News | Gender Relations - Gulf States Change and Contradiction in Contemporary Saudi Arabia

The shifting role of women and youth represents both an asset and a threat to the Kingdom


Mixed-gender group socialize in front of Elephant Rock in Al-'Ula, Saudi Arabia, 2022. CC BY 2.0, Photo: Flickr/amanderson2

Women and youth are described as the most valuable assets for the future of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Saudi Vision 2030, a wide-ranging plan for reform put forward by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In a country where the population is overwhelmingly young — Saudi youth in the ages 15–34 account for the highest percentage of the population among all age groups — the youth are considered a decisive factor in the nation’s development. At the same time, it can be considered a threat and a factor driving political change. The educated and digitally literate Saudi youth is accumulating new cultural capital that can serve as the basis for a political awakening.

Moreover, in the context of an ongoing economic crisis, rising unemployment, and the possible eradication of economic privileges reserved for Saudi citizens, the Saudi state will face grave difficulties in addressing young people’s demands. In this context, the Saudi Vision 2030 modernization initiatives cannot come without a cost for the regime. Indeed, growing questions concerning the legitimacy of the Saudi system of power will be an almost inevitable consequence.

On the other hand, as an economic reform plan aiming to “saudizate” the economy, Saudi Vision 2030 will gradually exclude a very important segment of the country’s youth born and raised in the country, but not of Saudi origin. The divide between residents and citizens is critical in terms of how these changes are experienced by real people. The limitation of employment opportunities for skilled but non-Saudi residents will be one of the first outcomes of the implementation of Saudi Vision 2030.

From Narratives to Real-Life Experiences

To better understand the latent contradictions of today’s Saudi Arabia, we spoke with two young women who were both born and raised in Saudi Arabia, but whose perspectives on change are defined by their citizenship and residency status. Neither of them were willing to use their real names.

“D.” is 31 years old and of Saudi descent. She grew up and lived in Saudi Arabia until 2015, when she moved to the US with her husband. She completed a Master’s degree there, and now works in an art gallery. When we spoke, it was the first time she had travelled back to Saudi Arabia in seven years. She remains sceptical and is still processing the change.

“A.” is 31 years old. She is of Sudanese descent, but was born in London. Her family moved to Saudi Arabia for professional reasons and due to difficulties maintaining a work permit in the UK. She grew up in Saudi Arabia, studied at a Saudi university, and now works there as a school teacher. She experiences the changes positively. However, she thinks that many of the new developments do not involve her because of her expat status.

“My Vision of a Changing Saudi Arabia”

D. experienced the so-called “new Saudi Arabia” for the first time this summer, when she travelled back to Saudi Arabia after seven years of absence. She had mixed expectations before going back, mainly based on what she had read on social media.

D.: So you hear about changes. For example, you hear that women can now drive. On the other hand, you see people on social media disagreeing with these changes.

Because this is the only way I can see how people react to change, my perspective was very negative, because I saw that many people reacted badly. Especially when women started driving, they got harassed because they had not put the harassment law into effect yet. I thought we were going in the right direction, but on the other hand, I was scared because I had the impression we were rushing things.

I did not realize how positive the change was until recently, when I came back to Saudi Arabia. Women drive, they go out, and they can even express themselves in fashion. They are not obligated to wear the black abayas anymore, and they can go with colours or even without it, without being harassed.

We see a lot of young women and young men being active and expressing themselves.

D. also expresses her relief at the abolition of the religious police, the feared mutawa:

D.: There is also that part of our society — which I think you are familiar with — the religious police, which completely disappeared. These people were a nuisance for a long time. This felt good. I felt safe going out, not worrying that someone would harass me or send me to jail for a day or two for not wearing an abaya.

A., on the other hand, acknowledges several positive aspects. However, she believes that her point of view as a resident is considerably different from the one of a citizen:

A.: The point of view of a resident will be completely different from that of a local. The changes are mostly aimed at locals and not residents. Βut if we are talking about the general picture and the role of women in the country, I would say it is developed somehow. I started driving to work. I started feeling more independent. Maybe sometimes forced to be more independent. But I think it differs from person to person.

Land of Opportunities?

Both women acknowledge that in these new circumstances, it is far more acceptable for women to work outside of the home, have a personal income, and to even become family breadwinners. However, they say, women and young people in general are encouraged to pursue a career in the business sector and as entrepreneurs rather than looking for a job in the bureaucracy and the service sector, whether public or private.

D.: I see a lot of my friends working in the art scene, getting more jobs, getting more opportunities. They are actually able to express themselves. Something no one could do in the past. Women can start their own business and be creative rather than sticking to a typical job as a doctor, engineer, etc.

A.: There are more opportunities for women. It is now easier for local women to start a business. It would be a far reach or an impossible dream if we spoke about this ten or 15 years ago, but now it’s happening. The locals get the support they need. It can be a bit difficult to get everything legalized, but it is a possibility now. That is what I hear from my local friends. Women use TikTok and Instagram to open their online shops. Many start with delivering or selling online, and if it goes well, they open a shop or a restaurant.

Also, women tend to become active in businesses that are more women-like or that they sell goods or offer services that mainly address women.

A.: I believe that many women fall in the category of opening a dessert shop or an abaya shop.

The End of Gender Segregation

One of the most significant aspects of this new era, which defines this process of change, is the abolition of mandatory gender segregation in the public space. This also helps create more opportunities for entertainment and recreation for youth in a diverse context.

A new landscape of restaurants, entertainment venues, parks, and cinemas that reopened for the first time in 35 years are creating a new Saudi lifestyle, one that does not differ significantly from life in the United Arab Emirates — apart from the consumption of alcohol, which is still forbidden in Saudi Arabia. However, the lack of outdoor public spaces is an issue that undermines the quality of life, and there are many expectations for upcoming projects, such as Salman Park in Riyadh.

D.: I am really happy to see lots of projects. The Salman Park is being built. Areas like Riyadh Boulevard and all these entertainment sectors are being revitalized. Because this was Saudi Arabia for people like my grandfather’s age. My grandfather actually remembers Saudi Arabia with entertainment, music, and clubs.

My generation grew up in a very dark period. People our age and younger generations now experience different types of entertainment and have the chance to open their eyes to other possibilities and cultures. Ι feel it is new for people to revive their creative side. I remember it was not easy for creative people to express themselves back in the day. There were very few venues like art galleries.

Coming here, I noticed that when I spoke friendly to a woman or a man, they did not feel comfortable.

A.: Definitely, we can see the change when it comes to entertainment. Because growing up in Saudi Arabia — I was born and raised in Riyadh — I witnessed the changes. I mean, if we went out 15 years ago, restaurants were segregated. And they would somehow cover the windows in the women’s section, so no one could see through.

Also, women wouldn’t feel safe walking alone in the streets. People on the streets insulted them. Now, because they have greater freedom, security has to be improved so that these women feel safer. The only difference with the UAE now is that Dubai has alcohol.

According to A., the quality of life has improved greatly due to these changes.

A.: If you are asking me on a personal level, every morning I follow the same routine: I wake up early, fix myself some breakfast, drive myself to work, teach my students, and come back. It is a routine, but since things changed, we can actually have fun. Not a lot of outdoor activities during the summer because of the heat. But when the winter comes we have cycling, we could go hiking. We can have arcade nights and karaoke nights. And it is all mixed. Beautiful restaurants are opening up. It’s literally an experience to eat in those places.

Moreover, according to A., this openness enables and facilitates youth and local initiatives.

A.: Local people also organize nice book clubs and art. Definitely, society is opening. Plus, all these places where girls and boys can meet, interact and exchange ideas.

However, perspectives on change are controversial, as D. notes.

D.: The people of our generation, those who grew up in bad Saudi Arabia, are divided. They are either — like me — happy to see the change and appreciate it thinking, “Oh my God, we are breathing”, or they are confused and feel a little angry. They hold some kind of resentment. They are not going out. Society needs not only to adapt. It needs to evolve.

The Social and Ideological Impact of Gender Segregation

The long-term strict gender segregation in a patriarchal and religious regime formed people’s perceptions of gender and sexuality. Long-term segregation is also the source of difficulties and misunderstandings in mixed work environments. Moreover, women face increased risks of being harassed by their male colleagues.

D.: Living in the US kind of teaches you how to be friendly to strangers. Coming here, I noticed that when I spoke friendly to a woman or a man, they did not feel comfortable. “Oh, why are you talking to me like that? Why are you being so friendly? Do you love me?” [laughs]

Very often, people cannot understand the difference between being polite, friendly, or flirting. Multiple factors are playing a role in defining what a Saudi man is today: the way he is raised, the surroundings, like family members and how they react to these changes and the relationship — if there is any — to other females (e.g., colleagues at work).

I feel that some men are still experiencing issues when it comes to understanding women and their limitations at work. For example, I was on Reddit the other day. There is a forum for Saudi people. Someone wrote that he is struggling with having a job, where he has to deal with women colleagues because he keeps falling in love with each and every one. He does not understand that you can actually form a friendship with a woman or just treat her like a colleague. And you see a lot from the comments, because either people are telling him he is right, he is natural, or people are telling him that he is not natural.

I was trying to overcome the idea that all men are predators, that all men are bad.

Until today, gender segregation is implemented at all educational levels. The only exception in the history of the Kingdom are the medical schools, where men and women, at some point in their studies, work together.

D.: People who studied medicine here — even in the old times — are used to working together. There is a specific moment where men and women study in mixed classes, but only in medical schools.

A reform introduced in the Saudi Vision 2030 now allows female teachers in all-boy primary schools.

D.: There is a law that basically will allow female teachers to teach boys from first to fifth grade. I think that this will expose young boys and allow them to understand that it is fine to have female teachers. It is fine to interact with a woman who is not a family member.

They both explain that gender segregation was justified in a religious context, but its long-term implementation devastated inter-gender relations in Saudi society.

D.: In Islam, there is a certain point in a boy’s life where he can remember certain distinguishable details about a woman. This is the reason that women were not allowed to teach boys. Now they are trying to change that and teach young boys that having a female non-family member in your life is okay.

The only women exempted from this strict gender-segregated social structure were the Bedouin women who lived and worked in the desert. They drove trucks and often did not wear abayas. According to both interviewees, this practice was tolerated because it was not visible and took place outside the urban environment.

D.: Bedouin women used to drive trucks in the desert. They did not wear abayas or cover their faces. But Bedouins are not considered a part of the city, they were not seen. They did their work, and they worked with men, they traded.

A.: They were actually successful businesswomen.

Saudi women are very suspicious of their male peers.

D.: As young women, we were hearing all the time that all men are predators. So hearing it all the time affects you. I was used to working with men because I am in the art sector. We had a secret society where women and men could work together. Over time, I felt I was overcoming certain ideas. I was trying to overcome the idea that all men are predators, that all men are bad. Some of them are, but not all. It depends on exposure. I think if young men and young women are exposed to each other, they will eventually get used to it, eventually understand boundaries and preferences.

Social Media as a Platform for Political Engagement and Social and Cultural Awareness

Social media are used as platforms for political engagement and social awareness in the MENA region. Although social media are not considered regime-threatening in Saudi Arabia, they provide significant space for political engagement and public discourse in a country where political parties and many politics-related activities are banned.

Social media creates virtual and potentially physical space for Saudi civil society. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the regime continues to prosecute and mistreat digital political activists, despite this being very harmful to the country’s international image. Social media feminist activism in Saudi Arabia has played a very crucial role in women’s political engagement in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, there are other, more latent and subliminal ways in which social media affects political and social change in the country. As Deborah L. Wheeler notes, “internet diffusion and uses in the Middle East enables meaningful micro-changes in citizens’ lives.” This is exactly the case in Saudi Arabia, since social media also reflects public opinion on several issues, and in some cases, the government is not in a position to ignore it. D. and A. express slightly different opinions regarding the use of social media in Saudi Arabia. A. focuses on the positive aspects, while D. underlines the serious risks with which the use of social media was associated in Saudi Arabia until recently.

D.: Our idea — our generation’s idea — about social media is that it has to be secretive. That you don’t tell people about it. You need to keep it secret. If people find out about it, you might or will be harmed by the religious police, family members, neighbours.

A.: But that was back in the day.

I don’t want to have my kids brainwashed by people who tell them weird stuff. I want them to be open, happy, and able to express themselves.

D.: I am still not comfortable with posting photos of myself or indicating my location. If I take a photo from a place where I am, I post it either within the next day or at least a few hours later. (A. agrees on this last point). And I don’t have many followers. But I still have that mindset that this is a dangerous place. However, I have an account on almost all social media. I am not very active, but I am observing.

We see a lot of young women and young men being active and expressing themselves. Some women are into fashion, into food, and they post about their businesses, which is huge. The idea is that they can do all that without being harmed. And it is also very positive that they can do all of that with their families’ support.

From my side, if my family knew that I have profiles on social media and that I post pictures, I would be extremely vulnerable. So, to us, social media are a dangerous place, but I appreciate that it is slowly changing to become a positive place. However, I still find it very scary. My social media are like a dark place.

My husband is also on social media — less since 2013. He had some accounts, but he deleted everything because of fear that it could harm him or his family or that something that he would post would be used against him, not by a governmental entity, but by the people.

A.: It is now that people are starting to use social media in a positive way. They are using these platforms to express themselves more. Those who want to keep a low profile also have the right to do that. The majority of people use Snapchat, which I don’t have. But many people also use TikTok. Mostly on TikTok they organize, cook, and pull pranks, or even decorate. Yes, most of them are very creative.

A Future in the Country?

Both D. and A. are very sceptical regarding a potential future in this country. D. is still hesitant and suspicious of her peers. Although her trip helped her to acknowledge some change, she still feels traumatized and mistreated by the regime and Saudi society in her childhood and early youth. For that reason, she is very negative about the idea of raising a family in Saudi Arabia.

D.: During the years 2015 to 2017, I promised myself that I would never go back. Because that place is dangerous for my mental health and there are no opportunities, and besides, Americans treated me well. When I started hearing about the changes, I was very sceptical. But now, experiencing things and seeing how people are reacting to the idea of moving forward, I think I could give this place a second chance.

Anyway, I still have the perspective from what I experienced during my teenage years and young adulthood. I am still hesitant. It is the fear of people because people still need time. I need time. I don’t want, for example, to have kids, and these kids get brainwashed by people who tell them weird stuff. I want them to be open, happy, and able to express themselves.

A. believes the Saudi future does not include her because of her resident status.

A.: No, definitely not. Because, within Vision 2030, they want to limit the number of expats. So I don’t give myself more than five years here. And, of course, it is heart-breaking for someone born and raised in Saudi and who is not a stranger. A part of me is sad to be thinking like that. Like it’s not my home anymore.