As someone who spent equal parts of their youth in Saudi Arabia and the US, I have been fortunate enough to experience two different cultures on opposite sides of the globe, giving me the privilege to bear witness to two wildly varying sets of customs, traditions and approaches to life.
However, it is my firm belief that both our values and cultures are predominantly shared, especially as the world becomes more interconnected with each passing day. There is one issue, however, which has posed quite the challenge for me: “Culture” has been traditionally hard to define.
One of the reasons why culture is so difficult to capture in words is that it holds different meanings depending on which part of the world you happen to be in. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to assume that we can agree on the following:
That culture changes over time. Now, more than ever in Saudi Arabia’s history, it is a time of change in nearly every aspect of the Kingdom, be it social, economic or even cultural. The very platform in which this article is published exemplifies this with its newly adopted slogan, “The Voice of a Changing Region.”
However, I would argue that any nation that is undergoing a change of the scale that Saudi Arabia is experiencing must have a principled, all-encompassing approach to preserving and reinforcing its sense of cultural belonging and heritage. Thankfully, the Saudi leadership not only understands this at a deep level, but it has also taken strident steps toward organizing events that highlight the rich cultural traditions of the region. One such event was the recent Souq Okaz festival.
Under the patronage of King Salman, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage-organized Souq Okaz featured theatrical and cultural performances showcasing Saudi customs, music and traditions. It was an excellent opportunity for the Saudi youth to experience local poetry, literature, calligraphy, visual arts and traditional crafts.
More importantly, it revealed a side of Saudi Arabia that some of the Kingdom’s youth have never experienced before. It also provided a glimpse into why it is critical that our youths gain an appreciation for their country’s history. Because the focus was on the creative arts, the event was an ingenious, non-confrontational way for our country’s youth to develop a deep respect for how the Kingdom became the regionally and internationally respected nation it is today.
While hard-liners might argue that the Saudi youth must be aggressively cautioned against carelessly disrespecting their heritage, I would rather have Saudi Arabia’s millennials be educated through the positive, constructive and optimistic approach that the SCTH is undertaking.
By creating events that highlight the value of one’s culture, the collective awareness of Saudi Arabia’s storied heritage becomes reinforced. Once this cultural reinforcement is achieved, the respect for their nation and their newly reinvigorated national identity will naturally follow. Achieving this reinforcement on a consistent basis, however, can be challenging in today’s fast-paced information age.
This age is plagued with shortened attention spans, exacerbated by the need for instant gratification by social media. Therefore, it becomes harder for our country’s youth to integrate their culture into their identity. Nearly every facet of their lives is being consumed through their smartphones, including their culture. Without this vital cultural integration, the youth will be virtually unable to serve their communities and enrich them. Unfortunately, there are forces hostile to Saudi Arabia and its interests that know this fact all too well.
These forces are taking direct aim at disrupting the Saudi youth’s sense of cultural belonging and identity, because they know that the best way to sow discord is to get the Kingdom’s youth to misunderstand their past. While extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood rely on youth indoctrination, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s modus operandi is youth empowerment, and nothing is more empowering than knowing one’s cultural heritage in order to be better positioned to drive the country forward.
This is why, I would argue that Saudi youths not only have an ethical responsibility to reinvigorate their cultural heritage, but a fiscal responsibility as well. The aforementioned Souq Okaz only scratched the surface of the massive, untapped economic potential of celebrating one’s cultural heritage.
I can confidently define the culture of Saudi youth as one that is vibrant and ambitious, yet proud of its heritage. It is this combination of pride and drive that will prepare our nation’s youths to become the most important contributors to Vision 2030 and, by extension, their economic future.
Reem Daffa is vice president and executive director at the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee.