Project: Future Trends in the GCC

Caroline Montagu, Writer and Journalist

Saudi Arabia has considerable pent-up and frustrated social energy, both among young people and their parents’ generation. Civil society can be an asset for the nation, but requires reform of laws governing associational life.

Photo credit: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

This paper examines the importance of meetings and association in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has no formal democratic process, but has some traditional representation and consultation mechanisms, chiefly through the traditional meetings, the majalis.

However, Saudi Arabia’s population increase means the majalis cannot absorb the numbers wishing to take part in government policy discussion. As a result, it is hard for citizens to make their views known – and even harder to influence government policy-making.

Apart from the majalis, civil society, associations and meetings are in effect the only means by which Saudis can keep the government informed.

However, the Saudi government frequently bans meetings and closes down associations. It has delayed publishing a long-promised civil society law, and has made registering an association very difficult.

Saudi Arabia has a very considerable number of media-savvy, educated young people, many of whom are unemployed and frustrated, who wish to be part of government decision-making but are currently barred by the absence of formal channels.

State ambivalence towards associational life suggests that traditional interests among the authorities fear the potential for challenges to the status quo. Such conservatives have not, however, adapted to see the contemporary shifts in the way society and individuals relate to each other, the need to provide an outlet for the energy and aspirations of the younger generation, and the utility of civic activism in helping to build a stronger sense of national identity in a young, diverse and rapidly developing country.