Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Youth, Change, and the Future of Saudi Arabia

by Isobel Coleman
March 19, 2013

Saudi students attend a class at the Technology College in Riyadh in this October 30, 2010 file photo (Fahad Shadeed/Courtesy Reuters). Saudi students attend a class at the Technology College in Riyadh in this October 30, 2010 file photo (Fahad Shadeed/Courtesy Reuters).

Saudi watchers have for years debated the stability of the kingdom. In the 1960s, with internecine rivalries dividing the royal family and the kingdom struggling to pay its debts, some American diplomats predicted that the House of Saud wouldn’t last but a few more years. When extremists took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, pundits warned that Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, like that of the Shah in Iran, would be the next to fall to religious revolution. In recent years, as the Arab revolutions have swept the Middle East, new questions about Saudi stability, especially given the limitations of its ruling gerontocracy, have come to the fore. Karen Elliott House, in her recent book On Saudi Arabia, paints a dire picture of a “disintegrating society, and the deterioration is only accelerating.”

Is time quickly running out on the House of Saud, or will the kingdom somehow manage to muddle through? The answer to that question lies in large part with the next generation. Sixty-four percent of Saudi Arabia’s nearly twenty million people are under the age of thirty; the largest youth cohort includes those who are currently only twelve to sixteen years old. Saudi youth are avid Internet and social media users (YouTube use in Saudi Arabia rose 260 percent in 2012, versus an average of 50 percent growth internationally), and are more connected to the outside world than ever before. Moreover, an unprecedented number of Saudi students – some 145,000—are currently studying abroad in thirty countries around the world, nearly half of them in the United States. How will this younger generation shape the future of their country?

A fascinating new study by Caryle Murphy, a veteran Middle East journalist who was once the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Cairo, explores the hopes and aspirations of Saudi youth today. Murphy, who lived in and reported from Saudi Arabia between 2008 and 2011, conducted in-depth interviews with eighty-three twentysomething year-old Saudis. Representing a broad cross-section of society and geographic diversity across the country, the interviewees candidly discuss with Murphy their views on religion and politics, the always touchy subject of gender relations, their career hopes, and “how they see their country evolving in the next decade.”

One thing that comes across clearly in the interviews is a growing impatience with the status quo. Connectivity to the rest of the world is encouraging critical thinking, and leading to doubts among Saudi youth. As one interviewee puts it, “everyone is questioning everything.” Another says that “Twitter is our parliament now,” referring to the remarkable debates happening through that forum. In ever increasing numbers, Saudi youth are using Twitter to “vent discontent and anger, as well as discuss once-taboo topics such as princely extravagances, judicial misbehavior and the lack of political rights.”

It’s not at all clear, however, that discontent on social media will translate into political activism. Indeed, there seems to be a large segment of the youth population that is decidedly uninterested in politics. “These youth are content with how things are now, as long as the state continues to dispense financial benefits and promote an Islamic national identity.” Some are against elections, “believing they would lead to incompetent leadership, civil strife or worse.” There are, however, politically conscious youth “who deeply resent their lack of political and civil rights and would like a say in how they are governed.” These include activists with an Islamist perspective, as well as liberal Muslims. Murphy stresses that Saudi youth “are by no means a revolutionary lot, preferring gradual, step-by-step change.” For now, she writes, “and probably for a few more years, the Saudi government does not face a generation of angry, rebellious twentysomethings.”

The big question, of course, is whether and when that will change.  Money is a big factor. As long as the state has the resources to provide the good life, political apathy will likely persist. “Money speaks,” observes one interviewee. How the transitions in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt progress will be another factor. If young Saudis see stable, prosperous, and more open societies emerging around them, they are more likely to push for change. But if chaos reigns, well, all bets are off.

There are many other interesting insights from the interviews. On religion, “access to different interpretations of Islam through new media also is encouraging independent thinking.” Many young Saudis, particularly women, are increasingly questioning religiously justified restrictions on their personal freedoms, whether enforced dress codes, gender segregation, guardianship rules for women, and the ban on women driving.  Tolerance among young Saudis seems to be growing, with the glaring exception of views toward Shia where there is still “unabashed hostility.”

Murphy’s conclusion is that Saudi youth “do not want to overthrow the House of Saud.” They want their country to remain firmly committed to Islam, but they “favor a religious practice that is both more voluntary and more respectful of differences among Muslims.” They want to be governed more by laws and less by religion. They want less corruption and more “transparency and meritocracy in the work arena.” Easier said than done. The monarchy’s current slow pace of incremental change is unlikely to meet the aspirations of this young generation, which makes me think that even if Saudi youth are a decidedly unrevolutionary lot, the country is still in for a bumpy ride.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Rashmee Roshan Lall

    Caryle Murphy’s conclusion seems to indicate that young Saudis want it all – the House of Saud, Islam, a more liberal approach to governance, transparency, anti-corruption measures and everything really. It is unfortunate but those who regard “Twitter as our parliament” are probably doomed to disappointment.

  • Posted by Josh

    Saudi will become a constitutional monarchy. Women will drive and there will be cinemas. Foreign women dress code will be different. Cover to the elbow and the knee must be covered in public.

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