Reformist Saudi prince bounces up against flawed education system and ingrained social mores

By James M. Dorsey

An unpublished survey of aspirations of young Saudi men suggests that garnering enthusiasm for Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s vision of the kingdom’s social and economic future, let alone a buy in, is likely to meet resistance without a hitherto lacking effort to win support.

Obstacles to get broad-based acceptance of social changes involved in Vision 2030, the prince’s masterplan for the future published in April, are rooted in the cloaking of ultra-conservative tribal mores in Islamic legitimization by the kingdom’s religious scholars. They also stem from a flawed education system that fails to impart critical thinking and analytical skills.

“People were not interested in political change or reform. They wanted social change but they pull back when they realize this has consequences for their sisters. Their analytical ability and critical thinking is limited,… If you look at Twitter, people don’t know how to argue. They don’t have the patience for discussion. They live in a bubble… If people would do what they talk about on Twitter, angels would shake their hands. They talk about an ideal world…but reality is totally different,” said Saudi scholar Abdul Al Lily, author of a recent book on rules that govern Saudi culture. Mr. Al Lily surveyed 100 Saudi men all of who were approximately 20 years old.

Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest Twitter penetrations and features ultra-conservative religious scholars with millions of followers. Twitter constitutes a relatively less controlled arena in a country in which all physical and virtual public space is tightly controlled. Saudi Arabia this month announced efforts on the Internet “to protect the social and economic system of the country… (and) the society from any violations on the security and mental levels.”

Saudi Arabia’s Shura or Advisory Council, in another setback to potential reform, this month rejected initiating a review of the kingdom’s ban on women’s driving.

Some 50 percent of those surveyed by Mr. Al Lily said they wanted to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely, and be able to drive fast, Mr. Al Lily said. He said issues of political violence, racism, international interests or the dragged out Saudi war in neighbouring Yemen did not figure in their answers.

The young men’s aspirations challenged the core culture of a country that enforces strict gender segregation and dress codes and struggles with concepts of fun. Ultra-conservatives and militant Islamists see fun as a potential threat to political and social control. That is particularly true with regard to youth who in the words sociologists Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera have “a greater tendency for experimentation, adventurism, idealism, drive for autonomy, mobility, and change.”

Bayat noted separately that “whereas the elderly poor can afford simple, traditional, and contained diversions, the globalized and affluent youth tend to embrace more spontaneous, erotically charged, and commodified pleasures. This might help explain why globalizing youngsters more than others cause fear and fury among Islamist (and non-Islamist) anti-fun adversaries, especially when much of what these youths practice is informed by Western technologies of fun and is framed in terms of Western cultural import… In other words, at stake is not necessarily the disruption of the moral order, as often claimed, but rather the undermining of the hegemony, the regime of power on which certain strands of moral and political authority rest.”

It is these fundamental attitudes, that Prince Mohammed, in a bid to upgrade Saudi autocracy and bring it into the 21st century, is seeking to tweak.” We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy. It is why we will support the efforts of regions, governorates, non-profit and private sectors to organize cultural events,” Vision 2030 said.

Prince Mohammed may have been jumping the gun when he recently greeted journalist and author Karen Elliott House with the words “Welcome to the new Saudi Arabia” as they watched the LED-lit bodies of New York dancers gyrating on a Riyadh arena stage to deafening hip-hop music. Some 1,300 Saudis of all ages—robed men and abaya-covered women sat side by side whooping their approval.

Mr. Al Lily’s interviewees however pulled back when confronted with the notion that liberties they wanted would also apply to their womenfolk. “People ended up not doing anything when confronted with the idea that someone might want to go on a date with their sister. They pulled back when they realized the consequences,” Mr. Al Lily said.

A recent Saudi television cultural show mocked the attitude of young Saudi men demanding greater freedoms. It portrayed two young men who told their wife and sister that they were going to Mecca although they had bought airline tickets to Cairo for a few days of fun. When the two women detected their menfolk’s deception, they decided to follow them. Sitting in a nightclub in Cairo, the two men poked fun at two women who entered fully covered from top to bottom. “They must be Saudis. How did their brothers let them travel?” said one of the men to the other, not realizing that they were looking at their sister and wife.

Mr. Al Lily argues that to succeed, Prince Mohammed will have to sell Vision 2030 to the youth of a country in which Under-21s account for an estimated 60 percent of the population. Few of those interviewed by Mr. Ali as well as many of his academic colleagues had read the document.

“The issue is how Saudis perceive change,” Mr. Al Lily said. He likened Vision 2030 to the wind in a Saudi proverb that says: “If there is a door that might bring wind, close the door.”

Saudi attitudes towards change are in Mr. Al Lily’s view stand-offish. “People don’t believe in change… The government doesn’t have a plan to sell Vision 2030.  In addition, it has at least partially been drafted by foreigners. All of this is important. Implementing it will not be easy,” Mr. Al Lily said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario.


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