If you have been following Global Voices for more than six months, then you probably have read the name of Fouad Al-Farhan in this space several times before this one. Actually, one of my posts here back in October 2005 featured a post by Al-Farhan, when he left a meeting with Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs at the US Department of State during a visit to Saudi Arabia. So, who is Fouad Al-Farhan?
Fouad Al-Farhan is one of the pioneer Saudi bloggers. He was born in 1975 in Taif, west of Saudi Arabia, and received his higher education in the United States. He graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in marketing, then joined Ball State University for a masters degree in computer sciences. “Although Bush and his gang have been trying to remove all my good memories from my life in America, but I still think that I have lived the best years of my life there, moving between different states such as Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, and Indiana,” he told me during an interview via email.
Al-Farhan, who has a great interest in the American and Saudi political affairs, and who has been following the active liberal and Islamic movements in the Arab World, says that he has been reading blogs and observing their effect on the American life since the beginning of the blogging revolution. However, it took him about four months to decide to start his own blog. “I was carefully studying what I want to offer. I wanted to be special, and to be committed to this new thing in my life as much as possible,” he says after about nine months since he started blogging.
Bloggers can be so different from each other, but most of them have one thing in common: they want to express themselves. Al-Farhan is no exception. “I want to express my freedom, ideas, and hopes, publicly and in a way that is unusual in the Saudi society. I think blogging is the best tool to do that now,” he says. Other reasons which encouraged him to start his blog are the limitations on freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia. “The television stations are completely owned by the government. The newspapers are highly censored, and some of their chief editors have been in their positions for more than 30 years. This is why you find our media boring and primitive,” he added. Al-Farhan thinks that blogging can help young Saudis to make the government hear their voice, and to let the world know that they share the same human values, ambitions, and interests with them.
Fouad Al-Farhan does not spend much time working on his blog. He takes about half an hour daily to update it, but that time can change from day to day depending on his other commitments. But does he feel committed to his readers? Not really. “Every time I blog, I know there is someone out there hears my voice. I don't care if this “someone” agrees with me or not, likes me or not. All I care about is that I voiced my opinion. Freedom of expression is a right for every human being,” he said.
Moving to the current state of the Saudi blogosphere, Al-Farhan thinks that blogging is still very new in Saudi Arabia. “If 10% of Saudis are using the internet, then I think that only 1% of those know blogging or had heard about it,” he says. Saudi bloggers are probably blamed for this, and Al-Farhan says he is unhappy that those experts on certain topics who use the internet extensively won't share their views and knowledge through blogging. The quality of content on Saudi blogs is questionable, but he thinks those who blog are better than those who don't. Which is easier? To turn the existing superficial bloggers into professionals, or to convince professionals out there to start blogging? He is not sure, but “we probably should work on both directions,” he added. “The superficiality is due to our fear from expressing ourselves, and that's why we find Saudi bloggers goes under strict self-censorship.” He thinks that they have fear from being misunderstood.
Fouad Al-Farhan does not have this fear, though. He is one of the few Saudi bloggers who write using their real name. Bloggers hide their identity because they are afraid of the government, society, or their families. But he thinks that bloggers should not be afraid from the government. “The government's battle is against the terrorists who want to destroy our nation,” he says, “and if you were a terrorist then you won't be thinking about starting a blog, but you would think how to run away.” We are a young nation, and it's time for Saudis to get over their fears and reservations. “I really think that blogging can make a very big difference in the Saudi society,” he added.
Saudi internet users are still using forums heavily to read the latest news and participate in the conversation. The popularity of Al Sahat website, which is basically a group of several forums usually denounced in the media for carrying extreme views, is a clear evidence on that. Fouad thinks the popularity of Al Sahat is exceptional, and he believes that everyone in Saudi Arabia, including ministers and officials, follow that website. He frequently links to threads from Al Sahat, and he disagrees with those who consider it extreme. However, Fouad says the future is for blogs; forums are on the way to become history. In forums, there are limitations set by the owners, and these limitations determine the style and popularity of the forum. “In the blogs, you are the owner, and it is entirely up to you to make your blog special and popular.”
What kind of effect can blogs have on traditional journalism in Saudi Arabia? “I don't think that blogs can compete with media on reporting news, but they would probably thrive on the side of analyzing news,” Al-Farhan wrote. He believes that Saudi newspapers have almost no credibility. “If you have become a well-known blogger, then you can have more credibility than a whole newspaper,” he added.
Although Fouad Al-Farhan believes future is for the blogs, he does not know how does this future would look like. But we can only be optimistic. “If we worked hard to spread blogging in Saudi Arabia, and convinced some influential people to adopt it, then we will gain the benefits of blogging in the same way Western societies did,” he says, “we have to move on.”