In strict kingdom, Saudi youth shift gears of change

In this desert kingdom of sheikhs and Bedouins, there is a new kind of nomad, wandering restlessly and looking for a future.

This night, they're out on a four-lane road near Jeddah, astride 25 chrome-laden motorcycles – from red, fat-tired, Japanese rockets, to black Harley hogs. The light turns green, and the bikers roar ahead, ripping up the evening in a burst of noisy horsepower and "Easy Rider" freedom.

These young men are part of Saudi Arabia's Generation- X – the youth of this deeply conservative country trying to get by with just a fraction of the wealth their parents had. They are highly educated – often hold degrees from Ivy League schools – but face unprecedented unemployment and say that the slow pace of change here means that globalization is leaving this desert kingdom behind.

They are searching for meaning in lives defined by a host of restrictions, including official prohibitions on cinemas, theaters, clubs, bars, and male-female mingling. And as Saudi Arabia's earnings per capita have tumbled from a high 20 years ago that put it on par with America, to that of Panama today, they are frustrated with Saudi's aged leadership, and are becoming more political.

"We are bored out of our minds – what choices do we have?" asks a Canadian-educated student dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans, who asked not to be named. "There is the beach for families, or we can go to the cafe. But there is nothing much to do, except hang out and talk."

Those who have been educated abroad, like this student, have developed a taste for Western social freedoms that, after they return to Saudi Arabia, make them as uncomfortable as a square peg in a round hole.

Moreover, this country has one of the highest birthrates in the world – an average of seven children per woman – plus unemployment rates that officially edge up to 30 percent (young people say it is more like 40 percent). Some 70 percent of the population is under 30 years of age; nearly 40 percent of the population have been born since the 1991 Gulf War.

Some deal with this by delving more deeply into religion. Others feel a sense of confusion and, perhaps, turn to drugs. Still others, watching a steady stream of violent news on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, are increasingly demanding action from their leaders, at home and abroad.

"At the moment, there is a lot of questioning [by Saudi youth] of their own identity, of their relation with their rulers," says Mai Yamani of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, and author of "Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia."

"People feel emboldened that other young people are taking the lead on the Palestinian street," Ms. Yamani says. "Definitely the intifada [uprising] has awakened a level of their Arab identity, because national identity is not satisfactory."

There are also some young Saudis who are taking the challenges of the future head-on. They detect that some change is already under way, from a subtle relaxation of some strict rules regarding women, to a new willingness to publicly criticize the heavy-handed religious police.

Of the many Saudi students who study abroad, those who return "really want to make a difference, and are committed to work," says Kinda Balkhair, a journalist educated at the American University of Cairo. Her long black hair can be uncovered in the newsroom, but who must cover up in the scorching heat outside.

After her experience abroad, Ms. Balkhair is determined to help Saudi Arabia open up. Her friend, she says, works until 11 p.m. "because there is nothing else to do. So long as you see change, that is good, but it is slow.... I feel I am on a mission, to come back and make a difference."

The pace of change is the key to meaning for many Saudi youth, and can determine whether they lead a life of despondent leisure, or engage professionally and meaningfully in Saudi life, despite the tough rules.

Take Deena Bougary, the young, smiling director of the government-supported charity Solidarity without Borders, which provides educational programs for orphans, the disabled, and children in hospitals.

Spurred by a need to "do something" after seeing television footage of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing Kosovo in 1999, Ms. Bougary launched an awareness campaign that collected $300,000. Marshaling a group of other young Saudi female volunteers, Bougary says she sees "lots of positive change, though it is not going 260 miles a second."

She charts that change – a broad, if thin, relaxation of social rules – by her experience at an annual economic forum held in Jeddah. Three years ago, there were no women at all. The year after, women were upstairs and out of sight. One year later, they had a big-screen TV and could sit on the balcony, and there was an official mention of the "women we can't see."

"This year we were there, with only a partition, and spoke, and asked good questions," says Bougary. "It's not a revolution, but a new fresh air."

She and others are translating that into a purpose that can help them navigate Saudi Arabia's family-centered, traditional social milieu. Besides helping others, the charity workers say they also work for themselves.

"A lot of it is self-fulfillment," says Ruba Bahareth, a US-educated volunteer at Solidarity. "We come back [to Saudi Arabia], and have to do something."

Finding that something is not always so easy – and not all Saudi youth are convinced that, with its snail pace, this desert kingdom is even on a par with other Arab societies, much less Western ones.

"We have more youth dying on the roads [pulling car and motorcycle stunts] than young Palestinians dying in the uprising," says a young professional woman who asked not to be identified. "We want change. It has been promised for a long time."

The issue of women – who are required to wear top-to-toe black abayas, are forbidden to drive, and are limited in job prospects – grates especially hard.

Not all are convinced they can detect fresh air. The religious police stop women when they answer a mobile phone call, for example, if their sleeve slips to reveal their wrist – a moment one woman calls "sick," that shows how the religious police need to "get a life."

"The royal family realizes this is not working to their benefit," says this woman, who asked not to be named. "This hard-line stance is slowing down. But you have people in Saudi Arabia who want reform and democracy, and religious people interpret that as discos and nightclubs."

"We are still in the bare minimum, and when the world is globalizing, you can't afford to be fighting for the bare minimum," says the professional. "If that is the case, there is no ray of hope."

Saudi youth are "desperate" for work, she says, and "will take any pay – their situation is dire. Six years ago they would have complained [about some jobs]; now they have to put food on the table."

Average Saudi annual income has fallen from $28,600 in 1981 to less than $7,500 today – a remarkable drop for an oil-rich Gulf state. Manual jobs once done by foreign "guest" workers, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, are increasingly being filled by Saudis.

"There is huge change in Saudi Arabia, and we will see many more changes in the next five years," says another young Saudi woman with dangling gold earrings, noting that a strong work ethic is not always part of the equation. "Now you see Saudis behind cash registers, as guards, and taxi drivers. A Saudi woman spent 15 minutes making a latte for me at Starbucks coffee, and said: 'You should be grateful I am even doing this for you.' "

Saudi youth say that openings for meaningful jobs are swamped with applicants, even as costs such as electricity bills have tripled in recent years. Despite grousing by some here that Saudis have "no work ethic," after decades of a petroleum-driven high standard of living, others are creating their own niche.

"I see a lot of chances here, and people will support you once you start work," says a US-born head of a graphic-design company, who wears a traditional white robe and left college twice to find his own way. Some male friends of his say they have "no complaints" about life in Saudi.

"The people I employ have a purpose, an aim, and want to reach it," says the businessman, who asked not to be identified. "The problem in Saudi Arabia is that there is little purpose and little to work for. A lot depends on our parents: They can raise us as real men and women, or they can spoil us."

Another issue with parents can also be strict social rules, which regard women who work as tainted – making them impossible marriage candidates for some young men, since they are seen by some parents as "too available." Saudi officials announced this week that 20 percent of Saudi marriages – in which the vast majority were dictated by parents or other matchmakers – end in divorce.

"I am very unhappy here. There is nothing to do," says one lanky Saudi graduate, adding that such stress causes him to lose weight when he is in his homeland.

"I met a woman whom I might like to marry," the graduate says, with a smile that quickly turned to a frown. "But I had to engineer a 'chance' meeting between her and my parents, so they wouldn't think I had ever met her, and disqualify her."

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