Event Review: Youth Movements and Political Participation in Saudi Arabia - Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy
As home to one of the world’s youngest populations, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has in recent years seen a remarkable surge in youth movements that are especially visible online. At an October 26th discussion at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Dr. Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, argued that this uptick in online political engagement does not necessarily translate to increased political participation.
To demonstrate the significance of recent political and social shifts within the Kingdom, Diwan provided an overview of Saudi Arabia as it has functioned since its founding in 1932. She emphasized the Kingdom’s dynastic monarchal system, wherein power is largely decentralized and shared among the royal family. Local and global forces are converging to reveal cracks in a few key areas: the Kingdom’s diffuse power structure has hindered decision-making, unstable oil supplies have fostered economic anxiety, and demographic changes have forced a reevaluation of conservative religious movements within the Kingdom. Additionally, as the royal family grows older, King Salman has made a number of moves toward empowering a new generation of leaders by elevating his son, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), to the position of Crown Prince. It is this generational shift in the Kingdom’s leadership that Diwan underlined as she set out to demonstrate that the Kingdom’s shifting power structure, along with its emerging youth movements, are creating a new political environment.
While the average Saudi king comes into power around age sixty-four, seventy percent of the Kingdom’s population is less than thirty years old. This stark generational divide, coupled with ready access to new technologies and social media platforms, has led to a surge in virtual social movements among Saudi Arabia’s youth. Online communities and artistic collectives have become especially important in Saudi Arabia because they are less bound by the strict standards of behavior that regulate physical public spaces.. Outlets like Twitter and YouTube are essential platforms for youth movements, and Diwan pointed to satirical comedy as a noteworthy medium for political criticism. MBS and his new government have made concerted efforts to capture the energy of these youth movements, enlisting popular comedians and artists to participate in his transition team and engage in cultural diplomacy around the world.