The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly known for its openness. The powerful Saudi monarchy, which exercise significant regional and global influence, are heads of a state that has yet to address a number of critical human rights problems afflicting its society, and thus drawing criticism the world over. Saudi Arabia has long been a natural point of reference for those concerned with the implementation unreasonably punitive practices in the modern world.
Yet, in an ironic twist, the kingdom was involved a rather unlikely event this July when Snapchat, the popular online video-sharing platform, decided to focus their popular “Live Story” feature on the city of Mecca, Islam’s most important and holiest geographical site. Since its introduction last year, the feature splices together users’ submitted videos of a particular place into a single video comprised of the best footage. The Mecca “Live Story” video showed Muslims of all backgrounds inside Mecca at various stages of their visit, providing a rare glimpse of what actually happens inside the city to non-Muslims, who cannot enter.
The subsequent online response to Snapchat’s decision was significant and overwhelmingly positive. For a brief while, Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a stagnant theocracy was eclipsed by the prevailing sensation that used video and social media to narrate lived Islam into many people’s consciousness. That this act of online openness occurred inside a monarchy known, among other things, for not allowing women to drive, illuminates the dislocations between Saudi Arabia’s image and its actual reality.
Things become a lot clearer when one sees that Snapchat’s decision to feature Mecca was prompted primarily by a huge online campaign that essentially lobbied the social media giant to feature Islam’s holiest city. The campaign took place during Ramadan, when millions of worshippers flock to Mecca to perform Umrah, which is similar to the Hajj pilgrimage, but can be made anytime of the year. 300,000 people tweeted Snapchat with the hashtag “Mecca_live” in an effort to have Mecca featured on “Live Story.” Millions of Muslims and non-Muslims then tweeted their appreciation to Snapchat afterwards, thanking the video platform for essentially live-streaming the joyous atmosphere inside the city.
Like most campaigns and initiatives, the idea to launch something special usually starts within the mind of an individual. This seems especially true for online campaigns involving social media, and the “Mecca_live” sensation is a good example. Enter Ahmed Aljbreen, a young Saudi digital entrepreneur and founder of Smaat Co., one of the country’s largest social media marketing companies. Days into Ramadan 2015, he had a wild thought that, as it turns out, wasn’t all that wild after all.
“The whole thing really began when I though that we need to convey that Islam is a peaceful religion to the younger generation,” Aljbreen says in an interview. “I think that Snapchat is the best medium to reach out to them anywhere in the world.” He says that the onus is now on Muslims, especially the youth who’re familiar with social media, to help reduce the world’s confusions and misconceptions of Islam.
Indeed, the day-to-day news cycle seems filled with reports of groups like ISIS, along with acts of political violence and turmoil involving Muslims—a mainstay of “national security reporting” in the post-9/11 era. Yet the advent of this kind of reporting hasn’t led to a better understanding of Muslims, and certainly not of Islam itself. If anything, many people have come to to link Islam with violence with limited critical inquiry, having been bombarded with reports that directly or indirectly feature Islam as a willing partner of ideological violence. This is despite the fact that Muslims account for only a fraction of terrorism across the world when it comes to the body count.
This gulf in perception is what Aljbreen, a businessman in the world of digital media, is so well placed to address.
After the initial thought, he decided to reach out to his contacts in the region’s social media scene, hoping to get them on board to convince Snapchat to feature Mecca on the 27th day of Ramadan (July 13th, 2015), which many believe to be Lailat al-Qadr, the day when the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelations from God. He expected to get a sizeable reaction, but not a full-blown global response, which was what ensued. Snapchat eventually responded by posting a 6-minute video of spliced videos on July 13th.
“I was surprised about how big the campaign ballooned,” Aljbreen says. “Muslims from Pakistan, Indonesia and everywhere ended up participating.”
Equally surprising to him has been the response by people around the world who saw the “Mecca_live” video. He says that before long, “Mecca_live” was trending at #1 on Twitter, and the total views of the clip have reached over 10 million, “by far.”
“The big lesson here is that we can do it again,” Aljbreen says, “and we are looking to repeat this duing hajj.” Whether he succeeds in creating another global social media phenomenon is debatable, but what Aljbreen helped pull off illuminates a broader picture of what’s happening across the region in terms of how media is being used. The Arab Spring unfolded for many through the lens of outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and a new generation of saavy individuals like Aljbreen is starting to use these tools to change the how their country, religion, and lives are being perceived on a global level.
Aljbreen’s parents wasn’t thrilled at all when he decided to leave his job as a communications engineer in order to start his own digital media company, Smaat around five years ago. Social media as a marketing tool was still a somewhat novel idea in Saudi Arabia at the time, and Aljbreen would become one of the first entrepreneurs to test the waters.
“They didn’t support my venture when I first started the business, especially since we were the first company in the regional market to focus on social media marketing campaigns,” he says. “But they changed their minds when they saw my success and at least they get to follow me on social media now to keep an eye on me.”
His company has since done digital marketing for some major regional companies, and the success of “Mecca_live” has significantly reinforced Aljbreen’s belief in social media’s power to change global perceptions. He says that videos like “Mecca_live” are “thousands of times” more powerful and influential in terms of the effect they have on viewers, and that videos produced by major corporate media outlets just don’t come off as persuasive and authentic.
He also notes that Snapchat is probably the best medium when it comes to reaching large numbers of people with a single message. The world has moved from being print-based to being image-based, and is now arguably much more video-based than anything else. The “Mecca_live” video showed Muslims of different backgrounds in ways that humanized them, which is the clip’s implicit purpose. It counters over a decade of imagery associating Muslims with violence and deviance. If fear is the underlying metanarrative that underpins the post-9/11 era, then the “Mecca_live” video is certainly one of humanization.
One video is certainly not enough to change years entrenched perceptions, but it’s a start. In fact, Aljbreen claims that around 20,000 people have embraced Islam as their religion after seeing the video.
That Saudi Arabia played host in many ways to the “Mecca_live” phenomenon begs the question of whether the state had anything to do with the entire episode. When the question was put to Aljbreen, he replied simply by saying that “It [“Mecca_Live”] was a community-driven initiative.”
Regardless, the power of social media to effect social change in a way that alters global perceptions is certainly a potential that the Saudi Arabian government is aware of. Despite the great opening up that Aljbreen initiated, the irony is that the country within which he lives and where the holy city of Mecca is located in, has some of the more draconian media laws on earth.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Saudi Arabia at 164th out of 180 countries in their 2015 World Press Freedom Index. The country has virtually complete control over the press, though reported news and views can be found online. Still, Internet news-making it is closely monitored by the regime, and Reporters Without Borders lists the Saudi state as an “Enemy of the Internet.”
This is the political backdrop that Aljbreen’s generation is working with, and whether his optimism in terms of using social media to change international attitudes can carry over to effect his own country’s circumstances is at best debatable. Nonetheless, “Mecca_live” is further proof that a new generation of online-saavy Muslims, many who reside within societies with minimal personal freedoms, are beginning to effect global reality by changing global perceptions. In which direction this generational change will develop is really anyone’s guess.