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Saudi Arabia Faces Tradition and Change


Tradition and religion have been the pillars of Saudi Arabia's history and cultural identity. Within the past several decades, immense oil wealth has catapulted Saudis into a modern world of international travel, satellite television and music videos. With that come increasing demands for change as well as fears by some that the social fabric is being destroyed.

For Muslims, Saudi Arabia is hallowed ground. It is the birthplace of Muhammad and the religion he founded.

It is an absolute monarchy, ruled by the al-Saud family. It adheres to a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, known as Wahhabism, which is central to Saudi identity - as are the kingdom's cultural roots of a desert and tribal society.

Beneath the country's vast desert lie the world's largest oil reserves and these have, within several short decades, catapulted Saudi Arabia from an isolated desert kingdom into the age of globalization.

Oil brought wealth, education, technology and outside influences - and while many young Saudis may still head out to desert encampments on the weekend, they are also likely watch MTV, use the internet, and not leave home without their cell phones.

We are just like young people anywhere, says 23 year-old Mohammed Sabri. "We just hang out, we watch TV, play play-station, what normal guys do, cruise around in our cars, race sometimes and go to the beach, that is all," he says.

Sabri is studying finance and economics at the College of Business Administration, a private school near Jeddah. He is part of the new generation - in a country where 75-percent of the population is under the age of 30.

This is what makes change inevitable, says Jeddah banker, Nahid Taher. "I believe young people are the power of change in the future. If we accepted something in the past, they will not accept." She says technology, education, and travel have made young Saudis more aware of the broader world around them.

Monarchy Opposition and al-Qaida

But travel and technology do not always translate into openness. There are young Saudis who fear the encroachment of outside influences as a threat to their religious and cultural identity.

Some of them are the most vehement opponents of the Saudi monarchy and the most ardent supporters of al-Qaida. Of the 19 men who carried out the September 11th attacks in the United States in 2001, 15 were Saudis.

That, says Saudi political analyst, Khalil al Khalil came as a shock. "We were not believing what happened, we came back to ourselves to say why? What happened?"

Critics blame the government for failing to rein in extremist clerics who they say recruited young Saudis by preaching hate and violence.

The government has since cracked down on radical religious leaders and is fighting its own battle against terrorist cells. There is no denying that the kingdom's clerical establishment is a force to be reckoned with. Religion, tradition and politics are closely intertwined.

And, that is a dilemma when it comes to change, says reform proponent, Khaled Maeena, the editor in chief of the English language daily, Arab News.

"We have to change and there has been change across the board in Saudi Arabia. The question is the pace of change. There are people like us who would want much faster speed of change. There are others who are concerned that any change will hurt the equilibrium and create tension and chaos in society," says Maeena.

Slow Pace of Reforms

Much has already changed in the kingdom. Jeddah businessman Amr Kashoggi says, ‚ÄĚSaudi Arabia has taken huge strides in advancing in the last 50 years. If you think about it, my mother never went to school, my daughter is a graduate from Brown University [in Rhode Island]. Big difference."

But much in Saudi Arabia remains firmly anchored in tradition. Both men and women wear the traditional loose-fitting, ankle-length dress - men the white thobe and checkered kafiyey headdress, women the flowing black abaya, headscarf and often a veil covering the entire face.

While many Saudis are annoyed by some of the cultural restrictions they face, they say foreigners too often focus on the obvious, the fact that women must wear the veil. They say more important changes are needed. They want substantive political reforms, transparency, and accountability in government, and assurances the kingdom's vast oil wealth is spent for the benefit of all.

Political analyst Khalil al Khalil is also a member of the Consultative Council, the closest thing Saudi Arabia has to a parliament. "I am for changes, I am for reforms, but I would like to see this to be functioning for many years and decades and to be genuine," he says.

Khalil says he is against purely symbolic reforms that may look good, but will have little long-term impact. Consultative Council members are appointed, not elected and while they advise the King on issues, they cannot enact legislation. The kingdom held its first municipal elections last December, but many Saudis want the process expanded.

Twenty-seven-year-old Ebtihal Mubarak is a reporter for the Arab News in Jeddah. She says allowing political parties and non-governmental organizations would be an important step in opening up the political process. She laments that change is coming so slowly, "I wish it happened more quickly. I think it is kind of slow. We were anticipating more. I wish it had happened more quickly. Nothing dangerous. We have wanted it so long and this is the time we want to seize the moment and go further," she says. Even in Mubarak's desire for change, there is hesitation - nothing dangerous, she says - a phrase heard often from Saudis - meaning change yes, but not at the expense of stability.

Political analyst Ahmed Ibn Saifuddin of Riyadh's Imam Ibn Saud University, explains the Saudi approach. "Yes, I think we need to reform, to advance, however we need to do it steadily, surely and slowly. We will develop in the way we think is right - little by little."

Saudi reformers are pinning their hopes on King Abdullah, who has spoken openly about the need for change. And most appear satisfied that it is likely to be a cautious process.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.