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Trends in Values among Saudi Youth:
Findings from Values Surveys

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“A-listnin’ to the witch-tales ’at Annie tells about,” Elizabeth Brownell. LC-USZ62-85581. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

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Scholars have recognized the significant role played by youth in the Arab Spring. This recognition, however, has been either based on anecdotal evidence, as the foot soldiers of protests were typically young, or simply deduced from the age structure of the populations of Arab countries, which shows a large proportion of adults concentrated in the fifteen-to-twenty-nine age group.1 There is, however, empirical evidence to support the view that the movement for change that was triggered with the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor (1) reflected wider changes in people’s sociopolitical and cultural values toward secular politics and nationalism and departure from political Islam, and (2) that youth have been more supportive of some of these changes than the rest of the population.2 The nature of these changes, with young people in particular interested in securing more cultural and social freedom, coupled with broad support for a move toward a democratic form of government, will be important to consider as the movements of the Arab Spring are shaping the formation of a new political order in the region.

Although the movements for democracy have been much weaker in Saudi Arabia than in other countries of the region, it would be a mistake to think that the kingdom has remained immune to change. On the contrary, the Saudi public has displayed an increasing desire for individualist values, democracy, gender equality, less intrusion in daily life by religious authorities, and a wider recognition of national rather than religious identity. On some of these measures, the changes in values are more remarkable among Saudi youth than among their elders. The evidence for these changes is provided by findings from values surveys carried out in the kingdom in 2003 and 2011.

Trends in Values Among Saudi Youth and Older Population

To underscore the significance of these value changes, we consider Saudi attitudes toward issues that have been historically significant in the contemporary [End Page 153] Middle East and how they have shifted between 2003 and 2011. Included among these issues are attitudes pertaining to (a) social individualism, (b) gender relations, (c) forms of government, (d) the relationship between religion and politics, (e) the basis of identity, and (f) the nature of the Western world. These issues have featured prominently in the discourses of intellectual leaders and politicians in the region since the late nineteenth century. Cultural debates, religious disputations, and political conflicts have often transpired over these issues. Because these issues are key to social organization, the manner in which they were resolved contributed to the emergence of such diverse cultural episodes as Islamic modernism, secularism, liberal nationalism, territorial nationalism, Arabism and pan-Arab nationalism, and Islamic fundamentalism. In Islamic modernism, for example, Western culture is acknowledged favorably, Islamic political theory and the idea of constitutionalism are reconciled, the construction of the modern state is endorsed, an Islamic feminism is advanced in order to defend women’s rights, and moderate and peaceful political actions are endorsed. The harbingers of Islamic fundamentalism, by contrast, had taken positions on these issues that were quite different, if not diametrically opposed to, the positions taken by the leaders of Islamic modernism. In Islamic fundamentalism, Western culture is portrayed as decadent, constitutionalism is abandoned in favor of the unity of religion and politics in an Islamic government, the institutions of male domination and gender segregation are prescribed and rigorously defended, and often revolutionary methods of change are encouraged.3

We focus on data collected in full-scale national values surveys carried out in the kingdom in 2003 and 2011, consider questions related to these issues, and assess the changes in Saudi responses to these questions as indicators of changes in values among Saudi citizens. The nature of these changes, the issues over which there is a convergence of values between young people and those in older age cohorts, and those over which there are divergences may provide clues for predicting the probable shape of the reform efforts in the kingdom and assessing whether the religious institutions, the ruling elite, or both would be the target of these efforts.

The 2003 and 2011 Surveys

Comprehensive values surveys of nationally representative samples of 1,526 and 2,003 Saudis (age fifteen and over) living in urban areas, which constitutes 85% of the Saudi population, were carried out in 2003 and 2011 by a research firm in Saudi Arabia. Both samples contained roughly equal numbers of male and female respondents. The 2003 sample included 1,026 Saudi citizens and 500 foreign residents. We have excluded non-Saudi respondents from these [End Page 154] analyses for comparability reasons. In terms of age, 30% were ages 15–24, 29% were 25–34, 26% were 35–44, 11% were 45–54, and 4% were 55 or older. The majority of the respondents identified themselves as members of either the upper middle class (49%) or the lower middle class (34%); the rest identified themselves as upper class (10%) or working or lower class (8%). In terms of education, 80% had less than a university education whereas 20% had a university education.

The 2011 sample included only Saudi citizens but drew an oversample of residents from the primarily Shi’a city of Hafouf. We have calculated a population-based weight based on Saudi census data to account for the excess Hafouf sample, and all figures reported in this paper have been calculated using this weight. In the 2011 sample, 31% were ages 15–24, 28% were 25–34, 20% were 35–44, 12% were 45–54, and 9% were 55 or older. As in 2003, the majority identified as upper middle class (39%) or lower middle class (31%), while 21% identified as working class, 4% as lower class, and 5% as upper class. Lastly, 17% had a university education, and 83% had less than a university education.

Measures of Historically Significant Issues

1. Social Individualism

Social individualism refers to the degree to which the autonomy of the individuals and their choices are recognized. In modern democratic societies, this autonomy is recognized de jure and most of the time de facto as well. Patriarchal societies, on the other hand, give priority to the role of a patriarch and emphasize the individual’s obedience to authority in family and society. Young people in Saudi Arabia today appear to be more interested in a greater degree of individualism, and the gap between that group and older age groups appears to be on the rise.

As an indicator of social individualism, we consider the recognition of individual choice in the selection of one’s spouse in marriage. This indicator is constructed from the respondents’ answer to the question regarding the basis for marriage: “In your view, which of the following is the more important basis for marriage: (1) parental approval, or (2) love?” There is a rich historical pedigree of debate over this choice in different fields of culture. Scholars have used the expression the “Romeo and Juliet revolution” in recognition of the freedom of the individual to choose a spouse, which has its basis in the past humanist movement in Europe that gave priority to individual choice over religious dogma and tradition.4 We thus propose that people who consider love as a more important basis for marriage than parental approval are more supportive of social individualism than those who think otherwise. [End Page 155]

Figure 1 reports Saudis’ attitudes toward the basis for marriage by five age categories, showing a considerable gap in trends in individualistic values between Saudi youth (age 15–24) and other age categories in 2003–2011 period. The data on this figure reveal that, first, in 2003, there was significantly less difference between young Saudis and other age groups, although young Saudis were nonetheless more supportive of marrying for love than people between age 35 and 54. Second, the 2011 data show that people in younger age groups support love as a more important basis for marriage than people in older age groups. Finally, and more crucially, the trend flows in opposite directions between the oldest and youngest sections of the population; those who indicated that love is a more important basis for marriage has increased from 53% to 64% among youth, while these figures have dramatically decreased for 45–54 and 55+ age groups, from 39% to 20% and 51% to 20%, respectively.

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Figure 1.

% expressing love as a more important basis for marriage by age.

Thus, on the issue of spouse selection, Saudi society is polarized between the younger and older generations. A factor contributing to this polarization might have been an increase in the use of satellite TV and the Internet by the Saudi public, which might have differential impact on the population. Our data have indicated significant correlations between attitudes in favor of love as a more important basis for marriage and reliance on satellite TV and the Internet as sources of news information (correlation coefficients between favorable attitudes toward love as a basis of marriage, on the one hand, and reliance on these sources are 0.19 and 0.20, respectively). The data also show that younger Saudis rely more often on the Internet as a source of news information than older [End Page 156] Saudis (the correlation coefficient between age and Internet use is -0.28). We speculate that this polarization, if combined with a degree of relaxation in cultural and political restrictions, may lead to a fairly strong countercultural movement in the kingdom. This trend may signify intensification of family feuds between parents and children and between youth and religious authorities.

2. Gender Relations

This variable measures attitudes toward equality between men and women in family, politics, and education. We consider four indicators of such attitudes, all in the Likert scale format (i.e., strongly agree to strongly disagree). Respondents were asked if they (1) strongly agree, (2) agree, (3) disagree, or (4) strongly disagree that (i) a wife must always obey her husband, (ii) it is OK for a man to have more than one wife, (iii) men make better political leaders than women do, and (iv) university education is more important for boys than it is for girls. For a more effective summary presentation, we constructed a gender-equality variable as an average linear combination of these four variables, wherein the minimum value is “1,” indicating the respondents agree strongly with gender hierarchization, and the maximum is “4,” indicating the respondents strongly disagree.

Figure 2 reports the mean score for the gender-equality variable by age groups. Similar to attitudes toward the basis for marriage, there is a widening gap between the younger and older generation is terms of attitudes toward gender equality. In the 2003 survey, the youth did not display any significant difference in gender attitudes in comparison to older age groups between 25 and 54. They, however, were less supportive of gender equality than people age 55 and older. The 2011 data, on the other hand, show a marked increase in support for gender equality among the youth through age 44, and to lesser extent among those aged 45–54, but a significant decrease among the people 55 and older.

This finding is again significant in showing a widening gap in attitudes toward gender equality between the youth and older generations. It should be noted that while Saudi women have been more supportive of gender equality than men in both surveys, this increase in support for gender equality between the two surveys was higher among Saudi men than it was among Saudi women (not shown). The change among men in favor of gender equality, if it continues in the future, we propose, may further strengthen the current women’s movement in the kingdom.

As was true in the case of social individualism, this change may intensify family feuds and, insofar as religious institutions in the kingdom remain the guardian of patriarchal values, it may also increase conflict between religious authorities and the younger section of the population. [End Page 157]

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Figure 2.

Attitudes toward gender equality by age (mean score).

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Figure 3.

Democracy as an ideal form of government (%strongly agree/agree).

3. Form of Government

In assessing values relative to the form of government, we consider attitudes toward democracy. Respondents were asked if they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree that “Democracy may have problems but it’s better than any other form of government.” As shown in figure 3, the majority of Saudi citizens either agree or strongly agree that democracy is the best form of government in both surveys. However, a much higher percentage of the Saudi public believed in democracy as an ideal form of government in 2011 than they did in 2003, between 57% and 62% in 2003 and between 70% and 74% in 2011. [End Page 158] Contrary to the questions related to social individualism and gender equality, the data in this figure show that there is no significant age difference among Saudi citizens along this dimension. Both younger and older citizens appear to have arrived at a national consensus on the significance of democracy as an ideal form of government for their country.

4. Orientations toward Religious Institutions and the Shari’a

Like attitudes toward the basis for marriage and gender equality, there are considerable age differences in attitudes toward religious institutions and the Shari’a, with younger age groups being more secular than the older age groups. To be sure, findings from both surveys have shown that Saudis are highly religious and have remained deeply committed to their fundamental religious beliefs and values. Nonetheless, being religious is one thing, and having confidence in the existing religious institutions and emphasizing the significance of the shari’a, as understood from the current practices of the religious authorities, is something quite different. To assess changes in their attitudes toward organized religion and the shari’a, we consider Saudi responses to two questions. The first pertains to the amount of trust or confidence they have in the religious institutions: “Do you have (1) a great deal of confidence in them, (2) quite a lot of confidence, (3) not very much confidence, or (4) none at all?” The second refers to the degree to which they would like to see the shari’a to be the guiding principle of the government: “Do you consider it (1) very important, (2) important, (3) somewhat important, (4) least important, or (5) not important for a good government to implement only the shari’a law?”

Figures 4 and 5 show the mean scores of these variables from the 2003 and 2011 surveys. Both figures indicate a significant decline in trust in religious institutions and support for the shari’a across all age groups between the two surveys. This decline may indicate that the Saudi public desire fewer intrusions into their daily lives by religious authorities and less rigorous application of the shari’a law by the government.

Along both dimensions, however, youth have moved more significantly away from prior values than the older population. According to figure 4, the decline in confidence in religious institutions has been larger among the youth than the older age groups, with the mean score difference in the youngest group being 0.59 (=1.78–1.19) while the difference in the oldest group is just 0.33 (=1.48–1.15). Likewise, figure 5 shows the largest decline in support for the shari’a among the first two age groups, with a difference in means of 0.66 and 0.68, as compared to the oldest age group at 0.52. To be sure, there is still considerable support for religious institutions and the shari’a in the [End Page 159] kingdom. However, this trend shows that the Saudi public, and the youth in particular, may be more receptive to secular ideas today than they were about a decade ago.

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Figure 4.

Mean score confidence in religious institution by age (1=a great deal, 4=none at all).

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Figure 5.

Mean score on good government implements shari’a (1=very good, 5=very bad).

5. National Identity

Consistent with the above findings is the change in Saudis’ self-definition of identity from religious to national. To measure identity, respondents were asked, “Which of the following best describes you: (1) above all, I am a Saudi, (2) above all, I am a Muslim, (3) above all, I am an Arab, or (4) other?” Figure 6 shows the changes in Saudis’ conception of their identity between 2003 and 2011. Between the two surveys, those defining themselves as Saudis above all jumped from 17% to 48%, while those identifying as Muslims dropped from 75% to 46%. These changes are remarkable, particularly given that Saudi Arabia [End Page 160] is the bastion of conservative Islam. The fact that only 46% of the public self-identify as Islamic may be indicative of profound changes in values that are going on in the kingdom.

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Figure 6.

Percent Saudis defining selves as Saudis, Muslims, or Arabs, above all.

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Figure 7.

Percent Saudis defining themselves as Saudi, above all.

Figure 7 shows changes in Saudis’ adherence to national identity by age in the 2003–2011 period. As this figure shows, the increase in the percentage of Saudis who define themselves in the national rather than religious terms has been consistent across all the age groups between the 2003 and 2011 surveys.


Analysis of the survey data collected in 2003 and 2011 showed significant changes in political and religious attitudes among the Saudi public. These [End Page 161] changes indicated an increase in support for democracy, gender equality, and national identity. Trust in religious institutions and support for the shari’a, on the other hand, have declined between the two surveys.

On issues related to the basis for marriage and gender relations, the data showed that there are generational gaps; youth are significantly more in favor of love as a more important basis for marriage and gender equality than people in the older age groups. Further, young people experienced a slightly larger decline in trust in religious institutions and support for the shari’a than other age groups. To underscore the significance of age in affecting these changes, figure 8 shows the correlation coefficients between age, on the one hand, and favorable attitude toward love as the basis for marriage, gender equality, support for the shari’a, and trust in religious institutions. As this figure shows, while all these correlations are negative, in the 2003 surveys only the correlation coefficient between attitudes toward love as the basis for marriage and age is significant. However, in the 2011 survey, all these relationships are statistically significant, indicating the increasing significance of age in contributing to trends in values.

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Figure 8.

Age and attitudes toward love as a basis for marriage, gender equality, shari’a, and trust in mosque in 2003 & 2011 (corr. coef).

These changes have considerable implications for the future of Saudi Arabia. They are indicative of the type and target of movements that may emerge in the kingdom in the future. It appears that on issues related to individualism and generally social freedom, such movements may primarily be directed against the cultural repressiveness of the dominant religious institutions, while on the issues of democracy and political freedom, they would be against the state’s authoritarianism. These two types of movements may not [End Page 162] necessarily converge. At present, the weakness of the prodemocracy movement in Saudi Arabia may be attributed to the repressive power of the Saudi government and its vast financial resources, as it significantly increased the salaries of the government employees following the outbreak of antiauthoritarian movements in the Arab world.

The robustness of the regime, however, may also be due to other religious and cultural factors, such as the differentiation between political and religious-cum-cultural authorities in Saudi Arabia. This differentiation may also explain why the hereditary monarchies have been more resilient in resisting revolutionary challenges than the republican regimes in the Arab world. Those latter regimes having secular orientations tended to overlook the cultural authority of religious institutions. Therefore, with the passage of time, they became the target of revolutionary challenges from both religious and liberal opposition movements. The monarchies, on the other hand, recognized this differentiation and respected the sphere of the activities of the religious institutions. This recognition might have been a factor in preventing the formation of religious-secular alliance against the monarchical systems.

The potential for change in Saudi Arabia is thus structured by the nature of the relationship between the monarchy and the religious institutions. The findings related to trends in values among the Saudi public provides more detailed information about how this structure shapes the potential for change and the reasoning behind the monarchy’s resiliency. Revolutionary challenges are more effective when the state becomes the locus of diverse conflicts—that is, when the youth’s desire to express themselves individually, women’s struggle for equality, people’s search for spiritual fulfillment, and diverse individuals’ demand for democracy are all fixated on the power of the ruling regime. In Saudi Arabia, it seems, the desirability of individualistic values and demand for gender equality are directed at the structure of the authority in the family and religious institutions. The decline in people’s trust in religious institutions and support for the shari’a is indicative that the locus of the conflict is also located in the religious institutions. Saudis’ attention span is fixated on the ruling regime insofar as they are demanding democracy and transparency. The Iranian monarchy faced a revolutionary crisis in 1977–79 in part because the Shah was blamed for promoting the Western individualist culture that undermined the cultural authority of the family elders, for promoting antireligious secularism, for allying with international capital, and for being authoritarian.

The situation in Saudi Arabia today, however, is quite different from Iran in 1979. If the Shah’s zealous Westernization policies contributed to the alienation of religious institutions, the Saudi monarchy enjoys a working alliance with the [End Page 163] religious establishment. Nonetheless, the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia cannot afford remaining impervious to the demand of the public for more democracy, in general, and that of young people for more cultural and social freedom, in particular. As findings from these surveys may indicate, disregarding these demands may enhance restiveness among the youth.

Mansoor Moaddel

Julie de Jong is a Research Associate at the University of Michigan and holds a Master degree in survey methodology from the University of Michigan. She has worked at the Institute for Social Research since 2000 and has been Moaddel’s research associate since 2005. She has been involved in all stages of values survey data collection and analyses in a number of Middle Eastern countries.

Mansoor Moaddel

Mansoor Moaddel studies religion, culture, ideology, political conflict, revolution and social change. His work currently focuses on the causes and consequences of values and attitudes of the Middle Eastern and Islamic publics. He has been involved in carrying out out values surveys in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey. He has also carried out youth surveys in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. His previous research project analyzed the determinants of ideological production in the Islamic world. In this project, he has studied the rise of Islamic modernism in India, Egypt, and Iran between the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth; the rise of liberal nationalism in Egypt and Iran, and Arabism and Arab nationalism in Syria in the first half of the twentieth century; and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, and Syria in the second half of the twentieth century.

This article is based upon research projects supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (SES 0242861) and the Office of Naval Research (N00014-09-1-0985).


1. Mara Hvistendahl, “Young and Restless Can Be a Volatile Mix,” Science 333 (29 July 2011): 552–54.

2. Mansoor Moaddel, “The Iranian Revolution and its Nemesis: The Rise of Liberal Values among Iranians,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (February 2009): 126–36; Mansoor Moaddel, Julie de Jong, and Munqith Dagher, “Beyond Sectarianism in Iraq,” Context 10, no. 3 (2011): 66–67; and Mansoor Moaddel, “What do Arabs Want?” Project Syndicate, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/moaddel5/English, January 2012.

3. Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof, Contemporary Debates in Islam: An Anthology of Modernist and Fundamentalist Thought (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2000); Mansoor Moaddel, “Conditions for Ideological Production: The Origins of Islamic Modernism in India, Egypt, and Iran,” Theory and Society 30 (2001): 669–731; Mansoor Moaddel, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).

4. W. Karl Deutsch, “On Nationalism, World Religion and the Nature of the West,” in Mobilization, Center-Periphery Structures and Nation Building, ed. Per Torsvik (Bergen, Norway: Universitestsvorlaget, 1981), 51–93. [End Page 164]