Due to its opacity, the continuing existence of traditional institutions and the generally conservative outlook of its citizens, casual observers tend to see Saudi Arabia as a relic of a bygone age where time has stood still.
However, those of us who have followed developments there over an extended period — decades as opposed to years — are likely to have a different perception. While the pace of change is slow — with Saudis favoring incremental reform to their social, political and economic institutions instead of wholesale changes implemented overnight — the political culture of the country has changed markedly. This slow evolution, however, is only observable over an extended time frame. This pace helps explain why an Arab Spring-inspired revolution has not taken place in Saudi Arabia and is not likely to happen any time soon. One can, however, be observed through the changing media environment.
Exactly when this change in understanding of what it means to be a Saudi citizen began is difficult to pinpoint. However, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent US-led Operation Desert Storm were seminal moments that left an indelible imprint on the psyche of Saudis.
The invasion posed the most serious external threat to Saudi Arabia’s security since its founding in 1932. Having witnessed the travails of Kuwaitis, Saudis asked themselves the obvious: What if Saddam Hussein’s troops had continued their advance into Saudi territory?
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of US troops to protect the kingdom against such a possibility and plan the war that expelled Iraq’s army from Kuwait compelled some Saudis to question whether their ruling bargain with the royal family was in need of re-calibration. Some even presented petitions to then-King Fahd based on a well-enshrined Islamic principle that grants Muslims the right to give “advice” to their “guardians.”
The petitioners implicitly asserted their right to be active participants in the Saudi polity as opposed to obedient subjects. They asked for the liberalization of political institutions and an expansion of their role in the political decision-making process.
While the number of “reformers” remains limited, and their activities continue to take place primarily behind closed doors, their initiatives set the stage for a more open political culture that manifests itself daily in both the traditional and the social Saudi media.
Saudis who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s — like myself — still remember how the 9 p.m. newscast on the only TV channel at the time — what is now Saudi Channel 1 — was the only show in town. Those days are long gone.
Now, Saudis have embraced the age of instant information and seem to have an insatiable appetite for all forms of communication. Per capita, Saudis are among the biggest users of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in the world. Internet penetration and cell phone use are among the highest in the Middle East. Combining these figures with a literacy rate that has reached 95%, and the fact that 70% of the estimated 20 million Saudis are under 30, the notion that Saudi Arabia suffers from chronic political and cultural calcification seems suspect.
Saudi government-run TV stations now compete with dozens of privately owned satellite networks that beam entertainment, sports and news into Saudi homes 24 hours a day.
Although technically illegal, satellite TV is a mainstay in most middle-class Saudi homes. According to one survey, Saudis spend an average of four hours a day watching TV. This competitive market has driven news outlets to become more comprehensive in their coverage, more professional in their standards and more willing to take risks.
Subjects that were long considered taboo like corruption, poverty, unemployment, women’s rights and even drug and child abuse are covered on a regular basis by Saudi dailies, which feature columnists whose critical tones would likely shock those who still cling to the notion that nothing ever changes in Saudi Arabia.
That is not to say that red lines do not remain and that writers, editors and talk show hosts have not paid a price for crossing them, sometimes inadvertently and other times, seemingly intentionally to provoke a public debate.
While the popularity of social media is sometimes attributed to the lack of entertainment options available to young Saudis, my observation of Saudi-related Twitter hashtags over the past year indicates that more than mere boredom is at play.
Saudis appear to cherish social media because not only does it allow them to express their views on whatever they like, but it is also a means for them to connect with like-minded Saudis who have a cause or grievance to publicize. Online campaigns aimed at lifting the ban on women driving and highlighting widening poverty have found traction and have given young Saudis a sense of empowerment.
An incident that took place earlier this month encapsulates this changing political culture in dramatic fashion. Ali Al Alyani, a young Saudi who hosts a talk show on the Rotana network's Khaleejia channel featured a discussion about the consultative Shura Council, the closest thing Saudi Arabia has to a parliament.
The show featured a sitting member of the council who, after being on it for a year, lamented what he considered its failure to act as a “legislative body that represents the views of the Saudi street.” He also chose this public forum to question whether the recently pledged $3 billion in Saudi assistance to the Lebanese army could not have been better spent domestically to tackle long simmering problems like education, housing and health care.
While Saudis have long debated behind closed doors how the country’s oil wealth has been apportioned, publicly questioning how the government spends its money is just one indication of how far Saudis have come in cultivating a political culture that now expects accountability and transparency from the government.
As soon as news spread that the host had been suspended, Saudis took to social media, especially Twitter, and created several hashtags calling for his reinstatement.
Upon reading about the suspension in a blog post written by social media fixture Ahmed Al Omran in The Wall Street Journal, Rotana owner Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a nephew of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and one of the world’s richest businessmen posted his own tweet explaining why he was reinstating Alyani.
The changing media is one aspect of the slowly morphing political culture of Saudi Arabia. While the majority of Saudis still prefer incremental reform to meet their changing needs — especially in light of the tumult that the Arab Spring unleashed in countries where people demanded wholesale changes overnight — the changing demographics, the communications revolution and the seismic events that have shaken the entire Middle East over the past three decades are proving to be powerful forces that are slowly changing Saudis' perceptions of their country and their place in it.
Fortunately, this evolution is being televised and digitized. Stay tuned.