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Saudi Arabia's ominous generation gap

October 26, 2009

Olivia Ward

In most countries, a generation gap means a struggle between aging conservatives and their young and restless critics. But in Saudi Arabia, an opposite kind of battle is being waged, and one that poses dangers for both the mega-rich kingdom and the West.

It's a high-stakes contest that will determine the future of the world's biggest oil producer, the holiest sites of Islam, and the tiny kingdom whose influence has made it a geopolitical giant.

"In Saudi Arabia, the idea that you have to go to the young for progress is turned on its head," says Robert Lacey, author of Inside the Kingdom. "It's the older generation of Saudis, including the royals, who are more friendly to progress, and to the West. Fundamentalism is a belief ... embraced by the young."

Lacey says it's also a product of the royal family's history as the spear-carrier of Wahhabism, one of the most austere Islamic sects.

And, he says, the society that produced Osama bin Laden, 9/11 and global jihad, now depends on an 85-year-old monarch, King Abdullah, to strike a balance among the entrenched conservatives, extremists and modernists struggling to steer Saudi Arabia's course to the future.

It was Abdullah's House of Saud that fought its way to power in 1932, and hammered three disconnected territories into one kingdom under the Wahhabi faith. But the extremism the regime nurtured brought the country to a near standstill and opened the way for radicals who mixed religion with violence.

"If it were not for Ibn Saud and his sons, the oilfields now called Saudi would probably be another overly affluent, futuristic emirate like Kuwait or Dubai, along the Persian Gulf coast," Lacey says. "(They) would be totally separate from the holy places of Mecca and Medina and would almost certainly be following a softer, more tolerant branch of Islam."

Instead, the Saudi rulers' adherence to Wahhabism led to decades of turmoil, starting with the oil boom of the 1970s, when wealth and contact with the West prompted a softening of traditional norms followed by a violent backlash and the rise of militant Islam.

"The result of the oil boom was a religion boom," Lacey said in an interview in Toronto.

The extremists doubled their efforts in 1990, when Iraq's invasion of Kuwait brought thousands of American troops into the reticent kingdom. But an alleged bargain between the Saudi government and bin Laden a payoff to keep the terrorist chief from attacking the royal family went sour after 9/11. Ruthless attacks were launched against Saudi Arabia in 2003.

More recently, Al Qaeda militants have holed up in neighbouring Yemen, making it a base for cross-border attacks.

Now, says Lacey, "Saudi opinion has shifted, and sympathy for Al Qaeda has dropped. The sight of women in black abayas covered in blood made people line up with the government (against the militants)."

But animosity to "Western" liberalization lingers, stoked by media and schools that are run by conservative Islamists. The young, says Lacey, are especially vulnerable.

Saudi Arabia has an average income of about $25,000 a year, and nearly 80 per cent literacy. But dependent on oil wealth, it lacks jobs for its young, who make up 60 per cent of the country's 28 million people: a generation that has higher education and expectations than their parents.

"It's a deeply conservative, mistrustful population," Lacey says.

King Abdullah has taken the fight to the fundamentalists' own turf. He has funded a well-publicized militant rehabilitation project. And he is behind a $12.5 billion (U.S.) graduate research institute that will bring 21st century science and technology to Saudi Arabia, providing homegrown jobs and laying the groundwork for the future.

But the religious purists are already decrying plans to let men and women study together, as well as predictions that the institute will host large numbers of foreign faculty and students. The success or failure of the project will be a test case for Saudi Arabia's evolution.

"At the king's age," says Lacey, "he knows there is little time to waste."

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