Academic journal article Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice

Where Is Saudi Arabian Society Heading?

Academic journal article Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice

Where Is Saudi Arabian Society Heading?

Article excerpt


This article looks at Saudi society and some of the internal pressures for change. The structure of Saudi Government and the roles played by the Al-Suad and Al ash-Sheikh families are examined. The youth of Saudi Arabia, role of women, Sunni-Shia conflict, and economic hardships are considered as potential forces for change within the Kingdom.

Keywords: Saudi Arabia, Islam, society, poverty, MENA, youth, women, Sunni-Shia conflict

1. Introduction

Unlike many other countries within the MENA, Saudi Arabia appeared to be immune from the "Arab Spring" that fell upon the region and changed a number of societies dramatically. Consequently Saudi Arabia looks like a bastion of stability within the region. However this relatively closed society is facing a number of social, religious, political, and economic problems, which if not dealt with in a wise and just manner by the ruling elite of the country, could have grave consequences for the country in the future. This article seeks to look at some of these issues and poses the question "where Saudi society is heading?"

Saudi Arabia has never been under the direct control of a European power, unlike most other states within the MENA. The country was founded in 1932 by Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, who returned to Riyadh in the early 1900s to dispose the A1 Rashid Clan, and over the next decade unified the various tribes, sheikdoms, and emirates over most of the Arabian Peninsula.

Saudi Arabia is geographically the second largest country by landmass within the MENA after Algeria. It occupies approximately 80% of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia shares common borders with Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait to the north, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman to the east, by a portion of Oman to the southeast, by Yemen to the south and southwest, by the Persian Gulf in the east, and by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba to the west.

Saudi Arabia has a GDP of USD 740 Billion (2012 est.), the largest of any MENA state, being ranked 23rd in the world.1 The economy is growing at an average 6.0% per annum.2 The economy is dominated by petroleum and its associated industries, where Saudi Arabia along with Russia are the largest producers in the world.3 The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 80% of the government budget revenues, and 55% of GDP. About 58% of GDP comes from the private sector. As of 2011, non-oil manufacturing contributed only 16.4 % to Saudi Arabian GDP.4

Saudi Arabia has a total labor force of 8.02 million, where more than 80% are immigrant workers.5 Saudi Arabia has an official unemployment rate of 10.7%,6 but unofficial estimates put unemployment as high as 20%.7 This rate is even higher for women, where studies indicate an unemployment rate of 24.9%.8 These rates are even higher for those under 30 years old, where it is estimated that 1 in 4 don't have a job.9 Reports in the Arab press indicate that 49% of those unemployed have never applied for a job,10 partly because it is cheaper for firms to recruit foreign workers.11 Foreign workers are paid relatively low wages, often being mistreated, with few laws to protect them.12

Saudi Arabia's population has rapidly grown from 6 million in the 1970s to almost 27 million today, where 49.9% of Saudi Arabia's population is under 24 years of age.13 Five and one half million are non-nationals. Government welfare and employment programs have failed to keep up with this population growth leading to a chronic rise in the incidence of poverty in the Kingdom, estimated at nearly 25% of the total population.14 This is in great contrast to a middle class that live in moderate wealth, employ maids, cooks, and drivers, and spend lavishly. In addition there is great rivalry between the majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shia Muslims in the country's eastern province which has led to great social friction and open protests on the streets.15

The Saudi Government has made huge efforts to modernize and diversify the domestic economy to encourage business investment in the non-oil sector. …

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