During my recent trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I had the opportunity to visit universities to speak with students, businesses to better understand their economy, and embassies to hear an account of U.S.-Saudi relations unadulterated by the media. We traveled all over the country from Riyadh in the center, to Jeddah in the West, to Dammam in the East. Although we covered the major cities, I do not feel like I saw Saudi Arabia. Our short visit consisted of the main urban areas. Stories of domestic abuse, fanaticism, and beheadings are far more common in the rural parts. For this reason, I cannot say that my following views accurately reflect the realities of the entire country, but they reflect what I did have the chance to witness.
Saudi Arabia is a land of conflicting identities. A student at Al-Saud University told me that when she wanted to take a year off between high school and college, her father would not let her, much like an American father would push his daughter to get a higher degree here in the States. A student at Al-Effat University told me that she would like to pursue an international affairs degree, but she would never get a job as a female and by being unconnected with the royal family.
The president of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce exclaimed how well the Kingdom is doing in business, financing, and in improving unemployment. A disenfranchised Shi’a told me of the poverty in the country outside of the three major urban areas.
Gender or Age
Saudi Arabia is a land of conflicting identities, but the discrepancy does not fault a division between genders. The women do not view themselves in competition with the men. If they felt dissatisfied with their situation, the men – as a whole – were not to blame. The schism does not divide sexes, but generations.
The youth we talked to, men and women alike, generally favored reform. (Keep in mind though, we only had the opportunity to speak with educated middle and upper middle class persons.) The older generations of people we met, both men and women, generally favored more traditional notions, such as women not driving. When we met with a female reporter working for the Saudi Gazette (a newspaper printed in English), she complained about the difficulties she faced when trying to interview members of the government. I asked her if she thought this was a gender issue, as most of the employees in the government are male, or an age issue. She answered that it was an age issue; the older men are not accustomed to seeing a woman working.
A number of other experiences reinforced this notion. An older professor at a university explained that she loved having a driver. It made her feel “like a king.” Only afterwards, in hushed voices, did the younger students admit they did not feel the same way. However, they did not say so in front of their elders.
Progress at their Own Pace
Saudi Arabia is a land of conflicting identities. These inconsistent views between generations reflect the growing pains of a modernizing state. An American woman, living in the Kingdom for the past forty-four years, told us that 9/11 opened the country up to self-reflection. People began to distinguish “tradition” from “religion.” This allowed a space for criticism.
Although we see the country in a standstill, for Saudis, they see progress. They fear rapid modernization, citing Iran during the 1960s and 1970s as their justification against moving too quickly. They do not want their own Islamic revolution. Although some complained that reform comes too slowly, they do not deny that it is happening. Just three months ago the Kingdom awarded licenses to its first three female lawyers. During our trip, the first all-female law firm opened in Jeddah.
Although I agree with those who complained that progress moves too slowly, I understand the reasoning for why it does so. As Americans, we must not view their progress through our lens of success. Many problems exist in the country, but from what I saw, Saudi Arabia will continue to develop, in the manner that best suits them.