The position of women within Saudi society draws media attention throughout the world, yet the views of young Saudi men are rarely heard outside the kingdom. As with Saudi women, life throws up a series of problems for young Saudi men. These start with leaving school, possible admission to higher education, finding a job, getting married, and finally buying a house, all of which can be problematic in contemporary Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, traditional notions of masculinity are being challenged as increasing numbers of Saudi women enter higher education and the workforce. In fact, this is one of the conundrums that many young male Saudis face particularly in the urban centers, such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and the Dammam-Khobar-Dhahran conurbation, where they encounter conflicts between accepted societal norms and the realities of contemporary, increasingly globalized Saudi Arabia.
In recent years, especially since the launch of Saudi Vision 2030 in 2016, the academic and media focus has centered predominantly on Saudi women. But the perspective of young Saudi men has generally been overlooked, even though they are affected equally by issues related to societal transformation and socioeconomic change despite the more privileged position of men in society. However, when considering perspectives of young Saudi men, between the ages of approximately 18 to 26 from a broad range of backgrounds, many concerns are applicable to Saudi youth as a whole – and indeed their global peers. Nevertheless, while regional governments should address gender inequality, openly dealing with issues related to young men is likely to generate some criticism, as Gulf governments will have to do this in the context of already being seen to discriminate against women in favor of male citizens.
Talk to Youth Rather Than About Youth
For any young man anywhere, thinking about life, and the future, can cause anxiety. This is no different for young Saudi men, who generally have aspirations and concerns remarkably like those of their international peers. Young men want to be valued, heard, and taken seriously as well as being given the chance to participate constructively in decision-making processes. In addition, many, especially among the well-educated, do not simply want jobs; they want rewarding careers that contribute to individual, corporate, and national development. They believe it is the role of youth to expand the economy, to innovate and think creatively in order to help build their country. For this reason, it is imperative to understand not only the aspirations and concerns of young Saudi men, but also how they see their futures in both the kingdom and the wider world. That said, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a transition that affects all aspects of life in the kingdom – and sometimes one that many of these young people point out can be simultaneously exciting and confusing. This means that these youth attitudes are fluid due to the rapidly changing nature of the Saudi social environment.
Certainly, there are social problems that intrude on the lives of young Saudi men and some worry about the temptation to engage in negative behavior that can lead to substance abuse, mental health problems, traffic violations, road accidents, and problematic social relationships with family and friends. In addition, other individuals say that their biggest challenge is the inability to express themselves freely due to fear of negative societal reactions.
Nevertheless, when speaking with a variety of Saudi social commentators about social problems as related to young Saudi men, often their greatest concern is young men falling into extremism and radicalization and the threat that these pose to Saudi society. While the threat of extremism and radicalization should never be underestimated, far greater numbers of young Saudi men are in danger of falling victim to apathy, substance abuse, and mental health issues. Hence, as much attention, if not more, should be given to these problems as radicalization. Failure to address these problems seriously will lead to social commentators and leaders appearing as out-of-touch elites in the eyes of many young people.
What Will the Future Be Like for Young Saudi Men?
As in any society there are many challenges ahead for these young men, but challenges can be positive, so these should also be viewed as energizing opportunities for Saudi Arabia. Indeed, there is a palpable sense among many young Saudis that their time has arrived. For example, many young Saudi men believe that Saudi Arabia will soon have an improved standard of living coupled with more societal tolerance. The kingdom will continue to open up to the world, its citizens will be able to communicate more effectively, and, in general, Saudis will become more self-reliant.
Yet, as Saudi Arabia looks to the future it appears that a great many young Saudis support Vision 2030 because its stated goals acknowledge many of their aspirations. Saudi Arabia has massive potential in the form of its youthful and aspirational population, its veritable human capital. For many young Saudi men, the recent socioeconomic reforms have opened a door of opportunity – a chance to participate in national decision-making processes and create a 21st century kingdom that reflects the aspirations of Saudi youth.