Sunil John: Subtle PR evolution is taking place
 
 When a group of Saudi women got behind the wheels of their cars and drove around the kingdom on 26  October 2013 they were all aware of the risks. Yet despite official warnings, several of the women posted videos of themselves driving on YouTube and other video-sharing websites in a collective protest against the country’s ban on female drivers. The campaign, which originally started on Facebook in 2011, prompted headlines across the world and is just one example of Saudi citizens using the internet as a means to speak to their rulers.

Anti-government revolutions in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia dominated regional headlines in 2013. But behind the scenes in the Arab Gulf states, a more subtle evolution is taking place — one led by the leaders of those countries. I am talking about an understated shift in terms of dialogue between regional leaders and their citizens, which I believe is set to have a significant impact on government in 2014, and beyond.

The Arab Spring only served to highlight the importance of Arab governments listening to their citizens. Though not affected to the same extent as many countries, several of the Gulf states responded with lavish spending packages and subsidies to quell concerns of uprisings. To a great extent this may have just spurred the growth of a culture of entitlement among Gulf citizens. It had only a short-term objective.  The difference between those spending packages and today is that governments are increasingly recognising that their citizens want accountability for their actions and not simply government handouts.

The internet and social media are playing an integral role in this shift. In Saudi Arabia, Twitter and Facebook are encouraging more youngsters than ever to speak up. The kingdom is now the biggest user of YouTube per capita in the world and the eighth most active on Twitter, according to a recent report by analysts Semiocast. With access to smartphones and other mobile devices, the youth of today are fast becoming the 24-7, always-on social network generation.

It’s not just Saudi Arabia; across the GCC, a growing number of young Arabs are tweeting and using blogs and popular social networking sites to launch nationwide campaigns aimed at improving public services, boost transparency and hold governments accountable for their decisions. The key difference between this movement and those of their young counterparts in Damascus, Cairo and Tunis is that these youngsters don’t want to overthrow their government; they simply want them to act and be accountable. Arab youth in 15 countries sighted civil unrest and lack of democracy as the biggest barriers facing the region, according to the 2013 ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey.

Research and public polling will play a critical role in the way in which governments choose to speak with their citizens. It is vital that regional governments base their public policy decisions on real insights backed by research.

So what does all of this mean for the PR industry? I expect to see a greater number of governments turn to communications experts to help bridge that gap. At ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller we expect to see our biggest growth in terms of business next year in government and social media communications — that may well be an indicator of a significant trend in 2014.

Sunil John is CEO of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller and PSB Middle East