Is Saudi Arabia Undergoing a Social Revolution?

“The crown prince is a high-speed train rocketing across a bumpy landscape, and it’s barely keeping on the tracks,” a young Saudi official in Riyadh said. “We don’t know exactly where it will end up, or if we even want to go there. But we do know we only have two options: let go and be left in the dust or cling on for dear life and pray we make it.”

Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) is driving Saudi society through a period of rapid changes. The focus of the reforms in his ambitious Vision 2030 is the economy, but his policies are accelerating deep social changes that were already underway in the Kingdom. These changes are transforming Saudis’ social obligations, loyalties, and how they relate to one another. Saudis interviewed for a recent CSIS report, Ties that Bind, described living through an inflection point. Although tribal identities remain salient for many Saudis, they described a general shifting and weakening of kinship ties in recent years, as the state has exerted itself more forcefully in Saudis’ social lives.

Changing economics have reshaped kinship networks in Saudi Arabia. The oil price boom from 2003 to 2013 allowed the state to increase public spending exponentially. The rapid increase of welfare, combined with state attempts to co-opt alternative centers of power, reduced Saudis’ reliance on kinship networks such as family and tribe. But more recently, the government has encouraged Saudi citizens to rationalize their economic consumption and cut back on handouts, and traditional kinship networks have been unable to resume their former role.

Rapid urbanization contributed to the weakening of kinship networks and community ties in Saudi Arabia. Many extended families used to live together in large compounds on plots of land outside of major cities, which the government provided. But while four out of five Saudis lived in rural areas in 1950, only one in six do today. With more Saudis living in cities, real estate in urban areas has become so expensive that family compounds are now considered a luxury that most cannot afford. Government housing policies also lead extended families to live further apart. As a result, relatives see each other less often and do not feel as close. Urbanization has also diluted regional identities and eroded community cohesion. There are increasing cases of intermarriage between members of different tribes, but some Saudis described tribal identity as “the elephant in the room” when it comes to finding a suitable marriage prospect, emphasizing one aspect of its enduring salience.

Although technology facilitates new forms of communication, some Saudis said it makes them feel less connected to their relatives. A Saudi journalist described how his relatives all use phones at the dinner table and do not chat as they did before. However, technology is facilitating the formation of new networks between Saudis who would not previously have had the chance to mix, including professional networks, interest groups, and connections between boys and girls. Most Saudis agreed that these new “chosen” networks lack the resources to provide for their members as kinship networks do.

Saudis noted that while many of these trends are longer term, the government has been inserting itself more assertively into matters of kinship ties. While the Saudi state has not tried to supplant tribal networks, it has been stepping up its efforts to co-opt them more completely. For example, it has become more deliberate appointing Interior Ministry delegates to tribes, more often choosing a rival to the tribe’s acknowledged leader. That not only creates an alternative center of power in the tribe that is explicitly pro-government, but it also weakens a tribe’s ability to act as an independent check on governmental power.

Some Saudis described a resurgence of tribal identity in recent years to be motivated by a “yearning for familiarity in times of great uncertainty.” But they agreed that tribes lack the resources to provide the services and protection for their members as they did before. Tribes may help in special occasions, such as subsidizing poorer tribesmen’s wedding costs or bailing others out of jail, but they do not hold the same significance in most Saudis’ day-to-day lives. Some younger Saudis expressed their resentment about enduring tribal obligations. A young Bedouin described tribal gatherings that used to be key social events as “sad affairs,” which “glorify poetry to obscure the superficial nature of tribalism today.”

Saudis perceived a strong government-led drive to create a specific Saudi identity, as local identities have lost their salience. They described state efforts to construct national identity in opposition to other identities, such as a broader Muslim identity, Iranian identity, or specific regional identities. Saudis largely ridiculed efforts to instill nationalism in the curriculum at school and argued the state is struggling to define what it means to be Saudi and what the state expects of its citizens. One Bedouin said that the state treats its citizens like subjects: citizens are expected to fulfill duties and remain loyal, but the state has no responsibilities to them.

The increasingly authoritarian political environment has weakened traditional support networks and shaped Saudis’ social obligations, incentives, and options. A growing fear of repression has shifted notions of trust and expectations of assistance from family or friends in cases of friction with the state. One Saudi activist said he would no longer expect his family or friends to come to his aid if he was arrested, as the risks to them would be too great. This new political environment means that individuals can no longer feel sure about the obligations their kin feel to them, shifting the nature of those relationships.

Yet, changing social ties in Saudi Arabia should not be exaggerated. The family remains the basic unit of society, and young people continue to feel a huge sense of duty to their parents and other relatives. One young Saudi said that young people are still not able to reject arranged marriages; they can only hope to delay them. The number of Saudis who return to the Kingdom after finishing their studies abroad is a testament to the enduring value of family ties and Saudis’ desire to live near their relatives. While forming new “chosen” networks with like-minded peers is desirable for many young Saudis, interviewees agreed that these networks lack the resources to supplant kinship networks.

Although long-term trends have eroded the importance of kinship ties, Saudis stressed that the Kingdom remains a deeply conservative state and that kinship networks still try to help their own when they can. But Saudis perceived MBS’s reforms to be undermining and weakening many of those networks, and they argued that adaptation strategies would be necessary to make it through the bumpy ride. Those strategies are still being developed.

This commentary is based on research conducted for the report, ”Ties that Bind: Family, Tribe, Nation, and the Rise of Arab Individualism.”

Will Todman is an associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program