In the past few months, the potential of social media outreach in the Gulf hasn't only been noticed and exploited by marketing firms but also by regional governments and officials. After all, there are a staggering 7.4 million Facebook users in the Gulf according to Inside Facebook as of May this year and 5.5 million Twitter users in the Middle East according to ArabCrunch as of March this year.
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 tweeps questioning MPs on policies, even teasing them, and going as far as poking fun at them. One MP for instance is referred to as "The Pen" signifying he's in the pocket of the government. Another female MP is "advised" in a rather sexist remark to launch a lingerie campaign.
One Gulf government that has embraced social media is Bahrain where a number of cabinet ministers including those responsible for the foreign, interior and information portfolios maintain active Twitter profiles. Perhaps the most visible example of official social media use in the Gulf in the past few months was by Bahrain's Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa who, following what seems to have been an unauthorised and misstated statement from the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs on the government's plan to dissolve Al Wefaq opposition party, immediately tweeted: "A clarification: Bahrain is not seeking to dissolve political societies, official statement was incorrect."
A growing number of officials across the Gulf are beginning to understand the significance of social media's outreach. The experience of Saudi blogger Fouad Al Farhan illustrates this change. Al Farhan was arrested in Jeddah in December 2007 and held in solitary confinement until April 2008 after posting a controversial blog naming his ten least favourite Saudis whom he never wants to meet that included a senior Islamic cleric, a billionaire prince and a cabinet minister. In a sign of changing times, Al Farhan, whose popularity only grew after his release (he has over 15,600 followers on Twitter) was one of five Saudis invited earlier this year to meet the Governor of Makkah, Prince Khalid Al Faisal, following the 2011 Jeddah floods. The meeting, held to explain the government's efforts to deal with the floods, was broadcast on national television and the Prince asked Al Farhan to give his regards to his followers on Twitter .
Another impressive presence on Twitter is that of Abdul Aziz Khoja, the Saudi minister of information and culture. The 69-year-old former diplomat personally updates his Twitter profile and interacts with Saudi as well as non-Saudi users, even asking a journalist why he hasn't been active on Facebook recently .
Another breed is the Gulf official who has a Twitter account under a pseudonym and only follows people without tweeting. During a recent visit to Riyadh, I was approached by someone who told me he follows my tweets but refused to disclose his Twitter handle. Perhaps he thought I would expose him to others online.
A bone of contention is the role that members of Gulf ruling families play on the internet, or at least the role that they are perceived to play. A senior Gulf diplomat told me that some people took the online rants of one ruling family member as representing "official state policy". "No one knows he's an 18-year-old student", he explained "I had to call his family and pull the plug on his account before he does any serious damage". Should young non-government affiliated members of ruling Gulf families restrain themselves on social media? Or perhaps they should simply refrain from using the government-affiliated family name on a medium that is public to air personal grievances.
Governments are also using Twitter to disseminate breaking news and even corporate announcements. For instance, many UAE residents learnt of the recent takeover of Dubai Bank by the government of Dubai through the emirate's official media Twitter account @DXBMediaOffice. Dubai also has a highly interactive police Twitter account @DubaiPoliceHQ that updates the community on the latest news and warns it regarding financial fraud along with interesting facts about crime prevention. The UAE's Prime Minister also has a large following of over 400,000 on Twitter and a similar number on Facebook. I also happen to know of two other UAE cabinet ministers who use Twitter anonymously.
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.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/SultanAlQassemi.