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On The Pulse

Sultan Al-Qassemi
Sultan Al-Qassemi
Sultan Al-Qassemi

Sultan Al-Qassemi, a political commentator from a new generation in the Gulf, has become a leading voice on Twitter during the Arab Spring. With thousands of tweets and followers, he has kept the world informed of events sweeping the region via his outreach throughout the Arab world. In this interview with The Majalla, Al-Qassemi reflects on a new generation, the role of social media in the Arab Spring and the potential it has for governments to connect and communicate with their citizens.

Al-Qassemi has a regular column in The National, he is a founder at the Barjeel Art Foundation and he is a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government.

The Majalla: How important was social media to the Arab Spring? Has it been over-hyped?

Twitter and other social media was merely a tool that allowed young Arabs to find each other; it wasn’t a cause of the revolutions. Twitter mostly allowed people and journalists outside the country to learn more about what was happening in the state. In most Arab states the use of Twitter isn’t high due to the high cost of telecommunications and poor infrastructure.

Q: What role do you see social media tools like Twitter playing in the coming decades?

The role of social media will recede as more Arab states democratize and lift the emergency laws that allow citizens to meet in real life rather than only on social media.

Q: Do you believe that tools like Twitter and Facebook are media for a younger generation?

Social media became a two-edged sword, with Arab governments using it to build cases against dissidents. Syria has also launched the Syrian Electronic Army to harass and threaten social media users (they attacked Harvard’s website recently).

Q: What is it about a tool like Twitter that makes it so effective in mobilizing people?

In the absence of laws that allow citizens to congregate and organize, the only way is to do so online. Social media allows groups to be set up, slogans to be chosen and a specific date to be named to launch the civil movement.

Q: Should governments be using Twitter to build stronger relations with their citizens?

We have seen how the resignation of Egypt’s last Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif was announced on Facebook. The Egyptian army even has a Facebook page. The most intriguing use of social media in the Gulf has to be that of Kuwaiti citizens interacting with their elected MPs. Social media in Kuwait seems more like an extension of the Kuwaiti parliament with tweets questioning MPs on policies, even teasing them, and going as far as poking fun at them. Overall, the embrace of Gulf governments and officials of social media has to be seen as a positive phenomenon, even if such officials only use social media in a passive manner to follow developments. In the absence of real world direct lines of communications social media is filling the void between citizens and officials at a time when we are in dire need to break down barriers and expand understanding.

Q: What is your most memorable Tweet or moment on Twitter?

This is the most memorable tweet. It was retweeted several hundred times at the peak of the Egyptian revolution. Al Jazeera reporter: “I received calls from hospitals in Egypt by doctors telling me they have been told not to record deaths by bullets.”

Q: Who do you follow on Twitter?

I mostly follow individuals and organizations that compliment my field of interest, which is Arab and Middle Eastern contemporary affairs.

Follow Sultan Al-Qassemi @SultanAlQassemi

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Andrew Bowen
Andrew Bowen is Scholar for the Middle East at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. He regularly writes, teaches and consults on Middle Eastern politics and American foreign policy. His work primarily focuses on the regional and international politics of the Levant, but he frequently comments on the international relations of the Gulf and American national security policy. Follow Andrew on Twitter @abowen17

1 Comment

  1. I find Sultan Al Qassemi’s thoughts on the role of social media to be very sensible, in an environment over-hyped by what modern, Internet based social media are capable of. The very fact that telecoms costs are high in the Middle East owing to providers essentially run as government monopolies, and low Gulf populations implies that social media cannot generate revolutions, as Sultan points out. But perhaps are a useful civic activity tool, as has been the case in Kuwait for some time.

    The popular book, The Net Delusion, by Belarus born Yevgeny Morozov, explodes the myth of social media bringing change in earlier Eastern European insurrections as well as contemporary protest. Kris Kristof’s New York Times column in Feb 2011 challenged the hype about equating the Arab Spring with the rise of social media in the Middle East pointing out that hardly 0.03% of Egyptians have access to Twitter. Even the Occupy Movements in the West have a hard time growing, as revolutions are about a common cause and huge collective and personal sacrifice (as evidenced in the Arab uprisings symbolized by Tahrir Square), as opposed to middle class gripes fed by free pizza deliveries in Zucotti Park in New York and other relaxed locations.

    Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see the rise of social media in the previously-deprived Middle East as a growing, alternate form of protest and collective ideation that can then lead to reform via exposure. Perhaps local Internet innovation will roll the ball further along, with much cheaper and less censor-prone technologies and applications being made freely available locally. Innovation has no borders: it is only a state of mind.

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