Evolutionary, not Revolutionary

Saudi students sit for their final high school exams at the end of the school year in the Red Sea port  city of Jeddah, June 19, 2010. AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images Saudi students sit for their final high school exams at the end of the school year in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, June 19, 2010. AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi students sit for their final high school exams at the end of the school year in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, June 19, 2010. AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images

[inset_left]A Kingdom’s Future: Saudi Arabia Through the Eyes of its Twentysomethings

Caryle Murphy

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

January 2013[/inset_left]In the first frenzied hours following the Boston bombings, a young Saudi man was mistakenly reported to be a suspect. “Investigators have a suspect—a Saudi Arabian national,” shrieked the New York Post, while Fox News fanned the flames of rumor, naming the Saudi student as a “person of interest” in the investigation. The individual was later revealed to be a witness, not a suspect. But for several long hours, it seemed that all the hard work that had gone into improving Saudi Arabia’s image since 9/11 would be swept away in one tarmac-shattering moment.

Caryle Murphy opens her extensive report on Saudi youth, A Kingdom’s Future: Saudi Arabia Through the Eyes of its Twentysomethings, with reference to the September 11 bombers: fifteen of the total nineteen hijackers were Saudi. The suicide hijackers averaged twenty-three years in age and their actions severely damaged the global image of Saudi Arabia’s youth.

book caryle

Twelve years on and much has changed in Saudi Arabia, especially for its youth. Murphy’s book brings together the findings from interviews she conducted in 2011 and 2012 with eighty-three Saudis in their early-to-mid twenties. The study is supplemented by Murphy’s encounters from the three years she spent living and working in Saudi Arabia between 2008 and 2011. The report captures a snapshot of Saudi youth at a transitional moment in their history: Al-Qaeda is clearly out, and Twitter is in.

Murphy’s investigation into the hopes and fears of young Saudis comes at a time when Saudi society is in flux, and it is the young who will beckon in potentially huge changes for the kingdom in the coming years. She reveals that these changes are already underway and will only gain momentum in this decade. Women want to drive and delay marriage. Men want to choose their own wives and write political satire on their blogs.

This trend towards liberal ideas is rather predictable; what is more surprising about Murphy’s findings is the extent to which youth want change that is “evolutionary, not revolutionary,” in her words. The conversations with young Saudis show that there is little desire for sudden social upheaval. Instead, they opt for gradual change that maintains tradition. This correlates with the views of prominent Saudi activists, such as poet Nimah Nawwab and acclaimed filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, who choose to work with the system, rather than against it.

The youth interviewed expressed a desire to maintain the fundamental pillars of their society, such as Islam, tribal traditions and the monarchy, but that they would like to see change towards greater personal freedoms and a role in decision-making. Their demands are more materialistic than idealistic. The freedoms they demand often fall within the personal realm and do not extend into wider political rights.

Another important motif emerges as the evidence mounts: it becomes apparent that Saudi Arabia’s youth are not all moving in the same direction, but are often pushing in opposite directions. In fact, their comments reveal extreme polarization in opinion. Far from being a monolithic demographic, these young Saudis express hugely differing views clearly divided along liberal and conservative lines. This dichotomy is perhaps the most obvious trend to emerge from Murphy’s sample. The author sums it up in her conclusion that, ultimately, “two different Saudi Arabias,” exist, with militant conservatism at one end and jeans-wearing female drivers at the other.

However, the introduction of one global invention is tipping the balance in favor of progressive ideas: the Internet. Over the last few years, social media has become a national obsession. The recorded conversations speak volumes about the huge impact the Internet is having on Saudi youth. Saudi Arabia has ended its isolation by connecting to the rest of the world with tweets, comments and likes. The kingdom ranks number one in the tables for worldwide Twitter user penetration.

A Kingdom’s Future shows that the impact of the Internet on Saudi youth cannot be emphasized enough. It has trickled into every aspect of users’ lives: their dress, their education, their politics and their religion. This connectivity also shows how very similar the ambitions and anxieties of Saudi’s youths are to twenty-somethings all around the world. In the words of one interviewee, “Saudi youth have discovered that they have the same dreams as many other youths in the world.”

Murphy’s study helps break down any stereotypes that the West may entertain concerning Saudis. In many ways, the voices of Saudi youth speak of the universal experiences of young adulthood, with some unique Saudi twists. Most 18- to 24-year-olds around the world will read their worries with a knowing half-smile. “Our fathers had a much better situation than us,” said one participant. “When they studied they got a job.” It is a story familiar to many young adults in the West. Saudis struggle with unemployment, affordable housing and the cost of weddings, as does most of the rest of the world. The explosion in study abroad programs offered to Saudi students will only further narrow the gap between Saudis and the rest of the world. Almost 150,000 Saudi students are currently studying outside the kingdom.

But Murphy’s sample size is reasonably small—eighty-three interviewees—and may not be entirely representative of Saudi Arabia’s youth for various reasons. The identity of the interviewer, an American and a woman, is likely to have influenced the type of person that agreed to take part in her study. Even Murphy herself admits that a few Saudis refused to meet with her due to their anti-American sentiments. This may have meant the views of more conservative youths were under-represented in her study. Nonetheless, Murphy is at pains to show the diversity among Saudi youth, which is clearly evident in her analysis.

At the end of her report, Murphy offers up some recommendations on changes that need to be made to Saudi education, the private sector, state benefits, and sectarianism, among others. These are valuable insights and the Saudi leadership, as well as the rest of the world, would do well to listen up and pay attention. The stakes are high, as the real change is still to come; Murphy predicts it is most likely in the next ten years.

By the end of this decade, Saudi Arabia’s youth bulge will be spilling out of universities into an already saturated job market. Saudis studying abroad will have returned and likely demand greater freedoms and rights. Twenty-somethings will enter their thirties with greater political consciousness as they watch regional developments on the Internet.

Murphy’s book is in many ways a gentle, but thoughtful, note on pressing reforms needed for Saudi Arabia to meet the challenges ahead.

Subscribe to the discussion