Are Saudis the most open nation in the Gulf?

Saudi Arabia’s society is changing at a much faster rate than many of its neighbours

Hands up all those people who’ve heard of or been to the cosmopolitan Dubai. I’m sure that you’ll know about Qatar, the country that has made a name for itself by investing all over Europe and for winning the 2022 World Cup. And there’s Kuwait, probably best known for its role in the first and second Gulf wars. One of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, one could say that Oman unfortunately isn’t as well known abroad as it should be.

And then there’s Saudi Arabia, a mysterious land which up until recently was spoken of in Chinese whispers. The Magic Kingdom was a country that was known for oil, religious and cultural conservatism. Despite the spread of the internet and the ensuing countless videos and other types of multimedia information hosted online Saudi Arabia is still an unknown to most people.

The country’s reputation, image and visa regime doesn’t help to educate foreigners, but I’ve been struck recently on a number of occasions how open today’s Saudis are. This is especially true of the younger generation. Many of the Saudis I know who are under the age of 40 will talk about anything and everything, especially in a closed environment. They’re knowledgeable, they’ll know much more about the workings of the country and national government than is written about or published in the news. And they’re not afraid to be blunt about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to public policy.

Having lived in Saudi for a fair few years I’ve always been fascinated by how Saudis are becoming ever more open to sharing their views with people they know and trust, especially in the setting of the Majlis where the men traditionally gather in the evening to discuss both personal and business issues.

The difference in openness between Saudis and other GCC nationals is becoming ever more noticeable. While traditionally the most open society in the Gulf, Bahrain has been transformed due to the events of the past two years. Both Qataris and Emiratis are very welcoming, but they’re less inclined than Saudis to talk at length with foreigners on the issues that are shaping their respective countries.

And then there’s the Kuwaitis, who are probably definitely the most outspoken people in the Gulf. But for me, today’s Saudis are more open because many will acknowledge both the positives and negatives of their country.

I’m not suggesting that the country is a bastion of diverse views which are aired in public by all and sundry. There are still many subjects that are taboo, but many barriers have been broken over the past two years partly thanks to the widespread adoption of social media by many young Saudis. Just think of any controversial topic in the Gulf, and you’re going to find it being discussed in Saudi by bloggers, on Twitter and Facebook.

Looking forward, I can only hope that this openness will be a blessing to the Kingdom as it looks to tackle issues such as unemployment, the changing role of women in the society, graft and governance. These subjects will be better dealt with if there’s an open dialogue between the country’s nationals. As always, I’m optimistic about where Saudi Arabia is headed and would like to hear if you agree with me or not about my thoughts.

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