Changed Identities:
The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia

Mai Yamani

Royal Institute of International Affairs 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Based on interviews with some seventy Saudis aged between fifteen and thirty, born in the 1970s and early 1980s, Changed Identities presents a lively account of social change in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-born female academic, Mai Yamani was able to interview both men and women (though two radical salafis insisted on talking to her by telephone). Her interviewees also come from different regions of Saudi Arabia and different backgrounds, mostly from the broad middle class, but also from the royal family and other politically and commercially powerful families.

Changed Identities opens and closes with fictional biographies composed to illustrate different aspects of young Saudis' lives. And much of it presents the perspectives of the interviewees, both in their own words and in summary. This is accompanied by succinct presentations of context and background — a social history of three generations since political unification in 1932, a history of the education system, a brief economic history, and so forth. The result can be read without any prior knowledge of Saudi Arabia, and indeed makes quite a nice introduction to the country. Changed Identities may be of particular interest to some because a number of the September 11 hijackers came from the demographic group it describes.

For young Saudis tradition is embodied in family, despite drastic changes over the last two generations (their grandparents were most likely subsistence farmers); other identities are tribal, regional, national, Gulf, Arab, and Islamic. Exposure to modernity has come through the media and travel abroad.

"Hadi (23), from Riyadh, uses the Internet but believes that access should be selective. 'For example, it should not access things that contradict the Islamic religion.'"

The market and civil society are contrasted with the 'traditional' patrimonial state. Young Saudis are not politicised, but "incoherent criticisms of government, corruption and double standards are slowly forming into a call not for revolt but for more autonomy to pursue the goals that their education and experiences have led them to expect".

Education that will lead to employment prospects involves knowledge of English (symbolically opposed to Arabic) and often overseas study.

"The domination of higher education by the 'ulama has led to a general rise in complaints by Saudi students about the curriculum's lack of relevance to their everyday practical needs. Rasha (27), from Mecca, thinks that university in Saudi Arabia has a 'bad approach': 'Universities teach you what does not benefit you in the world.'"
The Saudi education system is also criticised for its emphasis on rote learning.

The economic downturn is perhaps the most potent force driving social change. "The paternal and ever-present state that supplied certainty to their parents has been forced to scale back its support, and this has made the lives of Saudi young people increasingly uncertain." Many blame the West or foreign workers, with calls for Saudi-ization of the workforce, while others see the need for internal change, personal and sometimes political.

Young Saudi women have more options than their mothers and grandmothers — education (in some fields) and sometimes overseas study — and rights to property and divorce, but they are still narrowly constrained by patriarchy. Islamic feminism is one response; criticisms of strict segregation are also common.

"Asma (28), from Jeddah, talked about the beneficial effects of letting young people of both sexes mix socially before marriage. This is happening with greater frequency among the middle classes. One of the new trends is to hold supervised 'DJ' parties for young people. Asma said that she approved of certain mothers agreeing to these mixed parties and that it was 'unnatural for a hundred girls in a room to dance with one another'. This, she warned, 'can trigger lesbianism'."

Islam was central to the self-perception of all the interviewees, even the few liberal modernists. While radical Islamists are a small minority, their language and ideas are broadly influential, with religion providing one of the few avenues for criticism of the state.

"Like many of the new generation, Issam (21) sees the forces of modernity and 'the West' as inevitable. The priority then becomes judging what can benefit Saudi society and what must be excluded to protect Islam. He looks up to and trusts the state to carry out this task."

October 2002

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- Tim Niblock - Saudi Arabia: Power, Legitimacy and Survival
- books about the Middle East + Middle Eastern history
- books about current affairs
- more sociology
%T Changed Identities
%S The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia
%A Yamani, Mai
%I Royal Institute of International Affairs
%D 2000
%O paperback, bibliography
%G ISBN 186203088X
%P xxii,170pp