#BBCtrending: Why Twitter is so big in Saudi Arabia

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The hashtag #Why_did_Twitter_succeed_in_Saudi_Arabia is trending - with many Saudis saying it gives them freedom to express themselves in an otherwise restricted nation.

Since it started on Tuesday, there have been more than 10,000 tweets using the hashtag #Why_did_Twitter_succeed_in_Saudi_Arabia (ماذا_نجح_التويتر_في_السعودية#). Saudis are among the world's heaviest Twitter users, so it's a valid question. But the answers supplied by Saudis on Twitter have nothing to do with technical things like internet penetration rates or mobile phone access.

"Because we are able to say what we couldn't say in real life. It's a breather from the suppression we live under, without fear," says one of the tweets. "Because it's the only democracy and made everyone talk - the rich and the poor, the prince and the ordinary citizen," is another. The tweets go on in a similar vein - perhaps best encapsulated by one of the most tweeted images showing a man whose mouth and eyes are covered, together with the words: "Because before the situation was like this."

To Western ears, it may seem somewhat ironic that Saudis should be praising the freedom they have on social media, as there have been many cases of people sentenced for tweets deemed blasphemous or inappropriate. Off-limits subjects include questioning the royal family or Islam - and the punishment for doing so can be severe. In one recent case, an online activist and blogger was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. Twitter appears to be being used increasingly for social activism and, to keep safe, many Saudis keep their Twitter accounts anonymous.

"It's not absolute freedom, but it's more freedom than they have had traditionally," says BBC Monitoring's Sumaya Bakhsh. Last year, the government said it was considering a plan to make all Twitter users register their accounts and supply ID - but that has so far not happened. And Twitter use just keeps growing - according to the Saudi-based social media consultancy Social Clinic, a third of Saudis who are online use Twitter regularly, pumping out 150 million tweets per month.

Reporting by Cordelia Hebblethwaite

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