The royal family of Saudi Arabia, that fabled land of free expression, has signed up to Twitter. Well, almost. Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has bought a $300 million stake in the micro-blogging site. While this is, of course, a business transaction, the irony is palpable: a member of the clan that lords over one of the world’s most closed societies has bought a piece of a firm that not only believes that an open exchange of information can have a positive global impact, but is also responsible for the recent, well, commotions in northern Africa and West Asia. But what goes on social networking sites is probably of less interest to Alwaleed than what slice of the pie it can get the House of Saud. Alwaleed also owns a 7% stake in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and plans to start a cable news channel. Media, even if not a free one, is on the prince’s mind.
While the prince explained that he has put in money for “capital gain” and that there is no motivation behind the investment — like a seat in the boardroom or to influence strategy at Twitter — not many will be convinced. On its website, Reporters Without Borders noted that censorship still plagues the internet in Saudi Arabia. Some cyber dissidents who were caught by the authorities have paid a stiff price. Authorities enforce a strict filtering system that targets any content they deem to be ‘pornographic’ or ‘morally reprehensible’. Websites that discuss religious or human rights issues are also blocked. Such a scenario, we are sure of, must be Kapil Sibal’s nightmare.
So is the fabulously rich House of Saud slowly working its way into the world of a free media hoping to slowly but surely control it? There aren’t that many companies that have the courage to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to such a huge infusion of funds. But there is another way of looking at this investment. A little, fat blue bird tells us that the royal family has at last realised the power of social media and its global impact. And that it’s better to start understanding it than resist it. Because Twitter seems to be here to stay long after the camels come home.