Bloomberg Markets Magazine published a good survey of Saudi Arabia on April 2. The article, titled “Saudis Skip Arab Spring as Nation Pours Money Into Jobs,” explores the unemployment crisis in the Kingdom and the absence of a unified opposition. Donna Abu-Nasr’s report is lengthy but well worth your time. She offers some great statistics bolstered by good interviews with the broader public.
Saudi Arabia, I think, might be the least understood country in the region for a number of reasons. First, of course, is the country’s conservative streak, as seen in culture and religious observance. Second, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy so there is very little political space open for debate or self-criticism. Saudis and others around the Gulf are happy to talk politics but those discussions take place at home. Without open debate, however, Saudi Arabia seemingly lacks a diversity of opinion, no matter how false that conclusion is. Regrettably, media restrictions prevent this fact from openly challenging assumptions made by outsiders. According to Reporters Without Borders and their 2011-12 Press Freedom Index, Saudi Arabia ranked 158 out of 179 countries. (The US ranked 47th because so many journalists were arrested while covering the Occupy movement in 2011.)
The Kingdom’s conservative and autocratic tendencies lead outsiders to judge the country rather than explain it; few can tolerate the thought that the monarchy may enjoy some measure of legitimacy, for example. The end result is a superficial understanding of Saudi Arabia and its people, as well as their history and future–obscured by foreign expectations. This lack of empathy is also partially explained by how difficult it is to travel to the Kingdom if you’re not doing business. Non-religious tourism just doesn’t exist. And few academics are tripping over themselves to spend months or years in Saudi Arabia (though the few who do are outstanding). The end result is cartoonish representations found in foreign media.
It’s also often assumed that Saudi Arabia is artificial. According to this argument, conservativism and the monarchy are imposed by the royal family–they are not organic. But King Abdullah’s reputation as a reformer–in the slow-motion Saudi sense of the word–enhances the royal brand. Successive kings have brought tremendous wealth and higher standards of living to the Kingdom. It is hard to disassociate the global rise of Saudi Arabia’s economic, political, and spiritual profile from the royal palace. While a democratic election may be the gold standard for legitimate rule, the royal family’s authority is buoyed by the nation’s speedy development, as well as its custodianship of Islam’s holy sites.
Conservative attitudes are not wholly dependent on government decrees. In fact, religiosity can be explained as a “bottom-up phenomenon,” reinforced by the will of many–even though agents of the state are responsible for compliance. Abu-Nasr captures this fact neatly: “Though men wear identical white robes in public and women wear the black abayas, Saudis aren’t as homogenous as they first seem. Some are liberals who want more freedom, while others are conservative, pushing for more restrictions.” I don’t know what the liberal-conservative breakdown is in Saudi Arabia. Without party politics or national elections, there are no platforms to dissect, or poll results to reference. But is it so hard to believe that Saudi Arabia today is a product of its people–not just the monarchy?
While the above comments may be contrarian, they are no excuse for sanctioned violence, abuse, corruption, or sectarian discrimination. Indeed, these failures, along with systemic unemployment, pose the greatest threat to Arab sheikhdoms because they sap legitimacy from monarchies. The Gulf Arab states generally would benefit from more open political spaces, even though royal power would be contested as a result. But when speaking honestly about this sub-region of the Middle East, observers should stop short of projecting their own desires onto countries like Saudi Arabia. It’s unwise to assume no one could be proud to live in a country that lacks certain freedoms and promotes a version of Islam which some find controversial.
As for statistics, consider the following:
Under-30s such as al-Ghamdi and his friends make up 66 percent of the Saudi population — a group that also has the highest rate of unemployment. About 27 percent of the Saudi labor force aged 20 to 29 is unemployed, according to data from the Central Department of Statistics and Information.
That’s almost on a par with Spain, where 36.4 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds were unemployed in the fourth quarter of 2011, the highest rate in the European Union.
In a country of 28 million people, about 8.6 million are foreigners, who make up most of the labor force. Just 4.3 million of the almost 19 million Saudis were in the workforce in 2009, according to the most-recent statistics agency data.
With an unemployment rate of 55 percent for women aged 20 to 29, it’s not surprising that Sultan and her friends jump at the few chances offered to them. Keeping their male cohorts happily employed is trickier.
Some 90 percent of the private-sector workforce in Saudi Arabia is foreign. It’s rare to find a laborer, waiter or construction worker who’s Saudi: They tend to prefer desk-bound managerial positions.
I welcome all comments, expecting some to disagree. I’m also eager to hear from our Saudi readers. I know there’s a few.