Sunday, 16 October 2016

Saudi Waiting For Change?


There is a Deputy Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia who, according to recent accounts, is wearing himself out because he wants to drag this country into the 21st Century.  There is also a huge youthful population who want to start living in that century in more ways than just buying the latest iPhone release. We were discussing the other day, a few peeps and I, how these same youth don't seem to have jumped on board the 2030 plan and shouted out, loudly and clearly....'Yes! At last!  Finally someone to get us ahead'. Why is that?

The majority of Saudi youth, so I gather, want social modernization more than economic reform.  As a bright, well traveled and well educated young Saudi man told me, he sees that many of the issues considered immoral in Saudi Arabia today are only a problem in this country.  The rest of the world seems to have moved on and he wonders what is it with his own countrymen that they are happy to remain behind in many ways.  His family question his attitude, asking why he is not happy with the norms that have sustained this country for centuries.

There are young women I know with degrees in the business sector who have been told they must stay behind their frosted glass office with no view out at all, ladies (and not all of them young) crowded into a hot, shared, noisy space while their counterpart males get spacious, individual offices with views of the street out in the main business area where all the high flying discussion takes place. And the young women wonder what is so special about them to get such treatment?  The answer from the Saudi man in charge of the office is 'That is the way it is'. Their question behind their glass cage is, 'Why?

The other question young people ask is "What are our people afraid of?"

The answer to that question is easy.  The old guard are afraid of change.   The young people know this already, though not all of them are sure what to do with that knowledge.  On the one hand this could highlight their immaturity or on the other is a reflection of the respect that most Saudi youth hold for their elders who they consider to be wise and worthy - even if on modernization issues they largely disagree with them.

The old guard fear has its own.  Those who have become powerful, whether in the business arena, the Mosque or the home from the entrenched norms aren't about to give up that power without, at the least, a personal internal struggle or, at most, voiced protest.  That voice usually comes in the form of stern words that generally say things along the lines of 'you're being un-Islamic, of not being Saudi, of chasing infidel values, of going to hell. Of do what I say or else... '

In the past such a dressing down may have instilled fear and doubt in the hearts of their intended target.  What the old guard have forgotten is that the youth of today are, for the most part, well educated, globally connected and influenced, large in number and looking for answers that gel with the modern age.  In other words, such tactics don't work so much any more.

What the conservatives of this country also seem to have missed, which isn't so obvious unless you know where to look, is that the youth have quietly gone about advancing their goal of social modernization despite efforts to prevent it.  And they have, either cunningly or unwittingly, used the economic, political and cultural situation of the country to their advantage.  While the focus of the world, media and general Saudi population in recent years has been on the state of the Saudi economy, Saudi politics, Saudi oil, terrorism, Middle East conflict, new kings, Ministerial reshuffles and the Deputy Crown Prince as he pushes ahead with economic reform, the youth have been implementing strategies, presumably developed in youth based digital media circles that the old guard are deliberately kept out of and ably assisted by forward thinkers within the government, to create centers that are, well, modern.

There is no frosted glass.  There is no gender favoritism of space.  And the world hasn't ended.  More importantly the young people in that space are positive, energetic, happy in their work environment and getting things done.  Prior to discovering these bastions of progress I did wonder why there seemed to be silence from the youth sector regarding the economic reform plans and rather pitied the Deputy Crown Prince as without voiced support from the sector who will most likely, fingers crossed, benefit from his plan because many of his ideas include improvement for youth, his seems an uphill battle.

It was only while out the other day, chatting and laughing with some young women at a cafe while some from the old guard frowned at the fun being had, that I was reminded that cheering in this country, that emotively driven act of shouting for joy or singing praises, has been so completely discouraged in the past that the population is cautious about such expression in the public sphere.  It's ironic how advantageous that forced impassiveness has been for youth who, I sense, prefer to keep their cheering regarding social modification of their spaces to a minimum else it attract unwanted attention.

Here's hoping some part of the 2030 reforms include promotion of the normal human emotion of expressing happiness.

Change is not an easy thing to implement or to face and it has been interesting noting the two different methods for creating change in Saudi - one very public, the other quiet and steady.  Recent reform policies, such as public sector pay cuts and various price increases, have thrown up consequences that the Saudi population had not bargained for and the youth probably had not even considered possible in the bright future they dream of.  Should the reform policies begin to adversely affect their comfortable lives the youth may start viewing the nations makeover more seriously and vocally.  For now, being born into a life of plenty and having not had to face economic downturn before, coupled with that natural youthful optimism we of more mature years remember having but cannot for the life of us figure out where it went, the youth are keeping themselves buoyant, seemingly relatively unperturbed and quite upbeat because their desire for changes in the social arena is bearing fruit.  Long may their happiness last.

Ka Kite,

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