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  • Trends in Values among Saudi Youth: Findings from Values Surveys
  • Julie De Jong and Mansoor Moaddel (bio)

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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...