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Saudi Arabia: car bomb in Dammam – more lives lost, but not hope for the future

May 31, 2015
Saudi snowman

Jaleel Al-Arbash (R) with friends in Kansas. Photo: Instagram


The pictures of the two young cousins who died while trying to stop the latest mosque attack reminded me of so many Saudis of their age. Enthusiastic, fun-loving but also idealistic.

In case your perception of the people of this diverse country is based on pictures of solemn-looking officials, or grim-faced clerics with long beards fulminating on TV, it’s worth reflecting on these lads. There are many like them, not only in Saudi Arabia but across the Middle East.

I have no idea about their characters, except that their role as volunteers manning a checkpoint outside the mosque suggests that they were devout Muslims. This article in Middle East Eye tells their story.

That Mohammed Hassan Ali Bin Isa and Abdel Jaleel al-Arbash were Shia singled them and their fellow-worshippers in Dammam out as targets in the second such attack in eight days, and the third since November.

The attacks in Saudi Arabia are not everyday events, so are shocking for their rarity. I happened to have been in Al-Hasa a few hours before gunmen cut down eight people outside a village mosque. A week ago I was visiting friends 40 kilometres away from the Qatif suicide bombing that killed 20 people.

I have met and worked with many young people in the Kingdom. Mohammed and Abdel Jaleel seemed typical of a generation of Saudis who are the best hope that their country will move on from being a society addicted to handouts to one that takes the future into its own hands.

I’m not talking about changes to the all-powerful political establishment centred on the ruling family. As the events of the past five years have shown, political changes work only if society as a whole, not in part, accepts and is ready for them. That’s a far deeper and more long-term challenge than simply a matter of one regime succeeding another. Non-violent change usually takes place over generations.

What these kids are bringing to Saudi Arabia is an irreverence expressed in humour, especially through the social media. A willingness to work. A realisation that there’s more to life than taking a safe government sinecure that requires them to put in two or three hours of productive time in any given day; that the addiction to foreign labour is draining the country’s precious resources while deterring employers from giving their own people a chance to excel; that there’s more to work than an effortless progression to a desk with a big nameplate on the back of a qualification that doesn’t qualify them to do anything, because qualifications without experience are the equivalent of putting a ten-year-old behind the wheel of a car.

All around the Middle East – most notably in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Iran – young people like Mohammed and Abdul Jaleel are being killed, imprisoned, oppressed and intimidated. Even when they are left at liberty they are forced into a system not of their making. A system in which obedience is more important than creativity. In which initiative is crushed out of them, and deference to social and political hierarchies is mandatory.

Some of these conditions apply – though in less extreme forms – in Saudi Arabia too, but the government is most certainly aware of the need to educate and encourage its young, even if it can’t easily sail against the prevailing winds of conservatism and inertia for which its predecessors are at least partly responsible. The current government may be draconian in its response to what it perceives as threats to national security. But pressure to conform, to do things as they were always done, comes more from powerful elements of society than from government diktat.

The fact that Abdel Jaleel and many like him studied in the West is significant. The scholarship fund set up by the late King Abdullah has sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to complete their educations at western universities. That experience has changed many mindsets, though not always in directions that the West would like. But I have met many young Saudis who have never studied in the US, Britain or any other popular destinations for Saudi students. The spark of curiosity and free thinking is in them too. They are ambitious, questioning and willing to laugh at things about which earlier generations might have kept silent.

This is not to say that I’ve seen evidence of a mass of disaffected kids yearning for a new Saudi Arabia. I don’t have those kinds of conversations, and generally I only mix with people lucky enough to have jobs. But I do believe that attitudes are changing, partly because of the ability to share ideas and sentiments through the social media, and partly because huge population growth in the region creates pressures on social and political institutions: the need for more jobs, houses and schools; more poverty as well as wealth; more ambitions that the state finds it hard to satisfy.

Equally we in the west shouldn’t get the comforting idea that the Kingdom’s youth would like their country to become “more like the west”. Saudis have always coveted the material benefits of western technology. Some have embraced western cultural values, but many have not. To call elements of their society “liberal” and “conservative” is to an extent a western construct. There are binding forces that transcend such definitions. Religious, familial and tribal ties may be weakened as generations succeed each other, but those forces are not going away. Don’t expect anything like the profound changes in Ireland over the past forty years that led to the recent referendum on gay marriage to take place any time soon in the states of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Instagram photo that shows Abdel Jaleel Al-Arbash posing with a Saudi snowman in Kansas sums up for me the best hope for a peaceful future. A future in which the Kingdom remains at ease with its traditions and heritage, yet looks outwards with curiosity and a desire to learn rather than inwards with paranoia and resentment.

And for all the violence that has flared up around its borders, Saudi Arabia remains a relatively peaceful country. Long may that continue. If the country can navigate through the next decade or so without succumbing to the appalling discord that surrounds it, then there’s a decent chance that the future will be in the hands of people like Abdel Jaleel, Mohammed and the hundreds of bright-eyed, open-minded young people I have met over the past few years.

That’s why I especially grieve for two brave young lads who will never see that come to pass.

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