Last week, IJNet spoke to Ahmed Al-Omran, a 24-year-old Saudi blogger and the creator of Saudi Jeans, a blog that reflects his views on issues facing the Arabian Peninsula.
Al-Omran began blogging in 2004 as a college sophomore after surfing various American and Arab blogs. Initially, he was interested in blogging because he thought it might improve his English. Before long, he began to focus on politics, and the blog became something more serious than he "would ever have expected."
Al-Omran and Saudi Jeans have been the subjects of news stories worldwide through outlets including CNN, BBC, AP, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.
On Saudi Jeans, Al-Omran discusses issues rarely discussed publicly, including freedom of speech, treatment of Saudi women, religion and society. He blogs in English, because it is the "dominant international language," he said. A blog in English, he believes, can help "change many stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding Saudi Arabia."
Why "Saudi Jeans?"
Short answer: I'm Saudi and I like to wear jeans. Long answer: Jeans are a symbol of an idea or object that some people claim doesn't suit Saudi society because it is not part of our history, like the ideas of free speech and democracy. However, we see people in our country wear jeans everyday now. Someday, I hope freedom of speech and democracy will become part of our everyday life here, too.
How important are blogs in the Arab world and specifically in Saudi Arabia?
In countries where freedom of expression is limited or nonexistent, blogging makes governments more accountable, media more transparent, and people more aware of their rights through increased access to information facilitated by the Web.
Do blogs compete with the print media or act as a complement to it?
They do both. I don't believe bloggers in general consider themselves competitors to traditional media, but bloggers can help traditional media refocus on the fundamental goal to provide information that matters to people.
Are bloggers journalists?
They can be, but I don't think most bloggers are seeking that title, especially in this part of the world where journalism is linked to propaganda more than reporting facts.
Do people in Saudi Arabia trust blogs?
It is hard to tell if people trust blogs in Saudi Arabia, but I think there are several bloggers who have gained enough credibility by now that people are noticing what they are saying even if they don't trust them.
Through your blog, you have been very critical of some aspects of Saudi Arabian society and government actions. Can you tell us more about the issues you are most critical of?
Saudi Arabia is a young nation that is slowly changing, and in the process of moving forward there are many issues that need to be tackled. I write about a lot of different things, but I mainly focus on issues related to free speech, human rights and women rights.
In one of your posts, "Saudi Hypocrisy and Empowered Women," you wrote, "censorship is no longer effective." Have the censors in your country surrendered to efforts to bring change to the conservative country?
Though it is my belief that censorship is no longer effective, censors here don't seem to understand this yet. So they keep their policy of blocking which is flawed and arbitrary, while users can easily get around censorship in many different ways. Someday they will realize that such policies don't work anymore and they will give up.
In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor in 2006, you said "We are afraid that a little bit of freedom will make our society explode." What did you mean by that?
The conservatives in our country seem paranoid about every little change that happens, so they try to scare people by claiming that these changes will corrupt our society. One of their tactics is to tie freedom with immorality in a way that makes people believe that even the tiniest amount of freedom will result in serious damage to the fabric of our nation.
Do you consider media in Saudi Arabia neutral or biased? Why?
Since freedom of expression is very limited it is difficult for media here to be neutral. Plus, neutrality is hard to achieve anyway and it is always easier to take sides.
When your fellow blogger Fouad Farhan was arrested, you said you were not shocked because you "knew that he has been interrogated and harassed before." Because of what happened to Farhan, do you feel intimidated or scared of investigating a story? Why?
The fear has always been there, even before Fouad was arrested. When you are in Saudi Arabia, and you come out with your real name and picture and publicly criticize many things that others would rather not talk about, you know that you are in for trouble. I have always known that there is some risk in doing this, but I believe that this is a risk worth taking because I love my country and am willing to take the risk if it means a brighter future for our nation.
What do you see as the future of blogging in Saudi Arabia?
The trends have been positive so far. The number of bloggers is increasing, and more and more people are now taking the step of speaking up about the issues they care about. If the local media keep deteriorating, we will see the rise of blogs and other means of citizen media.
What is your advice to fellow Saudi bloggers and bloggers in other Arab countries where freedom of speech is restricted?
Don't be afraid to speak your mind on issues you care about, but be reasonable and sensible to your surroundings. Be sure to learn the laws related to freedom of expression; know the limits so you can push them if/when necessary, and know where the red lines are so you can jump them or play around them. Also, don't work alone. Make sure to connect to your fellow bloggers so they can step up and help you if something goes wrong. Remember that no matter what differences you may have with others, at the end of the day there are things that we all agree on, like freedom, justice and human rights.
To view the blog Saudi Jeans, go to http://saudijeans.org/.