The Al-Sauds number some 7,000 princes and princesses. The most senior princes are sons of the late Ibn Saud, who died in 1953, and most are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Their sons include Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, and Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director of Saudi intelligence and the current ambassador to the United States. Third- and fourth-generation princes have just begun to make their marks, and while the occasional rumor about corruption or a wild night in a European disco makes the rounds, several third-generation princes are becoming important drivers of modernization.
Mohammed Khaled al-Faisal, 38, is one of them. The Harvard MBA runs a conglomerate of diverse businesses, including a world-class industrialized dairy farm. When I visited his Riyadh office, he proudly described an initiative that his company had taken to hire village widows and unmarried women to work at the dairy.
“In order to circumvent protest from local religious authorities, we reached out to them and asked them to consult with us on the proper uniforms the women should wear on the job,” he said. “We didn’t ask them if we could employ women; we simply brought them into the discussion, so they could play a role in how we do it. I am a businessman. I want to get things done. If my aim is to employ more women, I will try to do it quietly and not just to score political points against the extremists.”
Economic reform, he went on, is “the chariot that will drive all other reforms.” What Saudi Arabia needs, in his judgment, is more small and medium-sized businesses and the jobs they would provide.
“I see my older brother unemployed,” said Hassan, a dimpled 14-year-old. “I’m afraid that will happen to me too.” The four other students in the room, who ranged in age from 13 to 16, nodded their heads in agreement.
They and their teacher met me in an office in Qatif, in the oil-rich Eastern Province—home to most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslims. Some of the most vitriolic abuse from Saudi religious authorities and ordinary citizens is directed at Shiites, who make up only 15 percent of the population. Though they share job anxiety with their Sunni peers, they feel that upward mobility belongs primarily to Sunnis.
Two of the youths attend a village school several miles away, while the other three go to the local public high school. The lack of a college in Qatif, many Shiites say, is an example of the discrimination they feel.
I asked if teaching had improved since 9/11. “The new teachers are good,” said Ali, a smiling 15-year-old, “but the old ones are still around and still bad.” The students said their teachers praised bin Laden, ridiculed the United States or described Shiites as unbelievers.
Recently, Ali said, he had brought sweets to school to celebrate the birthday of a prominent Shiite religious figure, and his teacher reprimanded him with anti-Shiite slurs.
I asked if they ever thought of leaving Saudi Arabia.
“No, Qatif is my home,” said Hassan. “I am proud to be from Qatif.”
Are they proud to be from Saudi Arabia?
Mohammad, who had spoken very little, answered: “If the government doesn’t make us feel included, why should we be proud to be from Saudi Arabia? If they did include us more, then I think we would all be proud.”
Public pop concerts are banned in the kingdom, so musically inclined young Saudis gather at underground events or in small groups. Hasan Hatrash, an Arab News reporter and musician, took me to a heavy-metal jam session in Jeddah.