Change happens, even sometimes if only by imperceptible degrees. Further to my recent article on women drivers in Saudi Arabia (Drive of the Women) I can report that there have still been no official repercussions, with more and more women joining the nascent protest against the driving ban.
Although ruled by a considerably more reactionary and obscurantist clique than those governing either Tunisia or Egypt, where the disturbances in the Arab world began, Saudi Arabia has the advantage of a far smaller population. It’s also a rich country, rich in oil, one where the authorities have been able to smother potential signs of discontent, not so much by oppression as by public largess.
No matter; the country is an anomaly, reactionary even by the most reactionary of contemporary standards, a medieval theocracy that seems completely out of place in the modern world, even the Arab world. It’s ruled by a gerontocracy: Abdullah, the reigning monarch is eighty-nine and his nominated successor only two years younger. After that comes Prince Nayef, the interior minister, a sprightly seventy-eight year old!
This pinnacle, aging and out of date, is at the top of a young population, forming the base of the pyramid, the Facebook and Twitter generation, united across the world by new ideas, new ways of communication and new modes of expression. Isolationism is now practically impossible in a world linked by the internet, unless the isolation is absolute, and only North Korea has managed to achieve that.
The women drivers of the Kingdom, proclaiming their breakthrough on Twitter, are the first signs of restlessness, the first signs, however tentative, of a Saudi spring. A new boldness is apparent, a new willingness to speak out, with some adding their names to petitions calling for a constitution and other fundamental rights that are considered elementary across so much of the world.
It’s important not to make too much of this. This is a country where conservatism is deeply entrenched, the home of Wahhibism, a branch of Islam particularly opposed to any form of modern ‘decadence.’ But with a population ever more cosmopolitan in outlook, ever more subject to outside influences, the chances are that the royal pensioners will not be able to spend their way back into the past forever, not in a country full of twitters.