Saudi Arabia: A kingdom in the throes of change


Before my recent trip, I had asked my government host to arrange a meeting with Saudi women entrepreneurs. I was pleasantly surprised that my request was quickly approved. I was even more intrigued by the meeting itself.

It was not the clarity, savvy and energy with which these Saudi businesswomen spoke that surprised me. I’d seen that before. The surprise was how easily and informally they shared their sometimes provocative views in a public place in the heart of Riyadh.

I asked one young Saudi businesswoman for her views on the country’s business climate. Like most of the group, she appeared more relaxed in a one-on-one conversation with a man than I’d ever experienced before inside the kingdom.

Her comments revealed both strong opinions about professional standards and a mischievous sense of humour. Among other things, she confided that she was more comfortable than she used to be in formal dress because she was now wearing sweat pants underneath.

Indeed, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface in Saudi society. King Abdullah still governs a deeply conservative country. But both Saudi society and the kingdom’s economy reveal dramatic shifts in the four and a half years since he formally assumed power.

For one thing, there’s a substantial generational change in social mores and economic attitudes now separating young Saudis from their parents. The implications of this emerging generation gap cut across many aspects of Saudi society. I saw much more public mixing of young people on this visit than was evident even two years ago — and heard more questions from them about the social standards of other countries (particularly in the more liberal Gulf regimes).

Attitudes towards marriage have likewise shifted. In the past, brides and grooms in arranged marriages often met for the first time on the day they became engaged. A wedding quickly followed. Today, many urban couples meet several times — in the presence of family, to be sure — before an engagement is agreed, and have unsupervised dates before the wedding.

But it’s the expanded educational opportunities for all those ambitious young women that may be making the biggest difference. In September 2009, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened its doors, allowing Saudi women and men to attend class together for the first time. Religious police are not permitted on campus. Women are also allowed to drive now. For a westerner, these reforms may sound quaint, even retrograde. For Saudi Arabia, they are remarkable.

Entrepreneurship

Women now attend Saudi universities in record numbers, though daughters of the elite are still more likely to study abroad. There is a focused government effort to address labour shortfalls by bringing more women into the workforce — and not just in traditional roles such as teachers and nurses. This year, Saudi law schools will graduate the first significant numbers of women. And a surprising number of Saudi start-up firms founded by female entrepreneurs are now up and running.

Men’s lives are changing as well. Saudi society has long fed an unsustainable sense of entitlement, one that stigmatises Saudi men who accept work associated with low social status. Menial labour is for immigrants from South Asia or less affluent corners of the Arab world. Over time, this has created a mismatch between an exploding population of Saudi young people and the number of jobs they’re trained to handle.

For many years, the government has pursued various forms of ‘Saudisation’ of the economy. This process, intended to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on foreign workers, has proven an uphill struggle, especially in ultra-conservative Riyadh, where cash-strapped families often get by with less before a head of household will accept work he feels is beneath his station. That’s why it’s all the more striking to find young Saudis working these days at the local Starbucks.

King Abdullah’s reforms extend to the media. Direct opposition to the Saudi government remains off limits, but it’s increasingly common to read and hear public criticism of the country’s most conservative policies — even of certain members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the kingdom’s religious police. Such reports could not appear even in Saudi Arabia’s more liberal newspapers without the government’s blessing.

There are still powerful individuals and groups fundamentally opposed to all forms of liberalisation. Saudis remain deeply dependent on petrodollars and foreign labour. But it’s worth noting that technology and management training are among the country’s fastest growing industries. The state will have a hard time turning back the clock on that trend — and it doesn’t appear to want to.

Don’t be surprised if King Abdullah is one day remembered as the man who brought the beginnings of real change to a place that badly needed it. And don’t be surprised if Saudi women are the ones to make the most of the new opportunities.

IHT

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