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What Obama must see in Saudi Arabia

Finding freedom

US-Saudi ties are not in the best shape, but President Obama should look to the emerging civic identity of Saudi youth, found in their digital life and demand for rights.

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    A Saudi woman seen through a heart-shaped statue walks along the Red Sea in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia issued new guidelines April 12 to define and curtail powers of the kingdom’s religious police. The force’s members, known as Mutawas, are not allowed to chase people down the street or demand to see a person’s ID. They are tasked with ensuring people observe the kingdom’s ultraconservative Islamic codes but have been criticized for sometimes intrusive tactics.
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Among young Arabs in the Middle East, those in Saudi Arabia are the most active users of Twitter and YouTube, according to a new poll. This may help explain another insight about a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30: Saudi youth are by far the most demanding – 90 percent – that their leaders do more for women’s rights and freedoms.

This is the real Saudi Arabia that President Obama visits this week, one that has changed rapidly since his last visit over a year ago. The country installed a new king last year, Salman bin Abdulaziz, who was immediately faced with a drastic drop in global oil prices. The loss of oil revenue has forced a faster pace in domestic reforms to meet the rising expectations of young people.

Most important, the king put the Saudi economy and its security in the hands of his son, Mohammed bin Salman, who is second in line to the throne and yet only in his early 30s.

In the Digital Age, rulers of authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia cannot ignore how much more young people are able to identify with ideas such as equality, religious freedom, and individual rights. If confined to act more as subjects than citizens, their public space becomes the Internet. In cyberspace, power is horizontal, a sharing among equals. Young Saudis are quickly finding themselves aligned with universal norms.

Most of the recent reforms have been economic. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed is opening Saudi Arabia to foreign investors and privatizing many parts of government. Instead of receiving free health care, for example, Saudis will soon buy health insurance. To wean the economy off its high dependency on oil, King Salman is boosting non-oil industries, whose revenues rose about a third last year.

His task is to create enough jobs for a workforce that will double by 2030. But can the House of Saud do all this without political reform and an end to repression – even hanging – of dissidents? Freedom House ranks the kingdom as one of the worst countries for gender inequality, human right abuses, and lack of freedom.

The latest sign that the Saudi monarchy recognizes this problem is its crackdown this month on the so-called religious police. This Islamic vice squad of some 5,000 enforces sharia (Islamic law), such as separation of the sexes in public. It is semiautonomous but paid by the state. The government has ordered it to be “gentle and kind” and only report violations to the regular police authorities. This change came after a video went viral of religious police assaulting women at a mall in the capital of Riyadh.

This shift comes after an election last year in which women were allowed to vote and run for office in the only democratic part of the Saudi system, the election of local governing councils. At council meetings, however, women can only participate via video so that they do not mix with men.

The future of the US-Saudi alliance, which has lasted for eight decades, depends less and less on a mutual interest in oil and Middle East stability. Americans and others look to young Saudis who are using their digital access to reshape their civic identity. When American presidents visit these days, they need to get out on the street.

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