Hot Topics

Book Review

"Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia"

cover By Mai Yamani, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London: 2000.
Review by David Thaler, RAND

In Changed Identities, Mai Yamani provides a rare and valuable glimpse into the political, religious, and cultural worldviews of Saudi Arabia's youth, a group that comprises half the kingdom's population. Through a series of extensive conversations in the major urban areas with numerous subjects in their late teens, 20s, and 30s, Yamani concludes that efforts to forge a national identity -- one that supersedes regional or tribal affiliations -- have been largely successful. Yet many in this generation feel free to question (anonymously) the royal family's commitment to political and economic reform, lack of accountability, and religious legitimacy. The author divides her subjects into four groups. "Liberal modernists" take a positive view of Western influence and believe that Islam should remain an individual's prerogative. "Traditionalists," the largest group, emphasize Islamic identity and values and favor the direction of the official ulama. While accepting modernization, traditionalists wish it to be moderated by the religious establishment. "Conservative salafis" are close to the religious establishment and are influenced by the tribal values most closely associated with Saudi Wahhabism. Finally, the "radical salafis" are most noted for challenging the religious legitimacy of the Saudi royal family. They desire a state purged of all Western influence and are often associated with dissident organizations and violent tendencies.

Since Dr. Yamani completed her research, much has happened that undoubtedly would affect the perspectives of Saudi youth -- the September 11 attacks (in which 15 of 19 hijackers were young Saudis), the war in neighboring Iraq, and terrorist bombings on Saudi soil and the subsequent crackdown on internal extremism. Despite this, Changed Identities offers an important portrait of a generation that may determine the future of reform efforts and the very stability of the Saudi kingdom.