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Is freedom of expression on the rise in Saudi Arabia?

The decision to list 5% of Saudi Aramco’s shares has raised wide criticism from the Saudi public while sheding light on the issue of freedom of expression and disapproval in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi state-owned Aramco on March 27 appointed Samba Capital to be the adviser on an initial public offering (IPO) that could generate $100 billion, which would be the largest IPO in history. Saudi Minister of Energy, Industrial and Mineral Resources Khalid al-Falih said Aug. 28 that the Aramco IPO is scheduled for early 2018. This shows that the Saudi government turned a blind eye to citizens who expressed their opposition to and concerns about the IPO.

The chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, announced Jan. 7 the Saudi government’s decision to list 5% of Aramco’s shares. The announcement has raised wide criticism with Saudi economic experts, most prominently among them Barjas al-Barjas, the former analysis consultant at Aramco’s Strategic Planning Department. In a Jan. 17 article, he said the move by the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, chaired by Prince Mohammed, is designed to attract funds as soon as possible. He said that it is unsafe for the future of the Saudi economy and would bring greater risks.

The experts’ criticism shed light on the freedom of expression concerning sovereign decisions in Saudi Arabia, and resulted in a large social segment announcing Feb. 11 on Twitter — with the Arabic hashtag that translates to #Thepeople_Oppose_Aramco_Sale that was used in more than 30,000 tweets — that they oppose the IPO.

Following the criticism, Saudi Commerce and Investment Minister Majed al-Qusaibi justified the decision. On Feb. 12, he said the IPO offering does not represent "selling the company," and made reassurances that the state will continue to own an overwhelming majority of shares, guaranteeing its control over Aramco.

Saudi human rights activist Abdullah al-Nasseri told Al-Monitor over the phone that freedom of expression exists in Saudi Arabia when it comes to the debate over economy-related issues, and that this freedom has reached a record level. He explained that this freedom is an “undeniable fact,” given that the issue was boldly addressed and raised objective criticism. Nasseri, however, said that freedom of expression has declined to unprecedented levels in human rights and political issues, but did not provide examples.

Mohammed al-Muadi, a spokesman for the Saudi Human Rights Commission, told Al-Monitor that Saudi regulations, based on Sharia, safeguard legitimate means of expression and guarantee communication between citizens and their officials at all levels to achieve the greater good in accordance with Article 43 of the 1992 Basic Law of Government. It stipulates, “The king's court and that of the crown prince shall be open to all citizens and to anyone who has a complaint or a plea against an injustice. Every individual shall have a right to address the public authority in all matters affecting him.”

Muadi said that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression as long as this freedom does not prejudice public order, the community and social constants. He added that although it is a form of restriction, this restriction does not contradict the laws and regulations, as Article 39 of the Basic Law of Government states that all media outlets “shall employ courteous language” and abide by the state's regulations to contribute to the country’s education and foster its unity.

He said Saudi Arabia prohibits any opinions that would stir strife and division, or would prejudice the country’s security and foreign relations, or are deemed offensive to human dignity and rights. Muadi said that these restrictions are in harmony with Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others.”

Muadi believes that all Saudi citizens are granted full civil and political rights, guaranteeing the right of every person to embrace his opinions without any harassment.

A state of despair continues to prevail over Saudi civil servants as decreased oil revenues have caused monthly salaries to decline following a government decision on Sept. 26. This is added to the delayed Citizen’s Account Program, which was approved Dec. 22 by the Saudi Cabinet to enhance citizens’ living conditions following the raising prices of basic services such as fuel, electricity and water.

In terms of freedom of expression, the Saudis are more likely to articulate their opinions on Twitter than in local newspapers. Mohammed al-Bishr, the head of the Center for Global Thought on Saudi Arabia, told Al-Monitor that citizens are not interested in newspapers whose editors-in-chief oppose freedom of expression.

Bishr said that for many years the editors-in-chief of local newspapers have opted for writers who have placed their personal interests and orientations over the country’s and citizens’ genuine interests, with readers' comments not including the opinions of ordinary citizens. He said that this has resulted in many readers refraining from reading newspapers and instead resorting to Twitter, where they feel less restricted in expressing their opinions. According to Bishr, Saudi newspapers are subject to both government censorship and control of these newspapers’ officials, which have prevented them from reporting things as they are in reality.

On Aug. 31, the Communications and Information Technology Commission reported that there are more than 22 million internet users in Saudi Arabia. Also, a recent study announced at the Gulf Youth Media Forum in Riyadh said that 11 million Saudis have Twitter accounts and account for 33% of the tweets in the Middle East.

The editor-in-chief of Al Riyadh newspaper, Suleiman al-Osaimi, said Oct. 3 that public responsiveness to Twitter has widely affected Saudi newspapers, whose profits decreased in 2016, causing salary delays and layoffs. In addition, economic conditions have led to declining ads and subscriptions, which are a major source of revenue, while electronic journalism has been on the rise.

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