Event Review: Youth Movements and Political Participation in Saudi Arabia

Amber Glavine

As home to one of the world’s youngest populations, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has in recent years seen a remarkable surge in youth movements that are especially visible online. At an October 26th discussion at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Dr. Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, argued that this uptick in online political engagement does not necessarily translate to increased political participation.

To demonstrate the significance of recent political and social shifts within the Kingdom, Diwan provided an overview of Saudi Arabia as it has functioned since its founding in 1932. She emphasized the Kingdom’s dynastic monarchal system, wherein power is largely decentralized and shared among the royal family. Local and global forces are converging to reveal cracks in a few key areas: the Kingdom’s diffuse power structure has hindered decision-making, unstable oil supplies have fostered economic anxiety, and demographic changes have forced a reevaluation of conservative religious movements within the Kingdom. Additionally, as the royal family grows older, King Salman has made a number of moves toward empowering a new generation of leaders by elevating his son, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), to the position of Crown Prince. It is this generational shift in the Kingdom’s leadership that Diwan underlined  as she set out to demonstrate that the Kingdom’s shifting power structure, along with its emerging youth movements, are creating a new political environment.

While the average Saudi king comes into power around age sixty-four, seventy percent of the Kingdom’s population is less than thirty years old. This stark generational divide, coupled with ready access to new technologies and social media platforms, has led to a surge in virtual social movements among Saudi Arabia’s youth. Online communities and artistic collectives have become especially important in Saudi Arabia because they are less bound by the strict standards of behavior that regulate physical public spaces.. Outlets like Twitter and YouTube are essential platforms for youth movements, and Diwan pointed to satirical comedy as a noteworthy medium for political criticism. MBS and his new government have made concerted efforts to capture the energy of these youth movements, enlisting popular comedians and artists to participate in his transition team and engage in cultural diplomacy around the world.

Diwan argued that these attempts to bring youth movements into the fold are a critical aspect of MBS’s new national project to diversify the Saudi economy. Because the Kingdom’s young people will bear the greatest burden in this transition, it is critical that they feel invested in the country’s future. In Diwan’s formulation, state-sponsored youth movements are one way to approximate political participation without meaningfully relinquishing the state’s monopoly on political power. As Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, MBS alone holds titles typically divided among a handful of royal family members. With such a broad range of responsibilities, MBS breaks the mold of diffuse, negotiated authority typical of recent generations of Saudi royals and is granted the capacity to affect changes whose breadth outstrips those of his predecessors. Some especially optimistic Western onlookers in particular have argued that such authority is necessary to implement the reforms necessary to secure prosperity for Saudi Arabia’s youth and modernize the Kingdom.

More broadly, MBS has worked to cultivate nationalist sentiment among the Saudi public. Diwan cited the war in Yemen as an example of this shift, as MBS roused popular support for action in Yemen by embracing a policy perceived as energetic and decisive. Diwan contrasted the Saudi intervention in Yemen with Riyadh’s lackluster response to the conflict in Syria, framing  MBS’s aggressive actions in Yemen as a domestic bid to bolster Saudi Arabia’s image as a regional power. In particular, domestic support for intervention in Yemen was garnered on the basis of containing Iran’s influence in the region by preventing the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group from attaining power.

Throughout her talk, Diwan presented a framework through which to understand the impact of ongoing demographic changes on the political architecture of the Kingdom. This effort is critical and timely, as coverage of developments in the Kingdom, particularly since MBS first stepped onto the political scene in 2015, has been diverse and often contradictory, both within Saudi Arabia and around the world. As a member of Saudi Arabia’s younger generation, MBS has been hailed by many as the young, progressive voice for change that the Kingdom needs. MBS has also enjoyed enduring support from the Trump administration, cultivating close relationships with the president and high-level advisors like Jared Kushner. Within the Kingdom, many young Saudis praised MBS’s appointment as Crown Prince on social media, calling him the “prince of youth” and expressing their loyalty to his new government. Additionally, some of his early policy initiatives aimed at opening up the Saudi social sphere – like reintroducing cinemas into the Kingdom and lifting the ban on female drivers – were viewed as proof that an MBS-led government would be more in touch with the population’s changing needs.

At the same time, some members of the royal family, as well as allied Western diplomats and officials, have expressed skepticism of MBS’s reimagined leadership. Anonymous sources close to the royal family have described the unexpected ouster of Mohammed bin Nayef as a calculated move to consolidate power within one branch of the family, and American intelligence officials were alarmed at the loss of one of their most trusted contacts within the Kingdom. Scrutiny of the new Crown Prince increased following a wave of high-profile arrests in 2017, which were billed by MBS’s government as a crackdown on corruption. In addition, his decisions to intervene in Yemen and escalate a blockade against rival Qatar – both of which, while initially garnering widespread support at home, have turned out to be costly and unsuccessful initiatives- have called into question MBS’s judgment and raised concerns about the Kingdom’s human rights record. Most recently, following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents in Istanbul, criticism of the Kingdom and MBS has reached a peak. Several of the Crown Prince’s top aides have been officially tied to the crime, leading to many to conclude that the killers acted at MBS’s direction. While the Kingdom’s official version of events has stopped short of assigning any blame to the Crown Prince, it is still possible that charges may be brought against him by other states or international bodies. This possibility, along with the threat of punitive actions from allies like the US, poses a significant threat to MBS’s popularity and legitimacy.

The potential for additional power shifts within the Kingdom persists, and it is unclear whether the government’s putative moves toward a more open society, along with its courtship of Saudi youth, will continue unhindered in the years to come. Already, signs of dissatisfaction are visible among Saudi activists who feel let down by the attempts at reform, particularly young feminists who have been disheartened by the arrests of female activists, even as the ban on female driving was lifted. The pervasive nature of online activism in the Kingdom makes it unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s sizable youth population will dial back its demands anytime soon. Indeed, their continued discontent could prove dangerous to the country’s leadership. As Diwan aptly demonstrated in her presentation, shifting demographics will continue to play a crucial role in shaping Saudi Arabian politics and will therefore demand focused attention from all those interested in the Kingdom’s future.

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