By Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser
If I were asked to name the greatest challenge currently facing Saudi Arabia, I would not say it is Iran, nor the disturbing events taking place in the Middle East and not even the pervasive threat of terrorism. The real challenge facing our country is dealing with Saudi youth. We are not paying sufficient attention to the needs of our young people and are holding them back from achieving success in their careers and in their personal lives.
Certainly, most Saudis view Iran as a serious threat to the nation and to the entire region. Iran has always sought to spread its influence, both before the 1979 revolution with the Shah pursuing his own nationalistic agenda and, after his overthrow, Ayatollah Khomeini preaching Shiism to remold the Persian culture in the name of this branch of Islam.
Faced with the rising threat of a nuclear Iran, Saudi Arabia astutely took advantage of the Arab Spring to undermine this Persian dream enveloped in the name of Islam. The most important strategic step was to try and undermine Iran’s alliance with Syria. Unfortunately, however, Iran knew (with all due respect to Shiite Muslims everywhere) how to exploit many Shiite followers in order to export the Iranian revolution to other Arab countries. So, Saudi Arabia, as the leading Sunni Muslim country, has had to deal with this Iranian threat.
As for the threat of terrorism, Saudi Arabia has been very successful in rooting out terrorist plots designed to undermine national security. There is no reason to doubt that our government will continue to act to protect us.
Yet, in spite of these obvious threats of Iran and terrorism, what really should worry Saudi Arabia is the new generation of young people who have had to make concession after concession to religious leaders at the expense of their own civil rights and personal freedoms. Saudi youth have had restrictions placed upon their activities by religious authorities, thus hindering their opportunities. Young people need hope and a real chance to pursue their lives free of oppressive restrictions. They need a balanced education and the freedom to travel, particularly women who should be allowed to travel freely without restrictions, and pursue their careers without being controlled by religious extremists. It is unfortunate, for example, that an issue such as women driving has unnecessarily consumed much public time in discussing what should really be a non-issue. There is no question that restricting a woman’s freedom of movement is a clear case of a human right violation. Further, this has a profoundly negative impact on the country socially, economically and in every way. Similarly, if their personal freedom remains repressed, Saudi youth are likely to explode and reject all religious tenets and rebel against such restrictions. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to alienate the next generation and run the chance of creating public unrest by turning a blind eye to the aspirations of its youth.
We should not assume that young people lack religion or want to embrace a secular humanistic philosophy. But it is natural to reject the dictates of religious authorities who seek to control their lives and restrict their opportunities for future success. We must acknowledge that young people speak a different language and have a different mindset. They are interested in A.C. Milan, Chelsea, Barcelona, iPhone, Facebook, Twitter and the Internet. They receive their information from young people all over the world who share their hopes and aspirations.
So we must ask whether Saudi Arabia will remain attached to the traditional and Islamic puritanical establishment that will not be able to cope with and control the next generation, or will it embrace hope and build a strong relationship based on transparency and away from guardianship and interference with personal freedoms with young people?
Although no one knows for sure what path Saudi Arabia may choose, it is a fact that we live in an age where political religiosity no longer fools anyone and is being replaced by a so-called technological religiosity. Any attempt to control human liberty in the name of Allah and His Messenger will inevitably lead to political instability. Islam’s glorious mission and its noble Prophet (peace be upon him) are the undeniable protectors of these freedoms, so can we face the real challenge of our time and embrace this new reality? We must seek to understand, coexist and reconcile the next generation with our own even if making concessions to young people is at the expense of religious leaders who use Islam as a club to oppress rather than uplift young people. Certainly Islam must always be respected and followed by all segments of Saudi society so as to prosper under its law. Let us hope we can meet the real challenge facing Saudi Arabia and inspire our young people to be all that they can be as productive and creative citizens of our great nation.
Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser is a columnist and a Saudi attorney with offices in Riyadh and Jeddah.