By Glenn M. Stewart

Having lived in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf region for many years, I was very interested in the way that modern technologies, particularly communication technologies, were introduced to the Kingdom and how they were resisted every step of the way by the conservative religious leadership.

This phenomenon started when King Abdel Aziz al Sa’ud set up a radio station. A large number of religious scholars (ulema’) objected to this on the grounds that the projection of the human voice through the air could only be done if the radio was an instrument of Satan. In order to prove that this was not the case, he assembled a group of ulema’ and put them in a room with a radio while he went into the next room and read verses from the Qur’an over the radio. He then drove his point home by asserting that, if the radio was truly an instrument of Satan, the devil would never have allowed the Qur’an to be read on it.

In 1963, his son, King Faisal, established the first television station in Riyadh. This was promptly attacked by a group of demonstrators who objected to its establishment. King Faisal ordered the demonstrators disbanded and during the police action one of his nephew’s, Khaled bin Musaid, was killed. Khaled’s brother, Faisal bin Musaid, blamed King Faisal for Khaled’s death and later assassinated the King in revenge.

At the time of the Gulf War in 1990, the Saudi authorities started allowing CNN to be broadcast in the Kingdom, but it was aired on a delay to enable them to censor it. After the war, the government acceded to the public thirst for information and entertainment by allowing satellite television into the country. Religious conservatives reacted to this by taking rifles and shooting out the receiver unit in the satellite dishes.

Next was the internet. This was also allowed in, but the government put up so many firewalls that, as one friend of mine who worked at IBM said, “They took the information superhighway and turned it into the information super dirt road.”

When mobile phones with cameras and instant messaging technology were introduced, the religious police, otherwise known as the mutawa’in, sought to have them banned on the grounds that they were being used for immoral purposes. Too many people were taking pictures of their genitals and emailing them to one another. Another way, in the eyes of the conservatives, in which technology is being misused by young people in the region is by employing Bluetooth to obtain dates (and, in some cases, sex). I once walked into Trader Vic’s in Bahrain accompanied by a young Bahraini woman who worked for me and, upon entering, her phone lit up like a Christmas tree. She explained that the girls screened the available young men that were broadcasting, all using nicknames, and then called those who best took their fancy.

The conservative elements in the various countries of the Middle East consider the introduction of new technologies as a threat to their control and power – and they always have. That these technologies are a threat has been borne out by the way in which the political opposition has used them to organize against the regimes. It worked in Tunisia and Egypt. I believe it will also succeed eventually in Syria.
Glenn StewartGlenn M. Stewart is a renowned expert on Middle Eastern affairs and business. a graduate of Oxford University, Glenn M.Stewart holds an advanced degree in Islamic History and Arabic and lived in the Middle East for 27 years. A successful entrepreneur and businessman, Stewart has a unique insight into this critical and important area of the world.

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