Mesoscope

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Ahmed Al Omran on Saudi Arabia

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Ahmed Al Omran

Last week I saw a talk by Ahmed Al Omran, a Saudi journalist who maintains the excellent Saudi Jeans blog, offering eye-on-the-ground information on the Saudi political scene. The talk was part of the Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s Geek Reading series.

Al Omran was early on the scene in the Saudi blogosphere. His wide readership and use of English, in a post-9/11 Saudi Arabia that is eager to improve its international image, give him some latitude to write critically of his government at times, even when comparable work in Arabic may result in arrest. Al Omran compared his own work to that of blogger Fouad al-Farhan, an Arab-language blogger who was arrested by Saudi authorities until international pressure prompted his release. The two are shown together in this Washington Post article with Al Omran on the far left.

Al Omran’s presentation could perhaps be characterized by short-term sobriety and long-term optimism. He noted a number of factors supportive of movement toward gender equality, representative democracy, freedom of speech, and free access to information in Saudi Arabia, especially including the prevalence of Internet access. He noted that the Saudi government ordered a media blackout on the news of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – no one in the country knew about it for a week. That would be unthinkable today, he observed, because of the decentralized nature of the Internet and the difficulty in effectively blocking access to sites.

In addition, many young Saudis are abroad earning a higher education – around 60,000 in the US alone, and as many in Europe and elsewhere. Many of these young people become accustomed to free access to information.

However, Al Omran cautioned, we should not be overly optimistic about the short-term. We do not know to what degree exposure to foreign ideas will result in commitment to political reform by the “scholarship generation,” as he called the current wave of students abroad. Many of whom will remain abroad, and many more will return to Saudi Arabia with the intention of leading quiet lives.

The Arab Spring did not effectively reach Saudi Arabia, and one high-profile scheduled protest, the Day of Rage, fizzled badly. Al Omran attributes the failure to reach critical mass to a number of factors, including the relative affluence of Saudi Arabia, the effectiveness of the Saudi education system in discouraging the idea of political reform, and the conservative culture of the country as a whole.

Nonetheless, 70% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of thirty, and many of the nation’s rulers are in their 80s and 90s. Women are making largely-symbolic but significant gains, such as winning the right to vote and run in municipal elections, and a movement working toward the right to drive appears to be gaining traction.

This morning Der Spiegel ran an article (auf Deutsch) on Saudi Princess Basma Bin Saud Al Saud, who has been calling for a constitutional monarchy and greater equality for freedom. So who knows what the future holds? Political reform sometimes comes like bankruptcy – gradually, then suddenly.

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Written by Mesocosm

April 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm