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Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Mirage

Reformist Saudi prince bounces up against flawed education system and ingrained social mores.

Credit: Natanael Ginting Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest Twitter penetrations. It features ultra-conservatives with millions of followers.
  • Saudi Arabia's flawed education system fails to impart critical thinking and analytical skills.
  • Why do globalizing youngsters cause fear and fury among Islamist (and non-Islamist) anti-fun adversaries?
  • Prince Salman's masterplan for the future conflicts with ultra-conservative tribal mores propagated by Saudi's religious scholars.

An unpublished survey of aspirations of young Saudi men suggests that, despite all the official fanfare, big problems lie ahead for Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s vision of the kingdom’s social and economic future.

Any effort to garner enthusiasm, let alone a buy in from the powers that be, is likely to meet resistance.

Where the rubber meets the road

Obtaining broad-based acceptance of social changes, as foreshadowed in Vision 2030, the prince’s masterplan for the future published in April of this year, conflicts with ultra-conservative tribal mores propagated by the kingdom’s religious scholars.

They also stem from a flawed education system that fails to impart critical thinking and analytical skills.

Key findings

The Saudi scholar Abdul Al Lily is the author of a recent book on rules that govern Saudi culture. Mr. Al Lily surveyed 100 Saudi men all of who were approximately 20 years old:

  • “People were not interested in political change or reform. They wanted social change, but they pull back when they realize this has consequences for their sisters.”
  • “Their analytical ability and critical thinking is limited”
  • “If you look at Twitter, people don’t know how to argue. They don’t have the patience for discussion. They live in a bubble. They talk about an ideal world…but reality is totally different.”

The Twitter factor

Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest Twitter penetrations and features ultra-conservative religious scholars with millions of followers.

Twitter’s attraction in Saudi Arabia lies in providing a relatively less controlled arena in a country in which all physical and virtual public space is tightly controlled.

Waking up to the challenge, Saudi Arabia this month announced efforts on the Internet “to protect the social and economic system of the country… (and) the society from any violations on the security and mental levels.”

It’s about partying, not governance issues

Some 50% of those surveyed by Mr. Al Lily said they wanted to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely and be able to drive fast, Mr. Al Lily said.

In contrast, critical issues — such as political violence, racism, international interests or the dragged out Saudi war in neighboring Yemen — did not figure in their answers.

The young men’s aspirations challenged the core culture of a country that enforces strict gender segregation and dress codes and struggles with concepts of fun.

Goal No. 1: Maintaining control

Ultra-conservatives and militant Islamists see fun as a potential threat to political and social control in Saudi Arabia.

That is particularly true with regard to youth who in the words sociologists Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera have “a greater tendency for experimentation, adventurism, idealism, drive for autonomy, mobility and change.”

Bayat noted separately that, “whereas the elderly poor can afford simple, traditional and contained diversions, the globalized and affluent youth tend to embrace more spontaneous, erotically charged, and commodified pleasures.”

Further, “This might help explain why globalizing youngsters more than others cause fear and fury among Islamist (and non-Islamist) anti-fun adversaries.”

They add that it certainly does not help if “much of what these youths practice is informed by Western technologies of fun and is framed in terms of Western cultural import. In other words, at stake is not necessarily the disruption of the moral order, as often claimed, but rather the undermining of the hegemony, the regime of power on which certain strands of moral and political authority rest.”

It is these fundamental attitudes that Prince Mohammed, in a bid to upgrade Saudi autocracy and bring it into the 21st century, is seeking to tweak.

Trying to create an opening

As stated in his Vision 2030:

We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy. It is why we will support the efforts of regions, governorates, non-profit and private sectors to organize cultural events

Prince Mohammed may have been jumping the gun when he recently greeted journalist and author Karen Elliott House with the words “Welcome to the new Saudi Arabia” as they watched the LED-lit bodies of New York dancers gyrating on a Riyadh arena stage to deafening hip-hop music.

Some 1,300 Saudis of all ages — robed men and abaya-covered women sat side by side, whooping their approval.

Resisting modern social life for women

Mr. Al Lily’s interviewees shrank back when confronted with the notion that the liberties they wanted would also apply to their womenfolk.

“People ended up not doing anything when confronted with the idea that someone might want to go on a date with their sister. They pulled back when they realized the consequences,” Mr. Al Lily said.

A recent Saudi television cultural show mocked the attitude of young Saudi men demanding greater freedoms. It portrayed two young men who told their wife and sister that they were going to Mecca when in reality they had bought airline tickets to Cairo for a few days of fun.

When the two women detected the men’s deception, they decided to follow them. Sitting in a nightclub in Cairo, the two men poked fun at two women who entered fully covered from top to bottom.

“They must be Saudis. How did their brothers let them travel?” said one of the men to the other, not realizing that they were looking at their sister and wife.

Grassroots marketing?

Mr. Al Lily argues that for meaningful reform to succeed, Prince Mohammed will have to sell Vision 2030 to the youth. The numbers are on his side.

After all, Under-21s account for an estimated 60% of the Saudi population. However, few of those interviewed by Mr. Ali as well as many of his academic colleagues had read the document.

“The issue is how Saudis perceive change,” Mr. Al Lily said. He likened Vision 2030 to the wind in a Saudi proverb that says: “If there is a door that might bring wind, close the door.”

Saudi attitudes towards change are in Mr. Al Lily’s view stand-offish. “People don’t believe in change. The government doesn’t have a plan to sell Vision 2030.

In addition, it has at least partially been drafted by foreigners. All of this is important. Implementing it will not be easy,” Mr. Al Lily said.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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