In a room 2/3 of a football field, two hundred soldiers and palace guards watch with guns while leaders, executives and Princes line up to kiss the hand and the shoulder of the new King and pay their respects in a ritual hundreds of years old. Three days of mourning followed the death of the beloved King of Saudi Arabia, more properly known as the “Guardian of the two Holy places”, and the palace quickly announced a new King, Crown Prince, and deputy Crown Prince, establishing a clear hierarchy and succession plan after much internal speculation. Jared and I, in line to offer our respects at the Palace, simply decided to shake the hand of the new rulers, western style.
This was my third trip to Saudi Arabia and eleven years after my first trip in 2004. Saudi today is well connected with a high percentage of smart phone users (70+%) and very very high use of Youtube along with other social media. The Internet is everywhere, and in a country that has no movie theaters the Internet has swept through the country with significant impact. In one of the most conservative countries, I saw modest changes that any of us would welcome. There is a much greater awareness of the world around Saudi, and tremendous interest and familiarity with things western.
One of the Princes told me that that floggings have no place in the modern image of Saudi, and a number of women said they are freer now to mix and mingle in certain places. The stark separation is still law and enforced by the religious police, but the walls separating male and female in the rooms I was in are more flexible. In a country where women cannot drive, they are now allowed to use Uber. In a country where 70% of the students are female its only a short time before these antiquated and discriminatory rules about women are revised. The women I met were very strong and courageous, well educated and outspoken, and I suspect the Internet has given them support and way to be heard. We heard their voices, and they are strong.
Saudis see themselves as builders, and because of their oil wealth have more than $800 billion in banks and even more wealth under the ground. The late King moved to modernize the society, with careful steps intended to deradicalize some of the teachings, improve economic prosperity for the average Saudi, and increase internal security from terrorism. In this backdrop, his successors will have much internal pressure keep the modernization in place and expand it.
Its important we all keep focused on investing in the Internet and freedom of expression, and its important that the Saudis continue to invest in their educational and health systems. I’m convinced now more than ever that the Internet is a force for good, and you can see it in the faces of the young people and even in their Ministers.