Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi is something of a paradox. A member of the royal family that rules the United Arab Emirate (UAE) of al-Sharjah, he is also one of the federation’s leading political commentators and among the most well-known social media users in the Middle East, with over half a million followers on Twitter, 80,000 on Facebook and almost 21,000 on Instagram.
He rose to prominence during the uprisings that swept the region from 2011. In a recent interview, he said of the upheaval, “I was completely intoxicated by what was happening, and part of me is still intoxicated by it.” At times, he recalls tweeting every 45 seconds, translating speeches by Arab leaders and even going so far as to live tweet news updates during a family wedding. “I was completely zoned out.”
He is first and foremost, however, a man of art. He is the founder of the al-Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent initiative to promote the work of living Arab artists by building a prominent and publicly accessible art collection.
He attributes his love of art and culture to his childhood in al-Sharjah. He believes the emirate was ahead of its time in terms of investing in culture. The first book fair was held in 1982, four years after he was born, and he visited it regularly growing up. Shakespearean plays performed in the UAE and the founding of the Emirates Fine Arts Society in 1980 also played a role in shaping his love of art. Aged 16, he moved to Paris for four years, refining his taste in art and culture at the city’s museums, exhibitions and opera houses.
His passion for politics in a country that Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, ranks low for freedom of expression and civil and political rights, came later. The Arab uprisings and his timely reporting on them put him at the centre of the upheaval, particularly when he took on an activist role.
In October 2013, for instance, his call for the UAE to consider allowing expatriates to apply for citizenship sparked a debate about national identity in a country where foreigners outnumber the local population by more than five to one. His opinion piece in a Dubai daily, which suggested that citizenship could be opened up to long-time foreign residents who have contributed greatly to society, argued that the Emiraties was ready for change.
The subsequent outcry indicated that many of his compatriots felt otherwise. An Arabic Twitter hashtag meaning ‘this writer doesn’t represent me’ quickly grew to dozens of outraged tweets. Al-Qassemi was accused of cosying up to foreigners at the country’s expense. Many were also bothered that he had written the article in English – presumably with an eye on a foreign audience rather than the Emiratis at home.
Three years later, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the UAE’s prime minister and ruler of Dubai, proposed the “next stage of development”, saying it required “fresh and innovative perspectives and diverse ideas to drive growth”. In February 2017, the UAE government approved a new visa system allowing skilled applicants to apply for permanent residency, in a step towards possible “naturalization” as the sheikh hinted during the World Government Summit that took place in Dubai that month.
Technically, this makes al-Qassemi’s proposals four years earlier progressive and revolutionary. Yet the man himself has gone silent on social media, raising the question: what happened?
His Facebook page, which used to be one of the most active among social media influencers in the region, was last updated on 12 June 2017 and the post reads, ‘Just make sure you’re still you when it’s all over.’
In a post on 9 June 2017, he wrote that the current situation in the Gulf region is so tense that if he considered writing and publishing an article advocating ‘prostitution, gay rights, atheism, marijuana, civil marriages, gambling, press freedom, releasing political prisoners, constitutional democracy and the abolition of capital punishment’, no one would even notice. He was referring to the ongoing Gulf crisis between Qatar and the ‘Arab quartet’ (the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt), who accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism.
A day earlier, he posted that for the past decade, his account has been open to the public, allowing everyone to comment on the content he shares and writes. He went on to express his sadness at having to close the comment section to ‘non-friends due to recent cybercrime laws’. He added that he has plenty to say and that he hopes to say it in public, not behind closed doors.
In a 5 June article in Newsweek, al-Qassemi was the first to ‘predict’ that the Gulf countries would demand the complete shuttering of the Qatari-owned al-Jazeera TV network before any mediation could take place. However, his ‘prediction’ may have been more the relaying of a message. The article has since been removed from Newsweek’s website.
Al-Qassemi has gone silent on Twitter, too. A source close to him said that the Gulf crisis might be the reason why he is not interacting on social media anymore.
After a couple of months of social media silence, al-Qassemi gave an interview to the Emerge85 platform. The interview covered various elements and stages of his life, including his social media activism, but one question remained unanswered: why did he go silent?
Al-Qassemi said he first joined Twitter in 2008, on the advice of friends, and began sharing the articles he was writing for The National, an Abu Dhabi-based English daily. “I first began to sense the power of Twitter when I started getting invited to meet a lot of influential people in the emirates. After reading my articles via Twitter, they called me in for advice on things. I had never engaged with government like that before,” he said.
These days, he is focusing his energy on the Barjeel Art Foundation. Through the foundation, he has held art exhibitions everywhere from al-Sharjah to Toronto, and appears regularly on TV, radio and public panels. He is also a director’s fellow at MIT Media Lab in the United States.
For now at least, it seems that his social media and activism days are behind him. If the Gulf crisis is resolved, he may go back to Tweeting freely again.
This article originally appeared in Fanack on October 4, 2017.