SAN FRANCISCO -- The autocratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia doesn't have much to worry about, at least not yet, from democracy activists and the Internet, one of the country's best known bloggers predicts.
"It is very unlikely that we will see any change in the country in the short and medium term," Ahmed Al Omran, creator of SaudiJeans.org, said at an event in CNET's offices in downtown San Francisco yesterday evening. Al Omran left Saudi Arabia to study at Columbia University and now lives in Washington, D.C.
A so-called Day of Rage protest that was supposed to occur on March 11, 2011 in Saudi Arabia led to worries about oil spiking to $200 a barrel and Fox News Channel contributor Charles Krauthammer warning that "all hell" could break loose.
Those mass protests never happened. Saudi security forces came out in strength, and only a "small number" of people actually showed up, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. (Massive Arab Spring protests elsewhere in the Middle East last year -- including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya -- led to the fall of governments.)
In the long run, Al Omran predicted during last night's "geek reading" event, organized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the natural human desire for more freedom and a democratic government will spread to Saudi Arabia as well.
"It is building, just very slowly," he said. "You can see the signs of this change online, on the Internet, where the kind of language you see on Twitter, on other platforms online, is something very unprecedented by Saudi standards. You go on Twitter and you see people making fun of the royal family, using their real names, with their real photos. This is something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago."
Saudi Arabia, the region's largest oil producer and exporter and a longtime U.S. ally, is hardly a bastion of electoral, religious, or sexual freedom. Blogger Hamza Kashghari was arrested in February on blasphemy charges for daring to criticize Islam.
A 2012 report from Freedom House, which evaluates political rights and civil liberties, lists Saudi Arabia as "not free." Reporters Without Borders calls it an "Internet enemy" for blocking Web sites deemed pornographic or "morally reprehensible." The country scores better in The Wall Street Journal-Heritage Foundation's economic freedom index, however, earning a score of "moderately free."
Al Omran said that the kingdom's tradition of restricting news through broadcast censorship no longer works. "They cannot be bought with the money the government is spending and they cannot be brainwashed the way the older generation was," he said. "We have access to many more sources of information than older generations... We're not going to be satisfied with living, raising a family, and being quiet. We want freedom. We want the ability to elect our leaders."