speaking gadgets). Plus: "With Twitter," Turki says solemnly, "you can talk to girls freely. You can be open."
"From what I heard from the obama speech I agree and support it completely," Turki tweeted that night. Another day: "U either die of boredom or go grazy in this country." Another night: "Ya ya, am single because most girls in Saudi r spoiled nut cases." "In America, Twitter is a hobby," Turki says. "Here it is a way of life. If you took away Twitter in America, it's no big deal. Here..." Turki shudders at the thought. A few more guys show up, and a few others join to add to our growing circle. We now number nearly two dozen.
I ask Turki about the recently cancelled municipal elections, which were supposed to be the second ever national vote here since 2005, but have been delayed an additional two years. Was there much tweeting about the decision? Turki says he doesn't really care. "We're not ready to vote," he says. "If these people vote" - he means the kinds of Saudis who aren't twittering, like the thugs who'd given us menacing looks - "this is scaring me. They'll vote in someone even more backward than what we already have." Turki doesn't want to risk this kind of scenario; King Abdullah's pace of reform is enough for him for now. Anyway, he and his friends have more pressing, or at least more tweet-worthy, concerns, like bringing a real Mac store to Saudi. ("GMail is no more in Beta!!!" he tweeted recently.)
Marie, the sole woman in attendance, is the friendly, blonde-haired wife of an Australian IT worker here. She tells me that in the West, Twitter is all about selling. Here in Saudi, she argues, Twitter is a matter of human rights. Those are big words - human rights - and they loom even larger when you consider the often mundane ways in which twitterers - in Saudi and elsewhere - respond to the micro-blog's central question, permanently tacked right above the window where you type your updates: "What are you doing?"
In Iran, that question has been powerful and terrifying of late: Are you being beaten? Is your friend in jail? Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, a land of a mostly undisputed monarchy, what these guys and gals are doing is creating a little world where everyone understands the English interface, where civil debate is tolerated, where you can have strong opinions about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates - but don't necessarily feel the need to say anything risky or depressing about the relatively beloved but frustrating leader. Twitter in Saudi Arabia isn't a rebellion but a refuge - one that looks really great on your iPhone.
I resume talking to Abdullah, who tells me he's desperate to move back to Oregon, but doesn't want to abandon his mom, who really wants him in Riyadh. He tells me she has two PhDs and teaches Islamic studies. We talk excitedly about music we like and how beautiful the Oregon coast is. After a while, I start to gather my things. It's getting late, and I don't want to be stuck in cruising traffic, which will grow worse and worse as the lonely Saudi night wears on.
I tell Abdullah by way of a parting joke that if he moves to the US, his mom could follow him on Twitter. "That's not enough," he says. "She wants me home. And"- here he takes a resigned look around the all-male cafe, the nicest place Turki could find for everyone to meet - "this is home. And we have to figure out how to live here."
This piece was published by The Review. Read the original here.