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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 October 2006, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Slow pace of Saudi change
By Roger Hardy
BBC News, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Information Ministry picture of Jeddah skyline
Jeddah's population enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere.
Despite Saudi Arabia's wealth as the world's biggest oil exporter, many of the new generation of Saudis are restless, bored and unemployed in the desert kingdom.

Eleven pm on the Corniche, the coastal road along the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia's second city, Jeddah.

And in the relative cool of the evening, families are out walking along the seafront, kids are riding on donkeys, and young men are driving beach buggies along the sand.

There is a festive mood. It is the eve of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and also the eve of National Day - and already the cars driving along the Corniche are sounding their horns - and young men are dancing in the street and draping themselves in the green Saudi flag.

It was not until the following day that a friend pointed out what I had failed to realise - that many of these young men belong to the ranks of the new Saudi unemployed. Their patriotic fervour may have been genuine - but it was also an escape from shame and boredom.

Segregation

Why such a rich country, enjoying its third year of high oil prices, should have a serious unemployment problem is, on the face of it, a puzzle.
For many people, the Saudi idea of a night out is to go shopping - or just sit in a coffee-shop or a fast-food restaurant.

But the main causes are a chronic dependence on an army of foreign workers - and an education system that is failing to equip young Saudis with the skills the workplace needs.

The result is a lot of bored and frustrated young people with a lot of time on their hands - and the fear that some are drifting into crime or drugs or even religious militancy.

Saudi Arabia is a gender segregated society, so it is hard for young men and young women to meet.

Cinemas and theatres are not allowed. And, for many people, the Saudi idea of a night out is to go shopping - or just sit in a coffee-shop or a fast-food restaurant.

But, as I heard from a group of students, even these places can be no-go areas: shopping centres and restaurants are anxious to be seen as family-friendly - so single young males are often kept out. And there is also a dress code: despite the oppressive heat, there is no way you can come in wearing Bermuda shorts.

Like young people everywhere, young Saudis go to great lengths to bypass irksome restrictions.

Mobile phones and the internet have had a liberating effect.
They find places for illicit meetings. They find ways of swapping phone numbers.

In Jeddah, the mood is noticeably more relaxed than I had found in the capital Riyadh.

One Filipino waiter in a coffee-shop told me that when he had worked in Riyadh, he had been arrested by the religious police for not being strict enough in shutting his shop during prayer times, or in stopping young men from entering the family section - but here in Jeddah, he said, the religious police were much less of a nuisance.

To escape boredom, some young Saudis simply go abroad, especially in the burning heat of the summer - perhaps to Spain or Morocco, perhaps to nearby Dubai or Bahrain where the social climate is more open.

One young man told me it was in Bahrain that he had bought a copy of a controversial novel called "The Girls of Riyadh" - which has caused quite a stir in Saudi Arabia with its outspoken account of the lives, including the sex lives, of four young women.

Rajaa al-Sanei
Rajaa al-Sanei's book has caused a stir in Saudi Arabia
The author, a young Saudi woman called Rajaa al-Sanei, is currently in the United States.

That did not stop conservatives trying to take her to court for allegedly slandering the Saudi nation; but the case was thrown out.

Young Saudis who have read the book told me it is not great literature - but it is essentially accurate, whatever the conservatives may say.

There are other forms of escape.

Mobile phones and the internet have had a liberating effect.

Over the last 18 months or so, there has been a boom in Saudi blogging.

There are now 500 or 600 bloggers, women as well as men, using English as well as Arabic.

In a restaurant in Riyadh full of young men peering into their laptops, I met Ahmed, a student who blogs under the name "saudijeans".

Hate mail

In such a closed society, the internet is one of the few places where young Saudis can discuss - either openly or anonymously - the things that matter to them.

For Ahmed, that means freedom of expression and human rights - or an article he has just read in a newspaper.

For the young woman who blogs under the name "Mystique", it means testing the limits of what can be said about sex and religion - issues that, not surprisingly in such a conservative society, bring her plenty of hate mail.

In some ways Saudi Arabia is changing.

You now see young Saudis working in coffee-shops or at the reception desks of the big hotels - jobs they previously disdained.

The newspapers, though still controlled by the government, now write about issues - such as crime, poverty, Aids and domestic abuse - that not long ago were taboo.

But change is painfully slow. And the young are impatient.

Once known as the "kingdom of silence", Saudi Arabia is now silent no more.

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Saturday, 7 October, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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