Young and Restless
Saudi Arabia’s baby boomers, born after the 1973 oil embargo, are redefining the kingdom’s relationship with the modern world
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.)
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.
Beyond matters of mobility and employment opportunity is the issue of spousal abuse, which, according to Saudi newspapers, remains prevalent. In one high-profile case, the husband of Rania al-Baz, the country’s first female broadcaster, beat her nearly to death in 2004. Saudi media covered the case with the zeal of British tabloids, creating widespread sympathy for the victim and sparking a national debate on abuse. The case even made it to “Oprah,” where al-Baz was hailed as a woman of courage. Once the spotlight dimmed, however, the broadcaster succumbed to pressure from an Islamic judge and from her own family to forgive her husband.
Tensions between the old and the new aren’t always so consequential, but they persist. Hani Khoja, the TV producer, told me that he “wanted to show that it is possible to be religious and modern at the same time” on the popular youth-oriented show “Yallah Shabab” (“Let’s Go Youth”). Another program that promotes a more modern view of Islam is “Kalam Nouam” (“Speaking Softly”). One of its hostesses, Muna AbuSulayman, embodies that blend. Born in 1973, AbuSulayman followed her father, a liberal Islamic scholar, around the globe, including nine years in the United States, where she studied English literature. (Saudi universities opened their doors to women in 1964.) Today, in addition to her television work, she advises billionaire businessman Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal on philanthropic activities that seek to build links between the Islamic world and the West.
The prince’s company, Kingdom Holdings, has the only known Saudi workplace that allows Muslim women to choose whether to wear the hijab (the Islamic veil and other modest apparel) or Western dress. (The prince also employs the only female Saudi pilot.) Kingdom Holdings’ quarters look more Beirut than Riyadh, with fashionable women in corporate attire shuffling between offices. AbuSulayman, however, chooses to wear the hijab—on the day I met her, a striking green head scarf and shirt ensemble. “The hijab is such an overexamined issue in the West,” she told me. “I like wearing it. We as women face more serious issues.”
And even as she acknowledges that “the opportunities available to me today were unavailable a generation ago,” she says, “We are hopeful to achieve more. I expect my daughter to be living in an entirely different world.”
“I am from Burayda, that famous city you Western journalists are curious about,” Adel Toraifi said when we met at a Holiday Inn in Riyadh. He was smiling—Burayda is the heartland of Wahhabi Islam. Toraifi, now 27, came of age in one of the most conservative regions of the kingdom.
More than two centuries ago, Sheikh ibn Abd al Wahhab emerged from the desert there with a puritanical vision of Islam focused on the concept of tawhid, or the oneness of God. At the time, he made a key alliance with the local al-Saud ruler, who pledged to support the passionate preacher in return for support from the religious establishment. Eventually, Wahhabism spread across central Arabia, even when the al-Sauds lost power twice in the 19th century (to regain it again in the early 20th). When King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, began his march across the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century to reclaim his tribal lands, he revived the bargain with the descendants of Sheikh ibn Abd al Wahhab, known today as the al-Alsheikh family.
The essential outlines of that relationship remain intact. Wahhabi preachers hold the highest positions of religious authority, while the al-Sauds hold political authority. Today’s Saudi Wahhabist is quick to condemn those who belong to other schools of religious thought as impure or, worse, kufr, unbelievers. That explains part of the political radicalism of young Saudi jihadists—but only part.
Another explanation might lie in the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s education system. In the 1960s and ’70s, the kingdom fought a rear-guard battle with Egypt for regional hearts and minds. To counter Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular pan-Arab nationalism, the Saudis promoted a conservative pan-Islamism. While Egypt, Syria and Jordan were expelling Islamist radicals, many of whom were college graduates, Saudi Arabia welcomed them as teachers.
When Toraifi was 13, he decided to become a religious scholar in the Wahhabi tradition. For five years, he led an ascetic life, studying the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad several hours a day. “I was not a radical,” he said, “but my mind was not open, either. I dreamed of becoming a respected scholar, but I had never read a Western book or anything by an Islamic modernist or Arab liberal.”
As he walked home from evening prayer one day, he was hit by a car. After three months in a coma, he spent more than a year recuperating in a hospital, thinking and reading. “I thought to myself: I did everything right. I prayed. I fasted. I learned the Koran by heart, and yet I got hit by a car. It was troubling to me.”
Once recovered, Toraifi took to reading Western philosophy and Arab liberals with a seminarian’s zeal. He studied engineering, but political philosophy was his passion. After taking a job as a development executive with a German technology company, he began writing articles critical of Wahhabism—including one published shortly after the May 12, 2003, attacks warning that a “Saudi Manhattan” was coming unless religious extremism was checked. He was excoriated in some religious Internet forums, but the government largely let it pass.
Then Toraifi repeated his views on Aljazeera, whose coverage had often been critical of the royal family. That, apparently, crossed a line: afterward, Toraifi said, Saudi intelligence detained him for several days before letting him go with a warning. Then an establishment newspaper offered him a column—writing about foreign, but not domestic, affairs. The gesture was seen as an attempt to bring a critic into the mainstream. But he dismisses concerns that he might have been co-opted. “I will continue speaking about the importance of democracy,” he told me. (In December, he accepted a fellowship at a British think tank, where he is writing a paper on Saudi Arabia’s reform movement.)
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.
Hatrash, who abstains from drink and covers the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage, for local papers, had spent the past two years in Malaysia, waiting tables and playing guitar in bars. When I asked about his eclectic tastes, he said, “I am a Hijazi. We have DNA from everywhere in the world.”
At a walled villa in Jeddah, young men were tuning guitars and tapping drums. Ahmad, who is half-Lebanese and half-Saudi, is the lead singer of a band known as Grieving Age. He introduced me around. A few of the musicians, including Ahmad, had long hair and beards, but most did not. One wore a Starbucks shirt—for his job, afterward. Another worked as an attendant on Saudia, the national airline, and a third worked in insurance. All seemed exceedingly polite.
They played songs from the genre heavy-metal fans call “melodic death.” It had a haunting appeal, though the lyrics were, predictably, unintelligible amid the heavy bass. On the walls, a poster of the British band Iron Maiden competed for space with one of Mariam Fares, a sultry Lebanese pop star.
When Hatrash took the stage, he played a series of guitar favorites, such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and softer rock, to the seeming delight of the heavy-metal aficionados.
Throughout the evening, more young men arrived—but no women. Some took turns playing; others just watched. By midnight, the jam session had wound down. “This is a tame event, as you can see,” Hatrash said. “There is no drinking or drugs. We are just enjoying the music.”
I asked if he could envision a day when he could play in public, instead of behind closed doors.
He just smiled and launched into another song. Someone jumped up to accompany him on the bass, and Ahmad mouthed the lyrics. The guy in the Starbucks shirt rushed out the door, late for his shift.