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Winds of Change in Saudia Arabia-Part 2
by Saima Alvi
12 July 2002 18:11 UTC
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In strict kingdom, Saudi youth shift gears of change
By Scott Peterson | Staff writer of The Christian
Science Monitor 

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - In this desert kingdom of
sheikhs and Bedouins, there is a new kind of nomad,
wandering restlessly and looking for a future.

This night, they're out on a four-lane road near
Jeddah, astride 25 chrome-laden motorcycles  from
red, fat-tired, Japanese rockets, to black Harley
hogs. The light turns green, and the bikers roar
ahead, ripping up the evening in a burst of noisy
horsepower and "Easy Rider" freedom.

These young men are part of Saudi Arabia's Generation-
X  the youth of this deeply conservative country
trying to get by with just a fraction of the wealth
their parents had. They are highly educated  often
hold degrees from Ivy League schools  but face
unprecedented unemployment and say that the slow pace
of change here means that globalization is leaving
this desert kingdom behind.

They are searching for meaning in lives defined by a
host of restrictions, including official prohibitions
on cinemas, theaters, clubs, bars, and male-female
mingling. And as Saudi Arabia's earnings per capita
have tumbled from a high 20 years ago that put it on
par with America, to that of Panama today, they are
frustrated with Saudi's aged leadership, and are
becoming more political.

"We are bored out of our minds  what choices do we
have?" asks a Canadian-educated student dressed in a
white T-shirt and jeans, who asked not to be named.
"There is the beach for families, or we can go to the
cafe. But there is nothing much to do, except hang out
and talk."

Those who have been educated abroad, like this
student, have developed a taste for Western social
freedoms that, after they return to Saudi Arabia, make
them as uncomfortable as a square peg in a round hole.

Moreover, this country has one of the highest
birthrates in the world  an average of seven children
per woman  plus unemployment rates that officially
edge up to 30 percent (young people say it is more
like 40 percent). Some 70 percent of the population is
under 30 years of age; nearly 40 percent of the
population have been born since the 1991 Gulf War.

Some deal with this by delving more deeply into
religion. Others feel a sense of confusion and,
perhaps, turn to drugs. Still others, watching a
steady stream of violent news on the
Israeli-Palestinian crisis, are increasingly demanding
action from their leaders, at home and abroad.

"At the moment, there is a lot of questioning [by
Saudi youth] of their own identity, of their relation
with their rulers," says Mai Yamani of the Royal
Institute of International Affairs in London, and
author of "Changed Identities: The Challenge of the
New Generation in Saudi Arabia."

"People feel emboldened that other young people are
taking the lead on the Palestinian street," Ms. Yamani
says. "Definitely the intifada [uprising] has awakened
a level of their Arab identity, because national
identity is not satisfactory."

There are also some young Saudis who are taking the
challenges of the future head-on. They detect that
some change is already under way, from a subtle
relaxation of some strict rules regarding women, to a
new willingness to publicly criticize the heavy-handed
religious police.

Of the many Saudi students who study abroad, those who
return "really want to make a difference, and are
committed to work," says Kinda Balkhair, a journalist
educated at the American University of Cairo. Her long
black hair can be uncovered in the newsroom, but who
must cover up in the scorching heat outside.

After her experience abroad, Ms. Balkhair is
determined to help Saudi Arabia open up. Her friend,
she says, works until 11 p.m. "because there is
nothing else to do. So long as you see change, that is
good, but it is slow.... I feel I am on a mission, to
come back and make a difference."

The pace of change is the key to meaning for many
Saudi youth, and can determine whether they lead a
life of despondent leisure, or engage professionally
and meaningfully in Saudi life, despite the tough

Take Deena Bougary, the young, smiling director of the
government-supported charity Solidarity without
Borders, which provides educational programs for
orphans, the disabled, and children in hospitals.

Spurred by a need to "do something" after seeing
television footage of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing
Kosovo in 1999, Ms. Bougary launched an awareness
campaign that collected $300,000. Marshaling a group
of other young Saudi female volunteers, Bougary says
she sees "lots of positive change, though it is not
going 260 miles a second."

She charts that change  a broad, if thin, relaxation
of social rules  by her experience at an annual
economic forum held in Jeddah. Three years ago, there
were no women at all. The year after, women were
upstairs and out of sight. One year later, they had a
big-screen TV and could sit on the balcony, and there
was an official mention of the "women we can't see."

"This year we were there, with only a partition, and
spoke, and asked good questions," says Bougary. "It's
not a revolution, but a new fresh air."

She and others are translating that into a purpose
that can help them navigate Saudi Arabia's
family-centered, traditional social milieu. Besides
helping others, the charity workers say they also work
for themselves.

"A lot of it is self-fulfillment," says Ruba Bahareth,
a US-educated volunteer at Solidarity. "We come back
[to Saudi Arabia], and have to do something."

Finding that something is not always so easy  and not
all Saudi youth are convinced that, with its snail
pace, this desert kingdom is even on a par with other
Arab societies, much less Western ones.

"We have more youth dying on the roads [pulling car
and motorcycle stunts] than young Palestinians dying
in the uprising," says a young professional woman who
asked not to be identified. "We want change. It has
been promised for a long time."

The issue of women  who are required to wear
top-to-toe black abayas, are forbidden to drive, and
are limited in job prospects  grates especially hard.

Not all are convinced they can detect fresh air. The
religious police stop women when they answer a mobile
phone call, for example, if their sleeve slips to
reveal their wrist  a moment one woman calls "sick,"
that shows how the religious police need to "get a

"The royal family realizes this is not working to
their benefit," says this woman, who asked not to be
named. "This hard-line stance is slowing down. But you
have people in Saudi Arabia who want reform and
democracy, and religious people interpret that as
discos and nightclubs."

"We are still in the bare minimum, and when the world
is globalizing, you can't afford to be fighting for
the bare minimum," says the professional. "If that is
the case, there is no ray of hope."

Saudi youth are "desperate" for work, she says, and
"will take any pay  their situation is dire. Six
years ago they would have complained [about some
jobs]; now they have to put food on the table."

Average Saudi annual income has fallen from $28,600 in
1981 to less than $7,500 today  a remarkable drop for
an oil-rich Gulf state. Manual jobs once done by
foreign "guest" workers, mostly from the Indian
subcontinent, are increasingly being filled by Saudis.

"There is huge change in Saudi Arabia, and we will see
many more changes in the next five years," says
another young Saudi woman with dangling gold earrings,
noting that a strong work ethic is not always part of
the equation. "Now you see Saudis behind cash
registers, as guards, and taxi drivers. A Saudi woman
spent 15 minutes making a latte for me at Starbucks
coffee, and said: 'You should be grateful I am even
doing this for you.' "

Saudi youth say that openings for meaningful jobs are
swamped with applicants, even as costs such as
electricity bills have tripled in recent years.
Despite grousing by some here that Saudis have "no
work ethic," after decades of a petroleum-driven high
standard of living, others are creating their own

"I see a lot of chances here, and people will support
you once you start work," says a US-born head of a
graphic-design company, who wears a traditional white
robe and left college twice to find his own way. Some
male friends of his say they have "no complaints"
about life in Saudi.

"The people I employ have a purpose, an aim, and want
to reach it," says the businessman, who asked not to
be identified. "The problem in Saudi Arabia is that
there is little purpose and little to work for. A lot
depends on our parents: They can raise us as real men
and women, or they can spoil us."

Another issue with parents can also be strict social
rules, which regard women who work as tainted  making
them impossible marriage candidates for some young
men, since they are seen by some parents as "too
available." Saudi officials announced this week that
20 percent of Saudi marriages  in which the vast
majority were dictated by parents or other matchmakers
 end in divorce.

"I am very unhappy here. There is nothing to do," says
one lanky Saudi graduate, adding that such stress
causes him to lose weight when he is in his homeland.

"I met a woman whom I might like to marry," the
graduate says, with a smile that quickly turned to a
frown. "But I had to engineer a 'chance' meeting
between her and my parents, so they wouldn't think I
had ever met her, and disqualify her."

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