Saudi Arabia: Internal Divisions | Sarah Stook

To most of the world, Saudi Arabia is simple on the outside. Though it has a deep culture and history, it is most known for its rigid and specific interpretation of Sharia Law, its religious fundamentalism and its link to terrorism- particularly in regards to 9/11. Its human rights record is one of the worst in the world, coming 159th out of 167 countries in the Democracy Index, being called a ‘authoritarian regime’ (by contrast, the UK comes 16th and is classed as a ‘full democracy’). Many question why the UK still puts up with Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies before we remember that the West will do anything for oil.

Things aren’t plain sailing for Saudi Arabia at the moment. As their oil reserves lower, the powers that be have decided that they need to act. The country has started its attempts to modernise, with the country becoming the most conservative after two events in 1979- the Iranian Revolution and the Grand Mosque seizure. Its attempts to modernise may come from the more moderate elements of the House of Saud and politicians, but it is by no means a completely moral effort. As oil, the key reason why Saudi Arabia is so rich and has so much power, runs out, they have become aware that they need to sort it out before they revert back to the old ways. The lift on the ban on female drivers and cinemas is just a cynical ploy to attract foreign travellers and investment, especially from the more liberal west.

Even these actions have not come easy. Saudi Arabia contains some deeply internal splits, with many factions and groups vying for power in the state. Even on a non-political level, the divide between the conservative elderly and the more moderate youth, who make up 2/3rd of the population. The division between youth and age has never been more important in a contemporary setting, especially after Saudi Arabia slowly pushes towards reform after years of being stuck in the past. Old and new have not yet collided, as we have seen in the Royal Family.

What do these divisions mean for Saudi Arabia and by extent, the rest of the world?


Rich v Poor

  • Whilst the image of Saudis may conjure up images of men and veiled women on luxury yachts, buying up Harrods and zooming around town in a bright Lamborghini, the real truth is quite different. The Ministry of Social Services last year estimated that the poverty line is $480 a month (1800 Saudi Riyals), leaving 25% of people below the poverty line. An unnamed leading economist estimated the figure at $533 a month (1998 Saudi Riyals), putting 35% below the poverty line. You won’t find most Saudis with a Gucci handbag. The unemployment rate is also very high for the native Saudi Arabs, with ¾ of all unemployed under thirty. Overall, 12.3% of Saudis are unemployed and that figure skyrockets to 40% for youths. There are several reasons for this. One of which is that cheap labour from countries like the Philippines has saturated the market, with foreign workers making up a huge part of the workforce due to their high availability and the fact they can be paid lower. Another is that whilst Saudis are generally educated, they have been unprepared for jobs that don’t involve sitting in an office after daddy got them a job. They see themselves as above the jobs that are often taken by foreigners, especially in the tourism industry.
  • Contrast this with the extreme and often obscene wealth of the nation. There is a popular trend called the ‘Rich Kids of Instagram,’ where the wealthy sons and daughters of the richest people show off their trendy lifestyle. Not to be forgotten, the Saudi kids are often involved in this online trend. From Riyadh to London, we see them in their private planes and supercars. In Harrods, the rich London elite are no longer purchase everything, as the Arabs and Russians use their newfound wealth. In the House of Saud, the richest and most high up princes have wealth that would put the Queen to shame. This is the image that we know comes from this. As around 60% of Saudis work in the public sector, there is no surprise that there is such wealth. The oil industry turned Saudi Arabia from the land of huts and shepherds to one of great wealth, and since it was nationalised in 1980, this makes its workers rich.
  • Critics of Saudi Arabia’s social programmes highlight the fact that the country prefers to airbrush the problem than solve it. Many Westerners will be unaware of the veiled women begging behind shopping malls, as will many rich Saudis. They have pledged money, but it does not seem to be helping and they instead hide the beggars from view. As the oil dries up, the Saudis- especially the young- will be looking for alternative employment. With Saudi Arabia using its heat to push the tourism card, there may very well be a culture clash. Foreigners tend to be hired for tourism jobs in the Gulf region, especially at the front line, as there will be mixing with unrelated people of the opposite sex- a way to get around rigid gender segregation. If they want tourism, they may need to relax some laws and change the way of thinking of the Saudi youth, many of whom live inside the family unit. Saudi Arabia is the biggest free market economy in the region, and its expansion is key to its survival as an economic power.


Modern Royals v Old Fashioned Clerics

  • The image of Saudi Arabia may be one of religious virtue, but the House of Saud is known for its often hypocritical image. Whilst it is known for many sexual and violent acts against servants, and for locking up its own members who are critical of the regime- such as four of the daughters of the late King Abdullah, it also lives a life of freedom. Recent diplomatic leaks told of underground palace parties where forbidden things come to light. Drugs and alcohol- both strictly forbidden were consumed and escorts were brought in- in a place where sex outside of marriage can get you killed. These parties cost more than all of the houses on one suburban English street. The princesses may get away with less, but the princes enjoy a life of fun and freedom. Many of them are also moderate, with some of the top members eager for social reform in the desert nation. Recently, The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman triggered the arrest of a large group of Saudi citizens, including princes and political ministers, who have been accused of corruption. Planes were grounded, bank accounts frozen and imprisonments made. Though it is unknown how genuine bin Salman’s motives are, it at least shows some effort of reform.
  • Whilst the Council of Senior Scholars- the religious group responsible for advising the monarchy- supported the corruption purge, it is obvious that they will disagree with the wishes of a modern prince. In 1956, the fundamentalist clerics were up in arms when *gasp* a school was opened for girls, and had the same reaction with things like the abolishment of slavery in 1962. These men strongly oppose any social reform, believing Saudi Arabia to be the best example of pure Islam, their fear being that the country is taken in by Western words. Though they were openly criticised after the 2002 Mecca girls’ school fire (where they locked women in a burning building as they were improperly covered and didn’t want to risk gender mixing), the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is still hugely powerful. This committee oversees the religious police, who patrol the streets in order to prevent things like Western media, gender mixing and improper dress. Last year, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia (the highest Islamic figure) put out a fatwa against chess. Yes- chess. The game known for its logic and skill apparently promoted gambling and causes hatred.
  • Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy unlike our own constitutional one, so when a King decrees something, it’s more than likely it’s going to happen. Bin Salman seems to be a genuine moderniser in some respects- if we ignore his brutal bombing of Yemen and the fact he has increased the number of imprisoned political critics, and as Crown Prince, he has a lot of sway over the elderly king, who also seems to like a bit of reform. Unfortunately, they still have to listen to the religious clerics. A fatwa may not be law, but it holds a lot of sway in a kingdom that is probably the most religious in the world. Whilst the monarchy skated around the clerics in several cases, such as the aforementioned start of female education, they still have to ensure that they have them on side. If any battle for Saudi Arabia is the most key, it is the one between the two greatest powers- the monarchy and the clerics.


Women’s Rights v Misogyny

  • In 2017, Saudi Arabia shocked the world by announcing that from 2018, women would be allowed to drive in the conservative kingdom. This slew of reforms has been coming in more frequently for the past few years, with the concurrent kings and princes being more in favour of women’s rights as the conservative wing fall away to the reform wing. Though the majority of the country is opposed to the progression of women’s rights, a steady band of activists have been fighting. Before the driving reforms were announced, women illegally zipped around the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah. Through activism, the ballot box and their increasing public presence, women are hoping to transform Saudi Arabia, arguing that women were afforded great respect in antique lands and holy books. The princesses who are not locked away and are lucky enough to have jobs in the administration often use their platforms to encourage women’s rights, though these are usually limited to things like education as opposed to them being able to access medical care without a male guardian.
  • On the flip side, a lot of women are opposed to reform. Several private and government polls stated that whilst women generally wanted to work outside the home (82% agreed in a 2006 poll), they do not like the idea of driving (86% in 2013) or having the guardianship programme revoked (90%). As discussed the earlier, the strict implementation of religion in the land encourages the belief the Saudi Arabia is the best example of pure Islam and the fear of Western influence is real. In 2008, a petition of 5,000 signatures (called ‘My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me) was floated around by Rowdah Yousef requested that the guardianship programme remain and that activists who encouraged equality would be punished. To conservative women, the guardian programme is a system that reveres and protects women, but to liberal women, it is patronising at best and outright misogynistic at worst. Unemployment for native Saudi women sits at an incredibly low 6.1%, yet Saudi women are extremely well-educated, especially at university level- there are more women than men at Saudi universities. Travelling, educating and healthcare are only open to women with permission of their guardians, and there have been cases of ladies being denied surgery after accidents because no man was around to give it the ok. Whilst India and Mexico may spring to mind when one mentions cat calling and sexual harassment in the street, Saudi Arabia is surprisingly bad for such a segregated country. Videos exist of fully veiled women in the street (because amazingly, women don’t dress for it) being harassed in the street by men who do not respect They aren’t just not taught to respect women, they are actively taught not to. Recently, a cleric encouraged sexually harassing women at work in order to encourage them to quit their jobs. A study in 2014 found that 80% of women in the country have been harassed. Other rights, such as inheritance and child custody laws work against women, but a full article would be needed to cover it.
  • Ghanaian scholar Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir-Aggrey once said ‘If you educate a man you educate an individual, you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ This rings true in Saudi Arabia, because the economic and educational empowerment of women is what will help the country- which is why the reforms are there. Truthfully, the more ‘extreme’ reforms- such as women driving, come from the need for opening the country to economic reform. Whilst voting rights may seem like the biggest right, considering how it is a fundamental civic right, it is less of an issue for the Saudi reformers. Votes mean diddly squat in a country where none of the major powers- King, Crown Prince or Grand Mufti- are elected, and these votes will not mean huge reform. Driving is seen as more of an affront to conservatives. Those opposed to it believe that allowing women to drive will require them to unveil, mingle with unknown men and make it easier to leave the home (where they believe that the woman belongs), which is why it was strongly opposed for so long by the most conservatives citizens. As Saudi Arabia weans itself off oil and pushes into the tourist system in a similar way to Dubai, more reforms will come out for women, but sadly, it won’t be all the right ones.


Young v Old

  • Blasting Western music in cars when the religious police aren’t around and wearing jeans under the abaya are part of the rebellious youth culture of Saudi Arabia. Like the youth of every nation, the teens of Saudi Arabia are far removed from the life of their parents and grandparents. The older generation remember a time where Saudi Arabia was not as rich as it was and instead watch their grandchildren live a more privileged life than they do. As the young are exposed to Western culture, even against the censorship of the Saudi Arabia, they question their place in the world. Though many still value Islam and family to a large extent- around 95% of respondents in a survey placed maximum on both, the youth are some of the biggest supporters of Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Through social media, they expressed delight at having a young man in charge, especially one that isn’t as excited about keeping the conservatives at bay. Around 70% of Saudis are under 30, so they are the future and they don’t want to be held back by that 30%.
  • Whilst under 30s make up a huge majority of the country in age demographics, it is the over 30s that make up the senior positions. Most of the roles in the senior royal family belong to the oldest sons of the first Saudi King, Ibn Saud. Saud was born in 1875 (yes, 1875) and had over 100 children, including 45 sons. Every King of Saudi Arabia thus far was the son of Saud, and considering the incredible dynasty that he lay from his loins, it is unsurprising that the older generation hold so much power. These are the conservatives who remember the barren deserts and what Riyadh looked like before it had a glittering cosmopolitan skyline. Those of our grandparents’ age did not know a life without Western influence, especially after the 1979 changes discussed earlier in the article. The most fundamentalist clerics are the older, bearded men that come from Islamic stereotypes, the ones that resent Western influence and basic rights for women.
  • Whilst the younger generation are still deeply religious and respect the idea of family and faith to a near universal level, they are also the most open to change. As they see the world change around them, those who are rich enough to leave the country can see a Western world that they quite admire. They want faith, but they want change too. Unfortunately, whilst the moderate youth are the majority, politics is still in the hands of clerics and princes far older than them. With bin Salman in charge at such a tender age (he is 32 at the time of writing), it give the youth hope that things will change. It does not mean that bin Salman is a good person- his political imprisonments and actions in Yemen were discussed earlier, but it means he will at least encourage the youth to question the actions of the country. Economically, it is the best bet to save them.


With its political system in turmoil with the arrests of high power figures and its oil reserves in decline, it rests on Saudi Arabia to decide how it will save itself. As the young moderates battle against conservative elders, time will tell who will succeed in a country that is such a mysterious enigma. Reform seems to be at the top of the current agenda, but we don’t know how far it will go.

All we can do is sit back and watch.

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