Saudi Social Tension

In my line of work, I often play a game. The game consists of remembering where I last saw something, like a screw, or a piece of pipe, or a bit of plastic. This screw sits somewhere in our factory, surrounded by thousands of other things. My people need this screw to solve an immediate problem, and I’ve seen it somewhere. Perhaps I last came across it while putting the pipe away. Perhaps I noticed it because I cleaned up that shelf. It may have been yesterday, or it may have been 5 years ago. But I know it’s there – and now I have to find it.

Many times, being a behavioral scientist also means having to play this game. Connecting disparate pieces of information together in order to gain insights into a given culture is one of those things. Recently I played this game with the Saudi culture.

It started with this intriguing article, a Saudi editor sentenced to 7 years and 600 lashes. [1] Ouch. Whatever for? He dared set up a website inviting comments on religion. Reading between the lines, it appears he’s one of those people who believes in educating women and allowing them to drive.

One of the hardest things to do as a behavioral scientist is to leave my preconceptions at the door. Wait, let me rephrase that. Preconceptions should be kept in a lockbox in the closet of the attic. No preconceptions or judgements should be allowed in our scientific realm, no matter how different they are from ours, and no matter how repulsive they may seem at first. If the Saudi courts want to flail this man for heresy, I will not judge. I observe.

I observe the judge tossed out the death sentence based on inadequate proof of apostasy. Seems our editor managed to convince the judge that he was pious enough, to the apparent regret of the mullah who brought the charges against him.

A few months ago my eye was caught by one of those flashy yahoo pictures – a bright car being towed on the streets of London. The bright Lamborghini was stopped for not having a front plate, towed for being uninsured. And the driver was a young princeling out of Qatar. Though not a Saud, he did inspire this article.

A quick search and viola! we have a list of other interesting Saudi related items. Maids in the USA being abused by their Saudi employers. And another Saudi who decided he’d rather keep millions on a jet deal, instead of paying a commission. [2,3]

Here’s where the job of a behavioral scientist gets fun. We have here a set of disparities. On one hand the Saudi culture publicly promotes an austere and severe attitude towards a belief system, their religion. Their religion, like many others, has certain rules about the treatment of those less fortunate, or cheating others out of their share of a reward. So how can they publicly castigate one member while privately allowing profligate behavior on the part of others? Is this unique among cultures? Absolutely not. In fact, we should admit that this is a common feature!

What may not be common is the range of this disparity. On one hand a young man asks questions about his culture’s faith, and faces death. On the other hand, some flaunt their wealth, oppress the less fortunate, and squander millions, yet go untouched. This is what we observe, and this is what we can conclude; great stress exists.

The range of disparities allows us to measure the effective social stress going on inside this culture. We must assume, being astute observers, that only the smallest fraction of such public interest stories reach our ears. Therefore we can also assume that there are extreme examples we never see. We can also assume that because there are extremes, that there are many more minor incidents that our culture would consider odd, but they have come to consider normal. For instance, would you raise your eyebrows at seeing religious police? Would you be concerned if they approached you about your clothing? In Springfield, Illinois, yes. In Mecca, no.

Saudi culture is under great stress. This we can conclude. We are not alone in this conclusion. [4,5] Is that stress growing, or diminishing? And what will its impact be upon us? Only time will tell.

[1] Saudi activist receives 7-year sentence, 600 lashes for insulting Islam, By Ed Payne and Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN, updated 8:59 PM EDT, Wed July 31, 2013. Link: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/31/world/meast/saudi-blogger-sentenced

[2] Saudi prince defects: ‘Brutality, oppression as govt scared of Arab revolts’ from RT. Published time: August 12, 2013 11:37, Edited time: August 13, 2013 08:00. Link: http://rt.com/news/saudi-arabia-opposition-prince-374/

[3] Maid in Saudi Arabia, from AlMonitor. By: Madawi Al-Rasheed for Al-Monitor Posted on July 17. Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/07/humantrafficking-saudiarabia-al-rasheed.html

[4] Further information on the tensions within Saudi Arabia written by Dr. Rasheed: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/authors/madawi-al-rasheed

[5] Saudi prince loses $10m court battle over Gaddafi jet sale, from the Guardian. By Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent, Wednesday 31 July 2013 08.59 EDT. Link: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/jul/31/saudi-prince-court-gaddafi-jet