Young Saudis turn to social media in droves to find a little bit of freedom

The World
A Saudi man reads at a coffee shop in Riyadh, September 19, 2011.

A Saudi man reads at a coffee shop in Riyadh, September 19, 2011.

REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

About 75 percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30. These young Saudis, just like their peers across the world, are using social media at a dizzying rate.

A recent BBC Trending series called "Saudis on social" zeroes in on anonymous Twitter accounts and tells the stories of the people behind them.

Mai Noman of the BBC says she and her team have found that engagement on various topics on Twitter in Saudi Arabia far exceeded any other country in the region.

In one part of the series, Mai and her team tell the story of three people: Hussein, a religious minority in the kingdom, 20-year-old “Youssef” a transsexual and Mazen, a blind atheist.

“These are young people who don’t have space to socialize and do things other than the mall,” Noman says. “So these are young people who have a lot of time on their hands and they’ve got access to the Internet and they’ve got local content.”

Some of the most popular figures on Saudi social media are comedians, Noman adds.

"[The comedians] are the new super stars of Saudi," she says.

But the Facebook and Twitter accounts with the most followers, they found, belonged to preachers. One of them has 13 million followers.

"That competes with the Leonardo DiCaprio's of the world," Noman jokes.

Of course these preachers have followers all over the world, not just in Saudi Arabia. Noman adds that social media is having a great impact on Saudi society, even offering freedoms that wouldn't be possible in the real world.

"It's changing the culture," she says. "It's quite interesting to watch that unfold, but how much that would change the real society, we're yet to see that."