How Twitter is driving change in Saudi Arabia

November 21, 2013, 12:36 PM UTC
Photo: AP Images

Which country has the fastest-growing Twitter market in the world? The surprising answer is Saudi Arabia, which ranks among the top users per capita anywhere. An estimated 51% of online Saudis maintain an account with the newly public social platform. And in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world to forbid women from driving, Twitter (and YouTube and Facebook) are nudging this ultraconservative society forward in ways that traditional protest cannot.

An October demonstration by women drivers was smaller than planned. Only 60 or so women said they took part; many women sat home after the monarchy sent out stern warnings — in the form of both threats and pleas that confrontation would only reverse any progress. As I learned in a week of conversations with scores of Saudis in Riyadh and Jeddah, on-the-ground protest — especially in the wake of the raucous Arab Spring of 2011 — is viewed warily even by many liberals.

But loud calls for change are flooding social media, especially Twitter. “There is no doubt that it is democratizing our process even more,” says billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who invested $300 million in Twitter two years ago. “It’s a way to vent.” The prince, one of the richest men in the world and a regular presence in U.S. media, is a predictable voice for women’s rights. What’s significant is that many business and government leaders I spoke with share his view that “we want quiet, eager evolution, but not nasty revolution.”

You may wonder why the Saudi monarchy has not tried to shut down Twitter and social platforms as other authoritarian governments have: Turns out that conservative clerics opposing change also use social media, boasting millions of Twitter followers.

Opening opportunities for women — only 18% of women work — will never come in a straight line, and the monarchy must tread lightly or risk a fierce backlash from the religious right. Still, this vigorous social media debate is taking place amid economic realities pushing the society forward.

Women now constitute a majority of college graduates and those obtaining advanced degrees. A program of “Saudization” to force the hiring of locals — men and women — rather than foreign nationals will also help. Add to that King Abdullah’s program of sending 100,000 college students abroad on scholarships — 70,000 of whom are in the U.S. In coming years that will guarantee a mass influx of Western values, chief among them a career drive among educated women.

Even the issue of women’s driving has an economic element. Without serious public transportation, even the lowest-paid family needs a driver for the wife — which easily consumes a third of her salary today. “It’s a tax on women,” said one local businessman.

Yes, conservatives will argue speciously that driving alone could expose women to harassment. But driving advocates are making it a family issue, while pointing out the absurdity of a society in which women aren’t supposed to be alone with unrelated men yet spend hours in a car with foreign male drivers.

This was the same absurdity that underpinned King Abdullah’s barring of male store clerks from lingerie stores, over the strong objections of conservative clerics. After years of having to buy undergarments from men, women launched a Facebook campaign called “Enough Embarrassment.” (The women’s driving campaign was also launched via Facebook.)

Above all, social media humor is a less threatening form of expression in a country wary of street protests. When a pair of local comedians produced a YouTube video, “No Woman, No Drive” — mocking a cleric’s assertion that women drivers risked damaging their ovaries — some seven million users viewed it in 24 hours. That may not have the visceral power of an Arab Spring type of demonstration, but those are numbers Saudi Arabia’s leadership can’t ignore.

This story is from the December 09, 2013 issue of Fortune.