Late last year social media was rocked by two video clips from Saudi Arabia that offered a rare glimpse into an underground youth culture in the kingdom. One clip shows a remarkable online encounter between Saudi teenager Abu Sin and a 21-year-old female videologger, who lives in California. In halting English and with tremendous excitement Sin, 17, confesses his love for her, although this was probably the first time they had spoken. The other clip reveals a group of young men and ‘immodestly’ dressed women drinking and dancing together at a party in Jeddah.
The Saudi authorities made a show of clamping down on these social media stars. Abu Sin was detained for ‘unethical behaviour’, and released two weeks later. And most of the Jeddah revellers, despite flouting the country’s laws against fraternising between unrelated men and women and alcohol consumption, got away with their transgressions.
Until recent years, such acts of defiance would have elicited a much sharper response from the government and the religious establishment. But since 2014 the kingdom has been undergoing subtle changes; sociological and economic pressures, coupled with a change in leadership, are rattling the status quo.
Nowadays there is a growing understanding within the Saudi leadership that the socio-economic challenges — economic growth, unemployment, the housing shortage, discrimination against women and minorities, and lack of personal satisfactions — are gnawing away at the monarchy’s legitimacy in an unprecedented way. Precisely where this (very) quiet revolution will lead is difficult to predict.
More and more citizens, especially the youth, are finding it difficult to reconcile the inherent tension between an ultra-religious, puritanical and uncompromising lifestyle based on the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and the constant exposure to modernisation and the pleasures of the West. The more draconian the religious laws have become, the more some people have gravitated to the refuge of the internet and private space.
Next, after the death of the late king Abdullah, his successor, King Salman, replaced his anointed heir with his nephew and named his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, as second in line to the throne. It is Bin Salman who effectively runs the kingdom today.
Bin Salman is only 31 years old. His young age and his rebellious, charismatic and unique personality has led to a re-thinking about the dominance of religion in daily life and the overbearing authority of the clerics and religious police.
This tendency can be seen in the granting of more freedoms to women. If in the past, the leadership vehemently opposed the integration of women into the labour market, today, thanks to the bin Salman’s influence, doors that were once locked to women have started to open. For example, female university graduates are now permitted to represent clients in courtrooms, practise medicine and work as journalists.
The new policy towards women is largely a matter of necessity. Due to cutbacks in state subsidies (more on this later), many Saudi families struggle to make ends meet on just one salary. There is a growing need to integrate women into the labour market to increase the family income. But the road to that goal is paved with obstacles because integration of women into the labour market strengthens and intensifies the dilemmas faced by many Saudi citizens.
These Saudi dilemmas were strikingly illustrated by Abdulrahman al-Rashed, former general manager of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya News Channel and former editor-in-chief of the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat, in a fascinating interview with Washington think tank the Hudson Institute. Al-Rashed explained that until recently it was common among Saudi families to pay $US400 a month ($521) for a driver to take the women to work. But as Saudis sought to tighten their belts, many families gave up the private transport services and the burden of driving women fell on their male relatives. This has led to increased pressure on the kingdom’s conservatives to lift the ban on women driving. The weight that the Saudi public will give to socio-religious norms in the face of economic needs will, to a large extent, determine the nature of the Saudi state in the coming decades.
The young prince is also spearheading ’Vision 2030’, an economic plan that includes issuing Aramco shares, selling assets and investing in technology and infrastructure. The plan has aroused scepticism in the West and anger among Saudis who fear they will pay a high price for its realisation— but it is undeniably bold.
In the interests of public sector efficiency, the kingdom cut down longstanding generous public subsidies and welfare benefits that Saudi citizens had enjoyed in exchange for their political loyalty. Funding has also ceased for major projects. As a result, Saudi companies are facing financial difficulties, and Saudi citizens vent their frustration about stressed household budgets on social media.
Convincing the public that these painful cuts will deliver the kingdom long-term benefits requires Saudi rulers to demonstrate personal responsibility, and to tackle bribery and nepotism, and reform in the education system. On the latter, the adoption of core studies into the curriculum is required in order to fit the education system to the labour market’s needs, but this seriously undermines the religious establishment’s monopoly over the educational content.
In his interview, Al-Rashed suggested Israeli Arabs be allowed to work in Gulf countries as a way of building bridges between the Arab world and Israel. While Al-Rashed is not a spokesperson for the royal family, his remarks reflect a dramatic change in mindset among some sections of Saudi society.
Saudi Arabia is a country that is hard to digest, even for some of its citizens and it’s doubtful that the West will even notice the current identity crisis. During its eight years in office the Obama administration did not capitalise on the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia to strengthen and promote relations between the two countries. With Trump entering the White House, it is possible this attitude will change, and there is an expectation in Saudi Arabia for a new dialogue with the West.
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