Scented smoke from dozens of water pipes mingled with Lebanese pop music at Al-Nakheel, a seaside restaurant in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Saudi men in white robes and women in black abayas, their head scarves falling to their shoulders, leaned back on red cushions as they sipped tea and shared lamb kebab and hummus. Four young Saudi women, head scarves removed, trailed perfume as they walked past. Nearby, a teenage boy snapped photos of his friends with a cellphone. At an adjoining table, two young men with slicked-back hair swayed their heads to a hip-hop song echoing from the parking lot.
“Look around,” said Khaled al-Maeena, editor in chief of the English-language daily Arab News. “You wouldn’t have seen this even a few years ago.”
Saudi Arabia, long bound by tradition and religious conservatism, is beginning to embrace change. You can see it in public places like Al-Nakheel. You hear it in conversations with ordinary Saudis. You read about it in an energetic local press and witness it in Saudi cyberspace. Slowly, tentatively, almost imperceptibly to outsiders, the kingdom is redefining its relationship with the modern world.
The accession of King Abdullah in August has something to do with it. Over the past several months he has freed several liberal reformers from jail, promised women greater rights and tolerated levels of press freedom unseen in Saudi history; he has reached out to marginalized minorities such as the Shiites, reined in the notorious religious “morals” police and taken steps to improve education and judicial systems long dominated by extremist teachers and judges. But a look around Al-Nakheel suggests another reason for change: demography.
Saudi Arabia is one of the youngest countries in the world, with some 75 percent of the population under 30 and 60 percent under 21; more than one in three Saudis is under 14.
Saudi Arabia’s changes are coming not only from the authorities above, but also from below, driven by this young and increasingly urban generation. Even as some of them jealously guard parts of the status quo and display a zeal for their Islamic faith unseen in their parents’ generation, others are recalibrating the balance between modernity and tradition, directing bursts of new energy at civil society and demanding new political and social rights. “We must face the facts,” said al-Maeena, who is 54. “This huge youth population will determine our future. That’s why we need to watch them carefully and train them well. They hold the keys to the kingdom.”
Saudi arabia, home to a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves, is one of the United States’ key allies in the Middle East. Yet its baby boom was launched by an act of defiance—the 1973 oil embargo, in which King Faisal suspended supplies to the United States to protest Washington’s support for Israel in its war with Egypt and Syria. As oil prices rose, cash-rich Saudis began having families in record numbers. The kingdom’s population grew about 5 percent annually, from 6 million in 1970 to 16 million in 1989. (The current growth rate has slowed to about 2.5 percent, and the population is 24 million.)
Those baby boomers are now coming of age. And as Saudi analyst Mai Yamani writes in her book Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia, “Their numbers alone make them the crucial political constituency.”
Their grandparents largely lived on subsistence farms in unconnected villages where tribe, clan and ethnicity trumped national identity. Their parents (at least the men) worked in the burgeoning state bureaucracy and trained with the foreign engineers and bankers who flocked to the kingdom; they lived in an era when television, foreign travel, multilane highways, national newspapers and mass education were novelties. But the boomers live in a mass culture fed by satellite TV and the Internet, consumerism, an intellectual glasnost and stirrings of Saudi nationalism. “I’m not sure young Saudis grasp the enormity of the changes in just three generations,” al-Maeena told me. “It is like night and day.”
The boomers, however, did not grow into fantastic wealth. In 1981, the kingdom’s per capita income was $28,000, making it one of the richest countries on earth. But by 1993, when I first met al-Maeena in Jeddah during a year I spent there on a journalism exchange program, the kingdom was recovering from both a long recession (oil prices had dwindled) and a war on its border (the Persian Gulf war of 1991). Per capita income was declining rapidly, and boomers were straining the finances of a largely welfare-driven state. Government jobs and scholarships for foreign study grew scarce. (In 2001, per capita income was a quarter of what it had been in 1981.)