Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Saudi Arabia Is Changing:
Socio-Cultural Transformation and Yemen War
By James J Zogby
CCUN, March , 2017
|A view of the Saudi capital
Saudi Arabia is Changing
Something is happening in Saudi Arabia. The country is undergoing real
change. Many commentators have written about it, but in some instances their
observations have been based on a one-off visit comparing what they've just
seen with the biases they've learned—without context or history.
I am by no means an expert on Saudi Arabia, but as someone who has
visited the country over four dozen times in the past four decades and who
has been able to conduct polling across the Kingdom for the past decade and
a half, I want to share some conclusions from my just completed visit as
well as some of my most recent public opinion polls.
In a real sense, Saudi Arabia is a new country that has always been
changing. In the early 1950's, for example, the population of Riyadh, the
capital, was in the tens of thousands. By 1980, when I made my first visit,
it had grown to one million. Today Greater Riyadh is approaching seven
million souls. There have been times when the city looked like a massive
construction site with buildings or other infrastructure projects going up
everywhere. Saudis have joked that their national bird was the crane.
Rapid urbanization came with a price. As rural people flooded into
newly expanded urban areas, many experienced culture shock feeling a need to
cling to the purity of the "old ways"—a not unexpected response.
With each passing year subtle but real changes have occurred. Some
were the result of the tens of thousands of Saudis who studied abroad;
others flowed from the transformations in daily life and social and economic
relations that resulted from urbanization; still others reflected the impact
globalization especially on Saudi youth. In any case, today's Saudi Arabia
is not the one I first visited a generation ago, with many Saudis living
lives and connecting to the outside world in ways unimaginable to their
grandparents. Traditions, however, remain and this is enough for some in the
West to dismiss the country's culture as frozen. It appears that if change
doesn't come at our pace, dressed in Western garb, and isn't done "our
way"—it's not real change.
But even beyond this slow and steady evolution there is something new
and significant taking place in the Kingdom. There is today a conscious and
deliberate effort by Saudi leadership to speed up this process of
transforming their society and to challenge some elements of the traditional
culture that stand in the way of moving the country forward. Some of the
impetus behind this effort is, no doubt, due to the need to move beyond
dependence on oil revenues and government subsidized employment. Another
important factor is the coming of age of a new generation of leaders who
want to modernize their country, but to do so while being respectful of its
traditions. Threading this needle is important since a significant segment
of the population remains conservative and the young leadership is not
inclined to totally upend the social order creating disruptive instability.
As part of this national effort at
social and economic transformation, the number of Saudis
studying abroad has increased to over two hundred thousand youngsters from
all segments of Saudi society and all parts of the country. There are
currently more women than men in college and women graduates are entering
the workplace in ever increasing numbers. There has been a determined
effort, working with international specialists, to modernize the education
curriculum with changes on every level. On my most recent visit to Saudi
Arabia, I received a briefing at the Ministry of Education, I was struck by:
reforms in early childhood and elementary education; the new emphasis being
given to math and science; the training programs that have been developed
for teachers and aides preparing them to mainstream children with
disabilities; and efforts to provide online and interactive educational
opportunities for Saudis of all ages. These changes combined will no doubt
produce even greater transformations in the years to come.
But what do Saudis think of their country and their own personal
circumstances in this evolving social reality. There are dissidents, to be
sure, both those who say change is not coming fast enough and those
disgruntled souls who are repulsed by modernity and who condemn any threats
to the old order. This is to be expected in any society experiencing change.
But what our polling shows is that most Saudis are quite satisfied with
their lives and are optimistic about the future. In a "quality of life"
survey we conducted a few years ago in 22 countries, Saudi Arabia scored
quite well—higher than the United States and most Western countries. More
recent polling, since the launching of the national transformation program,
have shown dramatic increases in both optimism and satisfaction ratings.
There are concerns, to be sure, but on the whole, men and women, young and
old, educated and less educated alike give life in their country good grades
and have high expectation for the future . This confounds some American
observers because they can only see Saudi Arabia through their own eyes,
without paying attention to how the majority of Saudis see their own
As ambitious and promising as the national transformation program is,
it is also a risky undertaking. On the one hand, there are the expectations
that promised change has created. This must be weighed against the backlash
of Saudi conservatives who are already expressing concern with this
orchestrated movement toward modernizing their society. I referred to it as
"threading a needle" and it surely is.
Then there is the impact of the
disastrous and costly war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is deeply
troubled by Iran's aggressive ambitions and concerned with the
destabilization of their southern neighbor. But their efforts to restore the
legitimate government of Yemen that was deposed by an Iranian-backed
movement, have not been successful. Reports of heavy civilian casualties
have taken a horrific human toll on Yemenis and have contributed to
tarnishing Saudi Arabia's image in the West. And then there's the
cost—especially given declining oil revenues and the price tag associated
with the national transformation effort.
Only a hardened cynic or a dyed-in-the-wool bigot would want to see the
Saudi national transformation program fail. At the same time, it would be
naïve to assume that the coast is clear and all will inevitably work out in
the end. Success is not assured, real problems remain and there will serious
challenges in the future. But it should be recognized that Saudis have
taken their future in their own hands and are making change their way. They
should be supported.
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