Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Taking the Political Temperature Inside Saudi Arabia

by Ed Husain
April 25, 2012

The sun sets behind a minaret in the center of Riyadh (Ali Jarekji/Courtesy Reuters). The sun sets behind a minaret in the center of Riyadh (Ali Jarekji/Courtesy Reuters).


During my visit to Saudi Arabia last week, Saudi friends from various sectors of Saudi life were candid in expressing their sentiments toward government, society, and reforms. I do not wish to divulge their identities, and think that the quotes below from many conversations are self-explanatory about Saudi approaches to issues of domestic concern. While this is not a representative sample, the sentiments being expressed are reflective of one strand of sensitivities on the ground in Riyadh. I know from my own Saudi family members in Jeddah and Medina that their and their neighbors’ views are different from most of what appears below. Nevertheless, most of the quotes below are from English-speaking Saudi men who are educated at Western universities:

“I want a job, a house, a family, and good healthcare—I don’t care about the details of government and politics.”

“We Saudis want three things: an end to corruption, end of high unemployment, and creation of better housing.”

“I will never allow my wife, sister, or daughter to work in the same room as a male colleague.”

“Why should our youth rebel? The best of them, nearly 130,000, are studying at universities around the world—almost 60,000 of that number are in the United States. The King pays for their fees, travel, accommodation, cars, holidays, and medical insurance.”

“The government conducted a private survey of ordinary Saudis. Overwhelmingly, the respondents said that ‘democracy’ meant welfare benefits from the government to the people.”

“We need time. The pace of reform must be slow and respond to the ability of the people to absorb change, we believe in evolution, not revolution. Seven years ago, there were seven universities in the Kingdom—now there are twenty-nine. With education comes awareness and reforms.”

“Over a billion Muslims turn toward our country to pray five times a day. We have a responsibility to be sensitive to them and their expectations of the Kingdom’s adherence to Islam.”

“We will never see universities in Saudi Arabia where male and female students study together in the same classroom. Never.”

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