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Saudi youth bored in model Islamic state

Written by: Staff

RIYADH, Oct 25: Saudi youth are chronically bored in a country that can't provide them with jobs and restricts their personal freedoms, one of Saudi Arabia's most well-known Internet bloggers says.

Ahmed al-Omran, aka ''Saudi Jeans'', says Saudi Arabia may be a model state for powerful clerics who oversee the strict application of sharia, or Islamic law, in society but for young people life can offer bleak choices.

''We are watching movies and serials from outside, and we are saying 'why are we different, why can't we live the way they do?','' he told Reuters in an interview.

''OK, we are a little different, we have our traditions and lifestyles, but we also don't see the big difference, especially compared to neighbouring countries, like Bahrain or Kuwait.'' In Saudi Arabia, strict gender segregation means there are no cinemas, women are not allowed to drive, single men are often banned from shopping malls, and trendy coffee shops -- which have become hugely popular in big cities -- are men-only zones.

None of those restrictions are in place in Saudi Arabia's Gulf Arab neighbours, which are culturally similar to Saudi. In the relatively liberal Saudi city of Jeddah, there are some mixed cafes and easy access to the malls.

If he wants to experience the cinema, Omran says he drives to neighbouring Bahrain, which many Saudis head to on the weekends to escape the stifling social mores of the clerics' Islamic state where religious law rules supreme.

''Single guys are not allowed to enter the shopping malls, that's just for families or women. For young people (men) it's just frustrating. What do we do? Maybe we go to the coffee shop. You just get bored,'' said Omran, sitting in one of the flash coffee shops that line many of Riyadh's main streets.

Many men are effectively both unemployed and unemployable, and economists say the government faces a major challenge in creating jobs and instilling the work ethic among youth, who have traditionally looked to the large state bureaucracy to provide them with work.

''There aren't jobs in the government any more, and you have to search for a job that suits you. People are not quite used to this,'' Omran said. ''They are used to having their comfortable jobs and want the old days back. Well, they're not coming back.'' More

CYBER SAUDIS Omran's blog in Arabic and English (saudijeans.blogspot.com), where he mixes thoughts on political and social issues with observations about everyday life, has stood out in the burgeoning Saudi cyber community for its insights into changing Saudi society. There are now more than 500 Saudi bloggers and they have become sharply divided between reform-minded youth and traditionalists, Omran says. Internet penetration of around only 14.5 per cent limits bloggers' ability to influence events.

In Egypt, activists have used the Web to publicise protests against the government, and at least one blogger has been arrested amid claims of torture.

''It's easy to be anonymous. Everyone has his reasons. I used to be afraid,'' said Omran, who has been invited to take part in international forums on media and blogging. ''After a time I was sick of it, so I put my name and photo to see what would happen.

I think you have more credibility. But I've become now careful about what I write. I think twice about posting anything.'' Like a growing minority of Saudi youth, he is dressed in blue jeans, the staple of Western fashion and culture which vies in coffee shops with the white ''thobe'' worn by most Saudi men.

With some 60 per cent of the Saudi population thought to be under 21, Omran's experience is radically different from that of the handful of old men running the country. The senior members of the Saudi royal family are in their 70s and 80s.

And Islamist hardliners, or the ''forces of darkness'' as Omran's blog has dubbed them, have come out fighting against liberal trends in society, arguing there must be limits to change in the land where Islam was born and which contains its holiest shrines.

''They are visualising that if we change anything this whole country will be destroyed. They view people who call for changes as people who want to destroy the country and are against religion,'' said Omran, who admits that society remains deeply conservative in general.

But he added: ''You've got this feeling that the day will come when everything explodes. But when it does, will we be able to handle the situation?''


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