The Society

Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

SAUDI ARABIA IN THE 1990s was a society of contrasts. After three decades of intense modernization, the country's urban infrastructure was highly developed and technologically sophisticated. Excellent hospitals, clinics, schools, colleges, and universities offered free medical care and education to Saudi citizens. Shopping malls displayed Paris fashions; supermarkets sold vegetables flown in from the Netherlands; restaurants offered Tex-Mex, Chinese, or haute cuisine; and amusement centers with separate hours for male and female patrons dotted the urban landscape. Suburban neighborhoods with single-family houses and swimming pools hidden behind high walls ringed commercial districts, and satellite communications made a telephone call from Riyadh to New York as fast and as clear as a call to New York from Connecticut.

Massive oil revenues had brought undreamed-of wealth to the kingdom. Affluence, however, proved a two-edged sword. The dilemma that Saudis faced in the 1990s was to preserve their cultural and religious heritage while realizing the advantages that such wealth might bring. The regime sought to acquire Western technology while maintaining those values that were central to Saudi society.

It was not an easy quest. The country has its roots in the Wahhabism, an eighteenth-century reform movement that called for a return to the purity and simplicity of the early Islamic community. It was the alliance between the Wahhabi religious reformers and the House of Saud (Al Saud) that provided the Arabs of the peninsula with a new and compelling focus for their loyalties and helped to forge the unification of the peninsula under the leadership of Abd al Aziz ibn Abd ar Rahman Al Saud.

The kingdom was rooted in religion-based conservatism stemming from the Wahhabi reform movement. The strength of conservative opinion grew even as the pace of economic change increased. Religious conservatives and modernizers disagreed on what kinds of technology might be used appropriately and how best to use the kingdom's vast wealth. The dichotomy between the two was at the heart of much of the country's political affairs. There was, nonetheless, unanimous accord that Saudi Arabia's modernization--whatever form it might take--reflect its Islamic values.

Massive urbanization and the altered economic situation have fueled both the forces of change and conservatism. Urbanization brought with it new social groups--students, technical experts, and a vast corps of foreign workers among them. The government has made every effort to insulate the population from the influence of the foreign community; the task grew more difficult as the number of non-Saudis in the work force increased. Expansion of educational and economic opportunities polarized those who had pursued secular studies and those who had pursued religious studies.

Although Saudi Arabia stood with one foot firmly placed among the most highly developed nations of the world, the other foot remained in the Third World. Almost one-third of the population lived in rural areas very distant from developed urban centers, some living as nomadic and seminomadic herdsmen, and some as oasis agricultural workers. Other families were divided, caught between the devaluation of local products and the rising cost of living that accompanied development. Men went to distant towns to work as drivers, laborers, or soldiers in the Saudi Arabian National Guard, and women were left to tend family plots and livestock and raise children. Medical care and schooling were available to much of the population but were often located far from rural areas. For many rural people, lack of knowledge, a lack of incentive, illiteracy, physical distance, and bureaucratic obstacles limited access to the resources of Saudi Arabia's burgeoning society.

Saudi Arabia's population also presented a picture of cultural contrasts. On the one hand, Saudi people felt a strong, almost tangible conviction in the rightness of trying to live one's life according to God's laws as revealed through the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. On the other hand, the interpretation of what it meant to live according to God's laws had assumed different meanings to different groups of people: some wished to adjust traditional values to the circumstances of the present; others wished to adjust the circumstances of the present to traditional values. In no aspect of Saudi society was this tension more manifest than in the question of the role of women. The conservative view favored complete separation of women from men in public life, with the education of women devoted to domestic skills, whereas the liberal view sought to transform "separation values" into "modesty values," allowing the expansion of women's opportunities in work and education.

Politically, the early 1990s saw unprecedented expressions of political dissidence born of the economic imbalances and shifting social boundaries produced by the development process. In petitions to the king for reform in the political system and political sermons in the mosques, Saudis have sought representation in government decision making. They have begun to ask who should control the fruits of oil production, who should decide the allocation of resources, and whose version of the just society should be rendered into law? But among opposition voices there was another contrast: some demanded representation to ensure that the governing system would enforce sharia (Islamic law), whereas others demanded representation to ensure protection for the individual from arbitrary religious or political judgments.

The Persian Gulf War of 1991 has exacerbated these contrasts: as Saudi Arabia becomes more dependent on the United States militarily, the need to assert cultural independence from the West becomes proportionately greater. As Saudi Arabia abandons traditional alliances in the Arab world in favor of closer ties with the West, the need to assert its leadership as a Muslim nation among the Muslim nations of the world becomes greater. In the early 1990s, tradition and Westernization coexisted in uneasy balance in Saudi Arabian society.


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Source: U.S. Library of Congress