If you subscribe to the official narrative, Saudi Arabia is evolving with the times. The monarchy, after all, has adjusted its stance on women's rights, broadened cultural experiences and softened taboos that would have once led to lethal consequences for those breaking them.
Yet in many ways, the monarchy is just catching up with its younger generations of Saudis, rather than shepherding them into new mindsets. Members of those generations, especially the ones born after 1980 (including heir apparent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, born in 1985), have shared experiences that have fundamentally shaped worldviews — moving them out of alignment with the conservative clerics who, until recently, most defined the kingdom's moral and cultural compass.
Saudi Millennials — and the Forces Shaping Them
Millennial is a term most often used to describe members of the American generation born from 1980 to 1994. (As with many generational labels, there is debate as to the exact parameters that define it.) That generation represents a sizable one in four Americans. In Saudi Arabia, the millennial population bulge is similar — only slightly larger, making up about 26 percent of the Saudi total. Millennials, along with those from ages 10-24 in Generation Z, make up some 54 percent of all Saudis.
The millennial Saudi generation is especially important not only because of its demographic weight but also because its members represent the kingdom's most productive cohort (owing to a combination of youth, health and more up-do-date education). They occupy management positions in increasing numbers and are becoming the primary drivers of Saudi Arabia's private sector. Their attitudes shape the kingdom's markets and drive the intent of economic reforms. Their approach to religion and culture defines the outer edges of what is and is not acceptable in Saudi Arabia today. While the Saudi Generation Z will also matter (probably more so), its members are still years away from occupying the same role in society.
On the whole, these generations are bound by common experiences. Even as individual Saudis may accept or reject the common lessons of the events they grew up witnessing, Saudi millennials as a whole have been substantially shaped by the major geopolitical, economic, political and social happenings that transformed Saudi Arabia's culture long before the influence of its once-prevalent religious police waned.
Self-Reliance and Pluralism on Saudi Terms
Millennials in Saudi Arabia have witnessed great turmoil abroad and seen the uncertainty that comes with relying on foreign powers, especially the United States, to secure the kingdom. After the 9/11 attacks in the United States highlighted the kingdom's links to extremists (15 of the 19 jihadist hijackers were Saudis), the al Qaeda uprising in Saudi Arabia from 2002 to 2003 hammered the point home. Even though the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrated the power of the United States, after it came and went in Iraq, leaving the region open to Iranian influence, it also laid bare America's strategic inconsistencies. The Arab Spring shook all assumptions loose. Once seemingly invincible leaders such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak tumbled, not by the hand of a foreign invader but under the weight of their own restive populations even as potent allies like the United States stood aside. The archrival from their parents' generation, Iran, grew even more powerful in the wake of those events, with Washington cutting a deal with Tehran that might allow the Islamic republic to entrench its gains — and even one day blaze a path to a nuclear weapon. They saw Yemen come apart and grow desperate as the Iranian-linked Houthis took power on the border of their kingdom, peppering Saudi towns and airports with rocket and drone attacks.
Those grand geopolitical lessons that shaped the Saudi millennial mindset have empowered the state's drives toward self-reliance, nationalism and assertiveness. These young Saudis form the backbone of the hopes and dreams of creating a native defense industry to reduce dependence on the United States, which made clear its intent to reduce its commitment to the region. They are the social media partisans and nationalist flag-wavers who are trying to secure the public space from jihadist extremists, regime-cracking dissenters and the influence of foreign critics. They are the soldiers deployed to Yemen, whose sacrifices have not fomented an anti-war movement at home but rather created national heroes whose sacrifices are celebrated by budding nationalists. And even as a wary United States stations combat forces at bases on Saudi soil, young Saudis see not a threat to their way of life but a vital ally who they must keep close, at least for now, to maintain security against the ascendance of Iran.
The domestic concerns and developments that have shaped these young Saudis — from technology to education to economic need, the drive of the everyday and the experiences of the mundane — have utterly transformed the Saudi mindset.
Saudis born after 1980 have grown up in an era where information flowed around the barriers set up by the cultural guardians of the mosques and religious universities — at first through illegal satellite television links, then through the internet and now over social media. This did not mean Saudis wholeheartedly accepted this deluge, but they could not pretend that the Saudi take on the world was the only one. This experience taught younger Saudis a concept of plurality alien to their elders, who were exposed to few other points of view. They learned to critically sift information to reshape their own evolving worldview, one that could not fully accept the narrow dogma of the clerical establishment, even though it did not always fully reject it, either.
Thus, comfortable in the skin of the internet, this youthful Saudi generation has grown accustomed to engaging in vigorous debate through these mediums concerning the tempo and turn of their changing culture. But while they have learned the form well, they can also close ranks against outside influence and foreign opinion, shutting out change that does not come on their terms. Plurality they understand and accept, but in it, they demand a plurality of their own: a Saudi vision of a Saudi future, untinged by the moralizing of distant critics who presume to know better for the kingdom. As this process unfolds, it will be the Saudi millennials who lead it, and princes who follow.