Unlike many other countries within the MENA, Saudi Arabia appeared to be immune from the “Arab Spring” that fell upon the region and changed a number of societies dramatically. Consequently Saudi Arabia looks like a bastion of stability within the region. However this relatively closed society is facing a number of social, religious, political, and economic problems, which if not dealt with in a wise and just manner by the ruling elite of the country, could have grave consequences for the country in the future. This article seeks to look at some of these issues and poses the question”where Saudi society is heading?”
Saudi Arabia has never been under the direct control of a European power, unlike most other states within the MENA. The country was founded in 1932 by Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, who returned to Riyadh in the early 1900s to dispose the Al Rashid Clan, and over the next decade unified the various tribes, sheikdoms, and emirates over most of the Arabian Peninsula.
Saudi Arabia is geographically the second largest country by landmass within the MENA after Algeria. It occupies approximately 80% of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia shares common borders with Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait to the north, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman to the east, by a portion of Oman to the southeast, by Yemen to the south and southwest, by the Persian Gulf in the east, and by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba to the west.
Saudi Arabia has a GDP of USD 740 Billion (2012 est.), the largest of any MENA state, being ranked 23rd in the world. The economy is growing at an average 6.0% per annum. The economy is dominated by petroleum and its associated industries, where Saudi Arabia along with Russia are the largest producers in the world. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 80% of the government budget revenues, and 55% of GDP. About 58% of GDP comes from the private sector. As of 2011, non-oil manufacturing contributed only 16.4 % to Saudi Arabian GDP.
Saudi Arabia has a total labor force of 8.02 million, where more than 80% are immigrant workers. Saudi Arabia has an official unemployment rate of 10.7%, but unofficial estimates put unemployment as high as 20%. This rate is even higher for women, where studies indicate an unemployment rate of 24.9%. These rates are even higher for those under 30 years old, where it is estimated that 1 in 4 don’t have a job. Reports in the Arab press indicate that 49% of those unemployed have never applied for a job, partly because it is cheaper for firms to recruit foreign workers. Foreign workers are paid relatively low wages, often being mistreated, with few laws to protect them.
Saudi Arabia’s population has rapidly grown from 6 million in the 1970s to almost 27 million today, where 49.9% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 24 years of age . Five and one half million are non-nationals. Government welfare and employment programs have failed to keep up with this population growth leading to a chronic rise in the incidence of poverty in the Kingdom, estimated at nearly 25% of the total population. This is in great contrast to a middle class that live in moderate wealth, employ maids, cooks, and drivers, and spend lavishly. In addition there is great rivalry between the majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shia Muslims in the country’s eastern province which has led to great social friction and open protests on the streets.
The Saudi Government has made huge efforts to modernize and diversify the domestic economy to encourage business investment in the non-oil sector. Even though Saudi Arabia has advanced from 67th to 22nd in the International Finance Corporation (IFC)-World Bank annual “Doing Business”Report 2013, liberalization of the economy and growth in new businesses and employment has been hampered by corruption from members of the Royal family. Political influence in the Saudi economy is still strong and the legal system is still very weak, which is reflected in the Kingdom’s fall in the Heritage Foundation 2013 Economic Freedom index in the rule of law, regulatory efficiency, and market openness.
Much of the nation’s commence is still controlled by the Al Saud family and merchant families from the tribes within the Kingdom. Many members of the Royal family obtain oil royalties based on their land concessions, many holding seats on the boards of petrochemical companies.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. King Abdullah bin Abdal-Aziz Al Saud performs the duties of prime minister, where the two deputy prime ministers along with a number of members of the cabinet are also members of the Al Saud family. The Al Saud family formed a Family Allegiance Council, comprising of members of Abdal Aziz’s son’s family lines to decide on matters of succession and the sharing of wealth among the family.
The only form of legislature is a consultative council (or Majlis al-shura) comprising of 150 appointed members by the King. Consequently there are no formal political parties in Saudi Arabia. However there are a number of secret societies including the Muslim Brotherhood, various jihadist groups, and liberals within society. Saudi Arabia has incarcerated around 5,000 political prisoners in jails around the Kingdom.
The second arm of government in Saudi Arabia are the Wahhabi or Salafi Clerics. This fundamental and strict interpretation of Islam, via Sharia law, is an essential element of the Saudi State, which makes Saudi Arabia unique within the MENA. As a consequence society is strongly regulated through fatwas issued by the Supreme Religious Council appointed by the king concerning social behavior within Saudi society, where the role of women is defined as subordinate to men, and schooling is strongly orientated around religious curriculum.
The late King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud laid down a basic law in 1992. This basic lay states that Islam through the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sunnah are the ultimate law, of which the basic law supplements but doesn’t contradict. The document lays down the rights of the monarchy, that all Saudis should be brought up as Muslims, that matters of economy be according to the Sharia, the benevolent rights and duties of the state, that Islam will be the cornerstone of governance, that the King will be the Prime Minister and Commander in Chief of the armed forces, and all cabinet ministers will be Muslims. This basic law did nothing to liberalize the country, but rather reflected what is.
Saudi Arabia is at the cross roads. There are undercurrents suggesting that there will soon be massive social change within the kingdom. The rest of this article will examines some of the issues involved.
The concentration of political power could be a recipe for self destruction
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, and the king has absolute executive power of government. All ministers, provincial governors, senior military officers, and ambassadors are selected by the king. All legislation and regulation made by ministries, provincial, and local governments are legally royal decrees. The consultative council’s decisions are not binding upon the king.
As succession is tightly controlled to senior members of the family. There is no potential for any young liberal reformer to emerge as the king of Saudi Arabia in the foreseeable future, as the Allegiance Council has remained faithful to the principle of seniority when naming a new king. According to House, Saudi will continue to be ruled by “more old men in their eighties”. Any selection of a younger prince as leader would upset the current balance of power within the Al Saud family and create discord among the various branches of the family, thus the King does not seem to have the power and authority pass the throne onto his son.
As a consequence, most positions of civil power within the Kingdom are held by members of the Al-Saud family or influential tribal and clan members. This makes up a pool of approximately 15,000 people who through their various family and clan leaders exert some political and business influence. This is a very diverse group where competition for power exists within the second generation of the ruling family, which has sometimes led to violence and bloodshed. Further division and conflict within the Al Suad family would be inevitable in the future because of the increasing numbers of the clan.
The Ulama in Saudi Arabia is dominated by the Al ash-Sheikh family, descendents of Muhammad ibn Al-Wahhab, who was the 19th century founder of Sunni Islam, who share power with the Al-Saud family. They dominate all religious posts within the kingdom. This makes the family extremely powerful within the kingdom. Through the Al ash-Sheikh family’s “moral authority”, the Al Saud family has been able to maintain the legitimacy of the monarchy. The Al ash-Sheikh family’s power is also closely linked with the Al Suad family through strong intermarriage.
The Ulama, like their Iranian counterparts are directly involved in government, ruling by Fatwa. Consequently there is a lack of any consistent codification, as different Ulama may issue conflicting Fatwa, giving great unpredictability in the law. The Ulama have a major influence in key government decisions, set religious and moral standards, and play an important role in both the judicial and education systems within Saudi Arabia. Other members of the Al ash-Sheikh family have important civilian positions in the religious Department, Judiciary and military.
As we can see, the concentration of political power into just two families within the Kingdom has inherent weaknesses. The growing numbers of family members is creating more divisions within the Al Saud family. Increasing population and demographics is slowly diluting the dominance of Al ash-Sheikh family members in government as more Saudis are graduating in religious studies, and taking places in government.
These two factors alone would be expected to force change within the power structure of the Kingdom within the timeframe of the next generation. Particularly in the Al Saud family’s case, it would appear that there will need to be a number of restructuring exercises in power distribution within the family to keep it unified over the next few years.
Saudi Society May be Like a Pressure Cooker
The ruling families of Saudi Arabia are presiding over a changing country. Social, religious, political and economic forces are bringing subtle changes to Saudi Arabia where the current political institutions are beginning to struggle to cope with them. These issues include the youthful population of Saudi, the role of women, Sunni-Shia conflict, and arising economic hardships. These will be briefly examined in the next few sections.
The Youth of Saudi Arabia
Today, Saudi Arabia has 37% of the population under the age of 14 and 51% under the age of 25. Among this group the unofficial unemployment rate is reaching 30%. This will bulge out more in the near future, and thus there will be a need for more job creation. Young Saudis have concerns about job prospects. In the past graduates have been absorbed into the workforce, but this is not the case today. The public service has become bloated and private companies prefer to employ foreign workers. The government has launched programs to promote the hiring of Saudis, but this had little aggregate effect on the numbers of locals employed.
One of the reasons given for this high unemployment rate is a lack of any work ethic among the local youth in the country. There have been changes in the school and university curriculum to install more emphasis on leadership, teamwork, problem solving abilities, and general creativity, however developing this new direction in pedagogy is slow. This is an issue that is frustrating many youths in the kingdom.
Saudi youth are much more complex than the generation before them. There is a large proportion of this group that wants some form of change as can be seen through social media and the blogsphere. However they still remain socially conservative and to some degree traditional in their views and lifestyle.
Boredom is becoming a major issue where males can be seen lingering around shopping malls. There is a distinct lack of leisure and recreational activities available, leaving home as the only place of entertainment where they watch television and spend time on the internet to pass time. This brings close family ties but weak community integration. Very few undertake much physical activity or exercise. Strict gender segregation is causing sexual frustration, as many cannot afford the cost of a marriage. This is bringing depression, ‘delinquent behavior’, illicit drug use, and a rise in HIV cases as some cross the border to Yemen to hire prostitutes.
The ‘Arab awakening’ did influence Saudi youth to think about their society. Although the young express great respect for their king and have a strong love for their country. However, they are not without criticisms of the extended Royal family, and frustration about aspirations that have not been met.
Some young people launched a petition on the Internet that was signed by more than 9,000. The petition presented to King Abdullah demanded that the government tackle the problem of unemployment, release of all prisoners of conscience, compensate them and to stop political arrests and spying on citizens, reform the judiciary, criminalize all forms of favoritism, bias , territorial discrimination, tribal and sectarianism among citizens in the distribution of wealth, and also called to fight all forms of financial and administrative corruption, activating the principle of full transparency in the oversight in government budgets and all work that carried out. They also called to end all forms of discrimination against women, and give them full political ,economic, social and cultural rights, and the right of people to participate in political decision-making through the election of their representatives.
Again in 2011 a ‘day of rage’ was called through Facebook, but nobody turned out on the streets. This ‘no-show’ was most probably due to a fear of brutal repressive force the police are known to use during protests, and general apathy and a hesitancy to protest publicly.
There appears to be a tendency towards conformity with the status quo, and complacency about political activism within Saudi youth. This doesn’t mean that the youth of Saudi Arabia don’t want more say in the decision making processes of government. These aspirations can be seen on Youtube where many video clips poke fun at Saudi Royals and Clerics.
In regards to religion, many young Saudis take a more contemporary view of Islam, and not the conservative approach that the generation before accept. Consequently the influence of the Clerics upon society today is slowly weakening. The continued training of Saudis as professionals is slowly bringing a new religious culture to the country.
Through changing demographics, Saudi society will be under great pressure for change. This is particularly relevant to the current leadership in the country. Royals are enjoying privileges that the new generation are noticing and questioning. If the Royal family doesn’t adapt to changing perceptions, there could be some conflict in the future as political awareness grows. The greatest challenge to the Saudi Government will be generating employment. If this is not solved there will be fiscal issues to contend with, as well as economic difficulties within the country.
The Role of Women
One of the most publicized issues within the ‘western’ media is about the role of women in Saudi society, which therefore requires some focus, and evaluation as to whether this issue is a strong force for change within the Kingdom.
Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are defined by the Ulama’s Sunni interpretation of Islam and tribal customs under patriarchal culture of the country. However, these interpretations are not always consistent, where for example Sheikh Ahman Qassim Al-Ghamdi, Chief of Mecca Region Mulaween or religious police said that prohibiting ikhtilat or gender mixing has no basis within the Shariah. However in contradiction, another prominent cleric Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Barrak issued a Fatwa that proponents of iktilat should be killed. In addition, the enforcement of restrictions varies by region, where Jeddah is relatively relaxed, but Riyadh and the surrounding regions are much stricter.
Under tribal customs all women are required to have a male guardian, who is either a father, brother, or husband. A guardian has both rights and duties over the person they protect. Male guardianship concerns the concept of namus or honor. This carries connotations of modesty and responsibility where the protection of females provides honor to the male. This is a social convention rather than a law, however this custom is observed throughout Saudi society. The stationing of US troops after 911 in 2001 saw some relaxation of restrictions upon women.
When a male believes the actions of a woman has brought dishonor to the family, punishment is the way the male seeks to cleanse this dishonor. There have been many abuses of guardianship where the strong embeddedness of this custom within society makes it very difficult for any woman to make a formal complaint. Saudi activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider claims that the concept of guardianship descends women to the status of pets, and at worst is a form of slavery, where ownership of a woman can be passed from male to male like a piece of merchandise. However from the point of view of many Saudi women, this custom is accepted and valued. Consequently, its Saudi custom rather than any mandate within Islam that appears to be defining the rights of women within the country.
The conservativeness of Saudi society can be seen in a poll that indicated 80% of Saudi women don’t think women should work in mixed gender environments. Further, many women believe that they shouldn’t hold political office, claiming that gender roles changes are opposed to Islam and would exert an unwelcome western cultural influence, and they already have a high degree of independence.
This can be seen with the controversial issue of the niqab in Europe. The niqab is a custom that predates Islam on the Arab Peninsula, and has been interpreted as repressive by many within ‘western’ society’. There are also differences in opinion as to whether the niqab is obligatory in Islam.
King Abdullah opened Saudi Arabia’s first co-educational university in 2009. He also appointed Norah Al-Faiz as the county’s first woman deputy minister during the same year. In 2010 women lawyers could represent females in court over family matters. Thirty seats in the consultative assembly have been allocated for women in 2013. New decrees against women’s violence have been enacted and women have been granted the right to vote and run for public office in the 2015 local government elections. However some commentators have argued that the above reforms are more symbolic rather than substantive. But it must also be pointed out that there is a deep conservative element within government and society that seeks to preserve the traditional gender role in Saudi Society.
Women’s advancement is also shaping up in education where more females now receive secondary schooling and tertiary education than males. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is a major social experiment where co-education, and unveiled dress is permitted on campus.
Another area where women’s rights have been dramatically liberalized is in the area of employment. Traditionally girls had been taught that their primary role in society was to raise children and take care of the household. Women’s employment opportunities have increased dramatically over the last few years where mixed gender workplaces have developed particularly in the areas, of banking, finance, and medicine. However, the percentage of Saudi women in the workforce is far behind other Islamic countries. Saudi women are now becoming medical doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business leaders. However again, conservatism within the Saudi Labour Ministry has not always been enthusiastically supportive of the growing trend of women in the workplace.
Women’s freedom of movement is still severely restricted. Women are forbidden to leave their house and neighborhood without permission of their male guardian. However in practice this is not the case. Women actually drive in rural areas where enforcement of strict rules are much more relaxed. Women are also forbidden to use public transport, but this is also often unenforced. Technically hiring a taxi or having a driver who is not a member of the family is technically khalwa, or illegal, but occurs on a daily basis. There have been a number of attempts to legalize women driving in the Kingdom, but traditional values within society and government have severely hampered these attempts.
Although the deprivation of women’s rights is seen from a western perspective as a major force for change, this in Saudi Arabia according to reports on “the ground” doesn’t appear to be the case. There are mixed ideas about the change of women’s roles in Saudi society, where change is seen by many to be a threat to Saudi culture, while at the same time others see the current changes going on as being too slow. Saudi’s see their society as an Islamic one, based on tribal customs and wish to preserve this.
Sunni Muslims make up approximately 85% of Saudi Arabia’s population. The remaining 15% are Shia, who tend to inhabit the oil rich eastern part of the country, with other Shia communities along the border with Yemen. Relations between the Sunni and Shia in Saudi Arabia are strained over the disagreement of certain beliefs and rituals, although Shia have been allowed their own mosques. However Shia religious books, certain Shia rituals displayed at rituals like the Ashura are forbidden. The government has restricted the names Shias can use for their children, and even characterized Shia beliefs as heresy, and something worse than Christian or Judaism. In addition reports suggest that Shia citizens of Saudi Arabia face discrimination in employment, been marginalized economically, and are prevented from political and cultural expression as well.
Some commentators draw the analogy of economic deprivation and political marginalization of the Shia in Saudi as religious apartheid.
On a number of occasions, Sunni-Shia friction has broken out into violence. For example after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saudi Shia celebrated Ashura openly defying the Government , which led to three days of rampage where cars were burned, shops looted, and banks attacked. The Shia movement against the Saudi monarchy was supported by Iran, leading to numerous arrests and detention of Shia activists by the Saudi authorities over the years. The Salafis (also called Wahhabism) are an ultra conservative branch of Sunni Islam. Most Saudi’s follow Salafi teachings which could be considered an orthodox version of Sunnism that follows the examples of early Islamic practice. Salafism has become associated with the strict traditional practices that occur within Saudi society today. It is based upon a morality and piety by following tradition and rejecting any’speculative philosophy’ that would be put by any modern interpretation of Islam. Consequently, the scope of Islamic beliefs rests with the Qur’an, Hadith, and consensus of “approved” Ulama.
Some of the ultra-extreme elements of Salafism has become associated with fighting international jihad. One of Saudi Arabia’s leading Ulamas issued a Fatwa denouncing Shia as heretics, and the most vicious enemies of Muslims. In 2006, 38 Saudi Clerics called on Sunni Muslims around the world to mobilize against Shia Muslims. Some Salafi groups have been heavily involved in violent attacks and suicide bombings at Shia gatherings and mosques. A large number of Saudi Sunni extremists have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight Shia.
A number of events have lessened the tension between Sunni and Shia in Saudi Arabia. A moderate Shia Cleric Sheikh Hasan al-Saffar preached reconciliation in the 1990s, calling for an abandoning of the rhetoric of the Iranian Revolutionary leader Khomeini to a more pragmatic stance. However the Shia community is deeply splintered with many militant minorities, such as the Saudi Hezbollah that undertook attacks on oil infrastructure and murdered Saudi diplomats in Ankara, Bangkok, and Karachi. In 1996 another splinter group bombed the City of Al-Khubar.
Since 2005, the then monarch of Saudi Arabia King Abdullah relaxed some of the restrictions on the Shia. In 2007, the then Saudi King Abdullah met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a summit on Sunni-Shia relations. Although there was general agreement to try and stop the escalating tensions between the two groups, no concrete agenda was produced.
Today there are only four Shia members on the Consultative Council, no cabinet ministers, no governors, mayors, or police chiefs. However violent uprisings later occurred in Medina by Saudi Shia pilgrims, which led to a major crackdown by the authorities. The Shia Ulama Nimr al-Nimr called for the Shia to consider succession from Saudi Arabia.
Attitudes of hate between the Sunnis and Shias have developed over generations in Saudi Arabia. They are ingrained from childhood and run deep, where potential violence can erupt over any mishap. There are outspoken people on both sides that seem to have vested interests in conflict. With the Syrian conflict still ongoing, a rise in Iraqi tension and repression of Shia in neighboring Bahrain, not forgetting rivalry between Iran and Saudi within the Gulf, Sunni-Shia rivalry appears to be on the rise again within the Middle East. Many analysts give a pessimistic assessment about the future. The Sunni Royal families of the Arabian Peninsula have tended to see the “Arab Spring”as a Shia revolt, and as a consequence there is every potential that sectarian conflict could flare up again in Saudi Arabia.
Arising Economic Hardships
Despite Saudi Arabia being one of the world’s wealthiest nations, much of the country is living in poverty. As previously discussed, unemployment is extremely high and job development initiatives have failed to keep up with the demands of a growing population. Reports suggest that between 2-4 million people in Saudi Arabia live in poverty. Many of those experiencing poverty are the youth, single mothers without any support from a male, and approximately 70,000 stateless people not entitled to any government support. Poverty is causing a number of social problems like the sale of child brides to old men in the countryside.
Despite government efforts through the building of apartments and social welfare programs, there is growing anger over poverty and corruption in the Kingdom. To a great degree, the government has suppressed the problem and jailed two young activists Feras Bughnah and Hosam al-Deraiwish who produced a Youtube video about the problem.
Conclusion: What’s install for Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia is faced with both internal and external pressures.
There must be a massive diversification of the economy to absorb more employment over the next decade. This at present does not appear to be happening quick enough and as a consequence there will be; 1) increasing unemployment, particularly among the youth, 2) fiscal pressure upon the government in future to provide welfare to citizens, and, 3) a dissatisfied population that could through organization become a politically conscious force.
Given the political turmoil in the rest of the Middle East, Saudi leaders must have concerns over the potential spread of turmoil within Saudi Arabia itself. The protests in the neighboring Kingdom of Bahrain, and Oman are a particular concern for the Saudi Royal family.
The intuition of the Saudi leadership has been to deal harshly with any dissent. Most of these protests have been by the youth of the country, students in particular. However, the news of these protests can’t be suppressed by the government as before, due to the widespread access to social media.
The Shia community is of utmost concern. There are continual small protests outside government ministry buildings in Riyadh, Taif and Tabuk, and in Qatif and other small towns in the eastern region, such as Al-Awamiyah, Hofuf, and Qatif, which is composed of the majority of Saudi Shia citizens who face discrimination in government jobs by the authorities.
One of the reasons why Saudi Arabia has not faced the turmoil like Tunisia , Egypt , Libya, Syria, or Yemen is because political parties are formally prohibited. The only way for opposition groups to communicate is through home meetings and social media. Mass protests on the street is still beyond the “threshold” of discontent at this stage, where there is little precedent for such protests. In addition, the authorities in an attempt to avoid any popular protests issued a decree banning public protests, which has been reinforced by a number of fatwas from clerics who are support the Saudi government.
However this doesn’t mean that Saudi society is not evolving naturally. Saudi society is likely to strata into a large middle/professional class with more contemporary Islamic beliefs, and a core of Islamic traditionalists. The nature of economic modernization and education are the forces behind this, and it remains to be seen what reaction the more conservative religious elements in the country will do, if they can do anything. This trend could lead to a steady liberalization of society, or further enforcement of religious rituals and traditions to maintain the status quo. The important question here is “Will the Ulama allow Saudi culture to evolve into a modern Islamic society, balanced with tribal customs that Saudis value?”
Generally Saudis are not pushing for radical political reforms. Employment, social problems, equity, fairness, and discrimination seem to be the major issues of concern, although there is some yearn to participate more in decision making that affects their future. There will be pressure on the Royal family to go down the path of allowing more participation in government, and this must be handled appropriately and wisely.
The emergence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Saudi support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war contributed to a rekindling of confrontation between the Shia and Saudi authorities. Economic hardship, coupled with the lack of opportunity within mainstream Saudi society, have contributed to the reopening of these wounds. given that the Shia still tend to be religiously and politically dependent upon outside influences, any upsetting events could potentially trigger calls for autonomy or independence from the Saudi state. Such aspiration would no doubt lead to protests, violence and even an insurgency in the future, if not handled wisely.
Consequently, Saudi Arabia is at the crossroads and the leadership must look very closely at its economy and needs of the younger generation within society. Urbanization and industrialization has brought massive changes to indigenous cultures all around the world, and there is no reason to believe that the same would not happen within Saudi society. The question is how the Saudi royal family will see this; as a threat to their position in power, or as inevitable change, to which they must adapt.
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