How religion is practiced and understood in Saudi Arabia has noticeably shifted in recent years. Many religious scholars who had long influenced public opinion were sidelined. Some were advocates of social awareness as a means to create change and revive Islamic values and principles. This advocacy came to be viewed as at odds with state policies, especially after the Arab uprisings, as such efforts were perceived as grassroot activism. The marginalization of these religious figures who emphasized social change prompted a rise of trends focusing on spirituality and meditation to promote self-awareness.
For years there have been a variety of advocates for self-awareness across the Gulf states; however, their influence was largely overshadowed by that of religious scholars. As restrictions have been placed on these religious figures, they have lost their monopoly on religion and the related sphere of spirituality, and more space has opened for self-awareness advocates. Now, it is common to see motivational speakers, self-improvement coaches, and yoga instructors incorporating religious themes into their sessions. The emerging diverse voices are becoming more popular and increasingly challenging conventional norms. This is raising apprehension among a variety of critics who are concerned about the implications this self-awareness trend might have on the traditional practice and understanding of religion.
The rising popularity of self-awareness has made yoga more visible recently in the Gulf. In Saudi Arabia, for example, yoga has also been used to showcase social reform efforts. The practice of yoga previously was limited to physical exercises and excluded meditation due to yoga’s Hindu origin. However, recent interest in yoga is now more focused on meditation as a way to connect spiritually and help participants channel peace. Kundalini yoga, for example, is becoming more popular in the Gulf, both taught and practiced by women, for the physical and psychological benefits, while sometimes using Islamic religious themes and mantras as a foundation for meditation sessions.
As tourism is being developed as a means for economic diversification in Saudi Arabia, different yoga styles are becoming more prolific. The Al Ula megaproject is becoming a yoga destination, taking advantage of the region’s picturesque mountains and landscape. Promoters of self-awareness and yoga have been using Al Ula as a hub for their sessions and as visual content for their posts on social media. On the state level, this trend showcases the positive and progressive image needed to attract tourism, while it nurtures spiritual trends that are not seen as threatening to the state.
Opponents and critics of this new trend have been more outspoken recently calling it a modern-day fad. Moreover, there are concerns over limited formal training and the absence of regulations, especially as guided practices such as yoga and meditation have become lucrative source of revenue. However, the effect this trend has on religion as well as the role of women at the forefront of the trend seem to be the two primary reasons for the growing criticism. While self-awareness and meditation have always attracted more female participants in the Gulf, local women are now increasingly becoming coaches and instructors specializing in different disciplines. A Kuwaiti coach, Reham Al-Rashidi, is a specialist in harnessing feminine energy and empowering women to focus on themselves. Another Saudi coach, Sumaya Al-Nasser, has become a leading figure in promoting awareness through numerous videos on social media, where she speaks directly to women. Both Rashidi and Nasser have become social media celebrities, attracting more followers and growing backlash alike.
While the feminist movement in the Gulf has come under increased scrutiny recently, self-awareness coaches, although also criticized, are less targeted than the feminists and are providing an alternative method for women to see change, even if it is only on an individual level. Moreover, the trend is allowing women in the Gulf – who had almost no influence in developing the dominant religious discourse – to promote their own understanding of religion to their own audience. For example, Nasser, who holds a PhD in Quranic studies, sometimes refers to religion in her videos and challenges misconceptions regarding the role of women in society. This emerging trend has given women an avenue to confront certain traditional beliefs and expectations that were long maintained during the height of religious influence in the kingdom.
Interestingly, however, one of the leading self-awareness advocates is a man, Mohammed Alduhaim, a former Saudi judge, whose religious background grants him credibility and wider public appeal. Alduhaim tries to distance himself from traditional religious associations (using the title mualem, mentor, instead of sheikh); however, ironically, he heavily relies on religion to promote spirituality and self-awareness. Alduhaim’s influence, and that of others like him with a formal religious background, gives legitimacy and credibility to the broad trend that includes meditation and self-awareness, despite the critics. Even though Alduhaim has been promoting self-awareness for years, the number of his followers has recently increased, especially from neighboring Gulf countries. As a result, his in-person courses are not limited to the Saudi market but are offered in other Gulf countries as well. In 2020, he began providing his courses via Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Promoters of self-awareness and meditation have taken advantage of Ramadan to promote their programs on social media. Some incorporate Islamic religious themes to make them specifically tailored for the holy month while others focus on self-awareness and meditation without the added religious dimension. What makes such programs especially relevant to Ramadan is that they emphasize the importance of inner peace and spirituality, a primary focus of religious observers.
The uncertainty and anxiety created by the coronavirus pandemic have driven many people to look for alternative – or additional – means to find comfort and spiritual connection. As meditation has become more popular in the Gulf, global use of meditation apps has soared since the onset of the pandemic. New communication and social media platforms that have become popular over the past year, such as Clubhouse and Zoom, have contributed to discussions and offered online venues for yoga and meditation practice to support this trend in the Gulf, despite the restrictions on gathering due to the pandemic. This trend is another reminder of how religion remains central in the region, even when an alternative approach – such as spirituality through self-awareness – is emphasized, underscoring the somewhat broadening and shifting religious context in the kingdom.