A conversation with Mark C. Thompson, head of the Socioeconomics Program at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (Riyadh), on societal transformations in Saudi Arabia

Last update: 2024-03-25 12:06:27

Dr. Thompson has been living and working in Saudi Arabia since 2001. He worked for diverse institutions such as Saudi Arabian Airlines, the Saudi Arabian National Guard, and Prince Sultan University. He holds a Ph.D. from the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He is the author of Being Young, Male and Saudi: Identity and Politics in a Globalized Kingdom (2019, Cambridge University Press), an insightful analysis of Saudi Arabia’s societal transformations, which he experienced first-hand. We reached him in his office in Riyadh.


Interview by Claudio Fontana


Among many others, you published a book titled Being Young, Male and Saudi: Identity and Politics in a Globalized Kingdom. Especially in Western media there is the perception that the most important issue in Saudi Arabia (and maybe in the Muslim world) is the one related to the role of women. You chose instead to focus on young Saudi males. Could you explain us the reason for this choice?


There are a variety of reasons. 95% of gender studies are not really gender studies, they are women’s studies. You can go to Waterstones in Piccadilly (which is Europe’s biggest bookshop), like I did, go to the gender studies section, and not find a single book on masculinity. This is not just related to Saudi Arabia – I think it’s everywhere. The study of masculinity as part of gender studies is still very understudied and under researched. Then there is precisely what you said about Western media, and I have to say also in Western academia, and in policy circles. Since the launch of Vision 2030 the focus was very much on how this project was affecting Saudi women, which of course is incredibly important. But you can’t understand women’s empowerment, or the changing role of women in Saudi societies, unless you understand the impact and the perception of this on the role of men, because at the end of the day this is still a very patriarchal society. All the main decision makers in Saudi Arabia are men. You must think about that as well.


Moreover, on a personal level, for many, many years I taught young Saudi men in a whole variety of different institutions: the Saudi Arabian National Guard, Prince Sultan University, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM). I saw things before and post the Vision, before and post the social media revolution. Throughout this transition, I was engaged and involved with young Saudi men daily. I saw how they reacted to social change, how it impacted their own perceptions, their own identities, futures, expectations, and concerns. This was very much part of my life and a very important part, and it still is. I felt that this was a side of the story that we just weren’t hearing enough about, and yet an incredibly important part. The last reason is that, as a researcher, you must be able to look at the literature of a subject and find the gaps, i.e., what’s missing. I’m working on the follow up volume now as well. It is not an update of the first book, but the emphasis is still on the male youth issues.


Could you tell us something about your new book? Have you already seen any difference since your previous research on Saudis youths?


Although I did a lot travelling for the first book, I’ve done a lot more for this one. I think in a way this one goes even more in depth. I’ve travelled the last three and a half years extensively around the Kingdom, to lots of remote areas and villages. I’m trying to get a picture about how the transitions are impacting wider sections of society. We have seen major transitions happening for example in entertainment options, in the importance of Riyadh as the focal point of the Kingdom, in employment opportunities, and of course in gender roles. The main focus of this new book is going to be on what has not changed. I think this is missing because the narrative is change, change, change all the time. Actually 90% of the time it is not “change,” it is “adaption,” which is different. I am going into more depth with the primary identity narratives, Islam and family, because I think those narratives were reinforced by the pandemic, as they were everywhere in the world. The pandemic made us think about what is important to us, regardless of where we were. The new book is looking at all these sorts of issues.


Instead of a clear narrative focused on “everything is changing”, somethings are not changing. One of these things is probably Islam. You wrote that for many young men, Saudi Arabia is synonymous with Islam. How do Saudi young males live their faith? How do they perceive the role of religion in the public sphere? Is this something that is changing, or just adapting?


I always differentiate between religion and faith because they are different: faith is personal, it’s your own relationship with Allah or whatever you believe in, whereas religion is much more the political side of this. Since writing the last book, my personal situation has changed considerably: I am a Muslim now. I’ve been on Umrah, I’ve been to Madinah, I’m going on Hajj this year, and I am going to include this personal story in the new book as it is a huge source of research in terms of how this changed my position in Saudi Arabia as well as my personal relationships here. For example, when you look at the numbers of Saudis who went to either Makkah or Madinah on the last ten days of Ramadan in 2023 (and again this year) they were millions and millions; It seems like almost the entire Kingdom visiting the holy mosques. Furthermore, I have had a lot of personal experiences that show the centrality of Islam to people’s own lives, to their own narratives, to their own identities. For most of the Saudis that I mix with, whether they are friends, students, or colleagues, I don’t see that centrality fundamentally changing. I think the centrality of Islam, and of family as well, to life in the Kingdom is what gives Saudi Arabia enormous resilience, and how it’s been able to absorb a lot of these transitions, and sometimes external shocks as well. It’s a fundamental part of the way of thinking about who you are, and what is central to your existence. You only have to listen to how people talk in terms of using Mashallah and Inshallah, Mubarak Allah, Subhan Allah… I think the centrality of this shouldn’t be underestimated.


You mentioned the shocks that were absorbed by the Kingdom, and in many pages of your book you wrote that the 2014 oil price collapse was one of these shocks, but also a turning point for Saudi Arabia. This is true not only when we look at the government or elite, but also for the society. Could you explain us why that was such an important moment?


It was such an important moment because for so long there had been “excess money,” and money had been handed out very easily. And yet I could see pre 2014 that this situation was not sustainable, because oil prices were not going to stay at 120$ a barrel forever. As I pointed out in the book, pre 2014 my students at KFUPM had on average six to seven job offers each, and then suddenly a lot of them had none, particularly in certain disciplines such as Chemical Engineering. It was a huge shock: the easy ride suddenly was over. But every cloud has a silver lining, and in the end, it was beneficial because it forced young people to start thinking differently about employment and their lives, and not necessarily relying on state handouts. The launch of Saudi Vision 2030 a couple of years later was also a response to the 2014 oil price collapse.


Do you think that the 2014 external shock had an impact on women’s condition in the Kingdom as well?


Yes, for example, in 2017 it affected the decision to grant women the permission to drive. I wrote about this in the book as well. This was a big thing in the West, it was all over the newspapers and on TV, but the reason for this is anchored in 2014: it became an economic necessity of a lot of women, especially from non-wealthy families, to go to work. That’s when we started to see women working in public, especially in the big cities, which at the time was a big surprise. Once the whole idea of women working in public became accepted, many families began to realize that they actually needed that extra income, especially if you were in a family with no sons, or if you were in a family where the wife was divorced. It was in that precise moment that the point of a woman going to work finally made sense. But also, paying the salary that she earned at work to a Pakistani driver just didn’t make sense. So, driving was inevitable.


Saudi Vision 2030 was launched in 2016 and it was welcomed by many young Saudis as an encouraging step forward. You also wrote that it was interpreted as “a blueprint for more inclusivity and societal participation,” in other words it “renegotiated Saudi social contract.” According to your research and experience, what are the aspirations and concerns of Saudi youths regarding this huge program?


Since I wrote the chapters on Vision 2030 in the book, we have moved on quite a lot. From outside the Kingdom, I’m often asked whether I think the Saudi Vision 2030 will succeed, which to me is a redundant question, because Saudi Vision 2030 has already succeeded, full stop. It’s a vision, and young Saudis, who after all are the majority of the population, had bought into this idea of the Vision. Not only in terms of National development but also of their own personal development, about how they see the development of the country, of communities, of individual families. Indeed, by and large, they are invested very heavily in this idea. When I wrote the book, employment opportunities were still very limited in comparison to today. This is why now I need to write the second book, because this has changed drastically since Being Young, Male and Saudi was published. When I wrote the first book, what wasn’t existent so much – but which is now incredibly important in the Kingdom – is that people have the option of choice. There are choices in terms of careers, majors, and jobs, there are new sectors, new opportunities, new entertainment options. These choices did not exist before; there is a part in the first book that talks about “nothing to do, nowhere to go”: it’s totally different now. If you are a Riyadh family or a Jeddah family or any family anywhere in the Kingdom, and if you want to do something at the weekend, now you can because the options are there. Whether you choose to do something or not, whether you agree with cinema, for example, or you don’t agree with cinema, whether you agree with a concept or don’t agree with a concept, well that’s up to you, you can go, or you don’t have to go. But in the past that didn’t exist, that’s a fundamental change that we are seeing.


Do you find that Vision 2030 has been perceived in the same way across different regions inside the country?


There are a lot of variations in term of regions inside the Kingdom. I think it’s not just regional variation but it’s also variation within cities and within municipalities. For example, Riyadh is a huge city now, and when people talk to me about Riyadh I always ask which Riyadh, because there many Riyadhs now. How people see the transition and the opportunities depends on what their priorities are: different people have different priorities depending on the circumstances and on their economic, family, or educational backgrounds. I’ve said this many times and I will probably say it many times in the future: when it comes to Saudi Arabia, especially with the way Saudi Arabia was looked from the West, there is this tendency to look at the Kingdom as a homogeneous entity and adopt a one size fits all approach to looking at Saudi Arabia. Of course you can’t do this because the internal diversity is huge. Quite naturally people respond to transition, whether that’s the socio-economic or the socio-cultural part of it, very differently. Employment is still one of the top priorities, jobs and careers are still very important, but the way of looking at that differs depending on who you are talking to: if you are talking to graduates from Al Jouf University in Sakaka for example, their priorities can be very different from the priorities of KFUPM graduates, or the priorities of undergraduate women coming out of Princess Noora University. The challenge is to capture the nuances, the complexity, and the contradictions which are inherent in the Kingdom.


A very important thing to remember is that we are in the midst of this transition. Transitions by their very nature are complex and change direction. All you need is a TikTok video to go viral tonight, and that can change so many perceptions. As researchers we can do empirical research, we can identify trends and potential scenarios. But we can’t draw definitive conclusions now. Obviously, we can say that the pace of this transition won’t be like this forever. Maybe in 10-15 years we will look back, and maybe draw more definitive conclusions.


In a way, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is perceived to be the man who’s impersonating all these changes. He is perceived as the man who is the interpreter of younger people aspiration as well. Is this true from your perspective?


Absolutely, 100%. The Crown Prince was the one who opened the door and allowed the entrepreneurial, aspirational, interconnected young society to get up and go through that door. When you look back at the Kingdom in the past, the first decade that I was here, the majority of decision makers were a lot older, whereas now the decision makers and the people who work in ministries are much younger. So yes, absolutely the Crown Prince is seen as the person who facilitated this. But when you look at the Crown Prince, unless he is travelling to a Western country, he is always dressed in traditional Saudi clothes, always. That is also a very important message about maintaining the “Saudiness,” the authenticity of the Kingdom.


The Kingdom is navigating the transition, and we can’t provide the definitive answer today on where the transition will head the country. What challenges and risks do you see for this transition to be successful?


First, we have to acknowledge that challenges are not just negative, but also positive. When you have a very young and well-educated population like you do in Saudi Arabia, challenges are good: young people want to be challenged, they want to be able to rise to the occasion. The Kingdom has spent over the decades enormous sums of money on education, not just scholarship programs but education within the country as well, and nowadays it is reaping the benefits of that. As I said before, it has this young, well-educated, forward-thinking population who not only want to develop personally but understand that their personal development is linked to National development as well. They want to be part of this process. Therefore, harnessing and directing this youthful energy is key to everything. One of the biggest challenges that Saudi Arabia, like every other country of the world, faced in recent years was the Covid-19 pandemic. Saudi Arabia responded to the pandemic in an incredibly efficient way, and in fact it was one of the most successful countries in the world in terms of the pandemic response. The tech that was introduced in May 2020 was fantastic. Saudi Arabia proved at that point that it absolutely had the ability to deal with something like this. And this made a lot of Saudis extremely proud, of course. Certainly, there will be bumps in the road, that’s normal, but my overall feeling is one of a lot of optimism. Saudi Arabia is a very vibrant and exciting place right now. It’s very much a Kingdom that is looking towards the future, but at the same time retaining what it is that makes a Saudi, Saudi.


In the rationale of the book, you wrote that it is not enough to focus on high politics to understand Saudi Arabia. Therefore, you chose to focus on low politics. What do you mean by low politics and why is it crucial to look at low politics?


When I talk about low politics, I’m talking about issues related to employment, education, health, the social contract, quality of life... All these type of things as opposed to high politics, which includes foreign policy, security, and energy studies. The reason I focus on low politics is because this is what people care about, not just in Saudi Arabia, but anywhere in the world. At the end of the day, your number one priority is to get a job, get on the housing ladder, to be able to afford to get married. In the introduction to the book, I point this out: the concerns of young Saudi men are very often not much different from the concerns of young men everywhere, just the context is very different. When Crown Prince Mohammed gave an important interview two years ago during Ramadan – an interview specifically for the Saudi audience – he spent the most of it talking about all these areas of low politics. Maybe it’s not as high profile and glamorous, but these issues impact people’s everyday life, and you can’t understand Saudi Arabia if you don’t have an understanding about the concerns and aspirations of its societies and communities and especially youth. That’s why you need to consider this picture, because otherwise what you get is a very one-sided view of societal perspectives and priorities in the Kingdom.




The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation