You could definitely say that Sultan Al Qassemi from the United Arab Emirates knows a thing or two about the Internet and social media. A prominent commentator on Arab affairs, his Twitter feed received global spotlight during the protests of the Arab Spring, leading Time magazine to include him on its list of the "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011."
Qassemi also writes regularly for internationally renowned publications such as The Financial Times, The Independent, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The New York Times Room for Debate and Foreign Policy. Qassemi has also served as a member of the Global Commission on Internet Governance since its launch in 2014. As part of the commission, he has had the opportunity to help make recommendations for ensuring free and open Internet access for generations to come.
Leading up to Step Conference 2016, at which Qassemi will be speaking, he talked with us about the commission, social media and how he believes access to the Internet is a human right.
Speaking about the commission's forthcoming report, Qassemi said "it would include recommendations about Internet governance, including, for example, children's right, women's rights, minority languages, economic rights as well as cultural rights, all sort of anti-monopoly recommendations. Basically, the task is to prevent the fragmentation of the Internet and giving universal access to people."
For years, Qassemi has been a voice championing the idea of universal Internet access. He explained that he believes the Internet is integral to existing in modern society.
"I really believe that there could be no progress for humanity, for the youth, without universal Internet access, and that Internet access is no longer a luxury but a necessity."
Speaking specifically about social media, Qassemi explained how it can be used as an important tool to bridge cultures. From art to political issues to news about important happenings, he believes that social media has become an important tool in connecting people from all over the world and all walks of life.
When asked whether he sees the Middle East, and specifically the Gulf, embracing the changes that come with social media he said "they're embracing it in different ways."
He pointed out the large social media following of several prominent leaders from the UAE who have utilized these channels in a powerful way to communicate with their citizens and the global community.
"You're talking about massive soft power that these leaders are exerting," he said.
But while social media has given leaders more direct access to citizens, it's also removed a level of control they previous had over media.
"For instance, the Gulf states are very happy with someone sharing something, for example, sharing poetry, sharing food, you know some art, you know, from the country. But they are definitely apprehensive of people sharing, for example, risqué art, let's say, things that could be seen as problematic by certain authorities."
Nonetheless, Qassemi remains more than optimistic about the future of social media, the Internet and its power to connect humans across what were previously believed to be insurmountable barriers.
Qassemi will be joining other regional heavy weights for the Step Conference, including Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, Arif Naqvi of the Abraaj Group and Fadi Ghandour of Wamda Capital. The conference will bring together more than 5,000 attendees, 100 speakers and 300 participating startups for two days focused on digital technology and entertainment fields in the Middle East.