...have become the object of much ill-informed speculation among those who study the Kingdom from the outside." And not just the baby-boom generation, Ms. Yamani could add!
Mai Yamani has undertaken a thoughtful and balanced sociological study of Saudi youth, in the 15 to 30 age bracket. Her work is based on extensive interviews with approximately 75 Saudis, males and females. In an appendix she specifies her fieldwork methodology. As a woman, she was naturally able to interview other women; all but two men, and these two were hard-core fundamentalists, agreed to meet with her face to face. She does not specify why she selected certain categories, be they Royals, intellectuals, middle class or radical salafis (fundamentalists) but I felt that she got the proportions just about right to merit the "this is a representative sample" label. Her book was written in 2000, one year before the events of 9-11, which would profoundly shake the Kingdom, and lead to a transformation in its relationship with the West, particularly the United States. Starting in the year 2000, and for several years thereafter, there were numerous terrorist attacks in the Kingdom, and this work clearly depicts the discontent that served as a basis for at least the passive support for such activity.
Few societies have so experienced "Future Shock," to use Toffler's phrase, as the Saudis have. The rate of change may be a magnitude greater than for contemporary Western societies, as the country was transformed from one of the poorest and less developed countries, to one with a modern physical and economic infrastructure. Yamani categorizes three generations: the ones who were born when the country was unified, in the `30's; the ones who experienced the immense impact of the oil "tufrah," (the boom), and were born in the 50's; and the youth of today, in a much more crowded society, with more limited economic expectations, and were born in the `70's and `80's. The focus of the author's work, as the subtitle suggests, is on the latter generation. And a key issue that she explores is how they identify themselves. Is a Dane a Dane, or a European first? Likewise, is the individual a member of a certain tribe, or a region, like the Hijaz or Al Hasa, or are they a Saudi, or a member of a larger group, like Arab or Muslim. As Yamani's work shows, the tribal and regional identities are weakening; and the Muslim and Saudi identities are ascendant.
The author loosely identifies groups of individuals, from the more secular "modernizers," through those who are traditionally religious and generally content with society's existing structure to those who are radically discontented, and use religion as their vehicle to express their anger. Yamani selects portions of her interviews to present a spectrum of opinion on such topics as foreign relations, censorship, education, economic prospects in an era of globalization, and traditional vs. modern modes of life. Saudi society has two "third rails," to use the American political expression: the Royal family and Islam. Generally it is safest to avoid discussing these topics, but Yamani has a deft touch, and uses the jargon of her field to discuss both areas; at least as far as is prudent.
Yamani constructed three "composite" characters, Muhammad, Abdul Rahman and Muna, and I thought she managed to depict well some key traits of Saudi individuals by using this technique. There are not overall societal paradigms, such as `Traditional," "Inner Directed, and "Other Directed," as David Riesman constructed in his seminal work on American society, The Lonely Crowd, Revised edition: A Study of the Changing American Character She does reference the work of Erik Erikson however. Furthermore, I believe Yamani's work would have benefited by comparisons with other societies: one that is quite striking to me is the economic competition between Saudi youth and expatriate workers, which is similar to the same conflict in the United States, between Americans and immigrants, legal and illegal. The author is a Hijazi, and I was surprised to read her characterization of Saudis as restricted to their native villages, and without trade (p. 5); she was apparently unaware that trade was much more extensive than she stated, and that people from, for example, Unayzah, had undertaken long-distance trade throughout the Middle East for generations. Finally, there is a matter of the book cover, men on the front; women, ever so sedately (?), on the back.
Mai Yamani is certainly a person in her own right, but she is also the daughter of Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who was Saudi Minister of Oil, and the dynamo behind OPEC for a quarter century. They had just completed an attractive and relatively modest (given his position) villa situated on a small ridge just to the east of King Faisal Specialist Hospital, when he was terminated by King Fahd in 1986. `Tis a shame they were never able to live there, as our "neighbors."
Many in the West claim a need for a greater understanding of Saudi Arabia, and fulfill that need via "intellectual junk food," if not outright poison. This is the authentic picture, if you have the patience for the sociological structure. Hopefully Ms. Yamani has a longitudinal study in mind, as the jargon has it, and that she follows up with her subjects in 10 years or so, which would be right now. A good 5-star portrait of the heartland of oil and Islam.