Young and Restless

Saudi Arabia’s baby boomers, born after the 1973 oil embargo, are redefining the kingdom’s relationship with the modern world

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Arabic satellite television was in its infancy, and state censorship was pervasive—in August 1990 the Saudi government prohibited the media from publishing news of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait for three days. But as the ’90s progressed, technology forced change. Long-distance telephone service became affordable. The Internet began to shrink the world. Aljazeera became a boisterous news channel breaking social, political and religious taboos. Many young Saudis began to feel they were living in a country with outdated institutions: an education system that favored rote learning over critical thinking, a religious establishment that promoted an intolerant brand of Islam and a government that was falling behind its neighbors in economic development.

“The 1990s were not a good decade for young people,” said one young Saudi civil servant, who asked not to be named because he works for the government. “We didn’t have the secure jobs of our parents’ generation, and our government was basically incompetent and getting too corrupt.” In the private sector, employers preferred skilled foreigners to newly minted Saudi college graduates. “We were just sitting still while everyone else seemed to be moving forward,” the civil servant added.

Then came September 11, 2001, and with it the revelation that 15 of the 19 men who launched the attacks on the United States were Saudis—acting under the auspices of another Saudi, Osama bin Laden. “That event and the [West’s] anti-Saudi reaction made me feel more nationalist,” said Khaled Salti, a 21-year-old student in Riyadh. “I wanted to go to America and defend Saudi Arabia in public forums, to tell them that we are not all terrorists. I wanted to do something for my country.”

Ebtihal Mubarak, a 27-year-old reporter for the Arab News, said the attacks “forced us to face some ugly truths: that such terrible people exist in our society and that our education system failed us.” She called May 12, 2003, another infamous date for many Saudis: Al Qaeda bombed an expatriate compound in Riyadh that day, killing 35, including 9 Americans and 7 Saudis. A series of attacks on Westerners, Saudi government sites and Arabs ensued, leaving hundreds dead. (In late February, Al Qaeda also took responsibility for a failed attempt to blow up a Saudi oil-processing complex.)

Most violent opposition to the ruling al-Saud family comes from boomers—jihadists in their 20s and 30s—but those extremists are hardly representative of their generation. “When we think of youth in this country, two incorrect stereotypes emerge,” Hani Khoja, a 37-year-old business consultant and television producer, told me. “We think of the religious radical who wants to join jihadist movements, like the 9/11 guys, or we think of extremist fun-seekers who think only of listening to pop music and having a good time. But the reality is that most young Saudis are somewhere in the middle, looking for answers, curious about the world and uncertain of the path they should take.”

In dozens of conversations with young Saudis in five cities and a village, it became obvious that there is no monolithic Saudi youth worldview. Opinions vary widely on everything from internal reform to foreign policy to the kingdom’s relations with the United States and the rest of the West. Regional, ethnic and religious differences also remain. Young Saudi Shiites often feel alienated in a country whose religious establishment often refers to them as “unbelievers.” Residents of Hijaz, a cosmopolitan region that encompasses Mecca, Jeddah and Medina, regularly complain about the religious conservatism and political domination of the Najd, the province from which most religious and political elites hail. Some Najdis scorn Hijazis as “impure Arabs,” children fertilized over the centuries by the dozens of nationalities who overstayed a pilgrimage to Mecca. And loyalty to tribe or region may still trump loyalty to the state.

But despite these differences, the kingdom’s baby boomers seem to agree that change is necessary. And collectively they are shaping a new national identity and a common Saudi narrative.

Ebtihal Mubarak is one of several talented female reporters and editors on the Arab News staff. That in itself is a change from my days at the paper more than a decade ago. In recent years the News has doubled its full-time Saudi female staff and put more female reporters out in the field. Mubarak reports on the small but growing movement for greater political and social rights for Saudis. Persecution by extremists is a common theme in her work. As she surfed Saudi Internet forums one day last fall, she came across a posting describing an attack on a liberal journalist in the northern city of Hail. “A journalist’s car had been attacked while he was sleeping,” she said. “A note on his car read: ‘This time it’s your car, next time it will be you.’”
A few years ago, such an episode would probably have ended with the Hail journalist intimidated into silence. But now, Mubarak worked the phones, speaking with the journalist, the police and outside experts, and put together a story for the next day’s paper, quoting the journalist: “What happened to me is not just a threat to one individual but to the whole of society.” Thanks to the Internet, the episode became a national story, and the subject of vigorous debate.

And yet: after Mubarak exercised the power of the press, she faced the limited power of Saudi women. Once she filed her story, she hung around the newsroom, glancing at her watch—waiting for a driver, because under a patriarchal legal system Saudi women may not drive. “I feel like I’m always waiting for someone to pick me up,” she said. “Imagine a reporter who cannot drive. How will we beat the competition when we are always waiting to be picked up by someone?”

Mubarak reflects how much Saudi society has changed, and how much it hasn’t. Like her generational peers, she comes from the urban middle class. Yet as a working woman, she represents a minority: only 5 percent of Saudi women work outside the home. Most are stifled by a patriarchal society and a legal system that treats them like children.

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