Talisman Gate

Friday, August 05, 2005

More Angry Young Men

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

August 5, 2005 Friday


LENGTH: 1165 words

HEADLINE: More Angry Young Men



Here's something that went missing in the press coverage of Saudi Arabia's power transfer: More than half of Saudi Arabia's population was born in the 23-year reign of King Fahd, who died Monday. In fact, 45% of the population is under 15 years old.

So as pundits wrangle about the advanced ages of those princes waiting in the line of succession (the crown prince is 81) and how all that bodes for an unstable decade to come, very few are cognizant of the demographic deluge that is just around the corner.

In other news, the municipal council in Spain's seacoast resort town of Marbella has declared three days of mourning for Fahd and given him the honorific title of "Son of Marbella." Townspeople stood for a few minutes of silence to pay their respects. Others laid wreaths at the Al-Nada Palace, where Fahd used to vacation. It's the least they could do, as the Saudi royal entourage used to spend millions of dollars every year in this Iberian tourist spot.

The real danger is that most of the young population of Saudi Arabia expects to be able to party in Marbella like their royals, and it just isn't going to happen. This younger generation is destined to enter a political and economic system with preconceived and unrealistic notions of what it takes to be successful. These notions are culled from the now-ubiquitous status symbols of pop culture. The system is not set up to absorb and realize the ambitions of these millions of Saudis, for it has been erected to satisfy the avarice and luxuriant lifestyle of the very privileged few.

Since the beginning of this millennium, technology has become affordable. Visitors to the Middle East marvel at the proliferation of satellite dishes in neighborhoods that are no more than shantytowns. Young viewers of satellite TV are watching countless hours of some 15 channels that broadcast one music clip after another. They are being sold on a lifestyle of fast cars, beautiful women, nice clothes, and fabulous and exotic surroundings, like Marbella. They are being told that these are the new status symbols of success, and the enchanted youngsters are looking forward to a glitzy, glamorous future.

They will quickly be disappointed: The Middle East, with all its natural riches, is not the land of opportunity where the illusion of hard work and some luck will get you to the top. It is a land of nepotism and many other forms of cronyism. There are no rights for the pursuit of happiness; anything beyond the guarantee of misery is heralded as a gift from the benevolent leader. Thus, while the technology that disseminates pop culture is affordable, the lifestyle itself is not.

Recently, three teenage Jordanian guitarists were strumming their instruments in the outdoor seating section at one of Amman's Burger Kings. The throng of teenage girls they were seeking to impress were more preoccupied with the highlights of the Live 8 Concert they had watched on satellite TV a couple of days before. I climbed into a beaten-up taxi from that street corner, and the driver immediately pointed at the stylishly dressed teens and said, "Look at these idle heathens!" I sarcastically asked him what he thought of the recent world-wide concert before proceeding to explain that it was a pop-culture effort at addressing poverty in Africa. He asked, "Poverty in Africa? Come with me to my neighborhood and I'll show you families that will go hungry tonight because they can't afford dinner."

In another setting, the ultra-rich patrons of Istanbul's ultra-posh club, Reina, party around reserved tables that cost hundreds of dollars for a night. I asked a friend, "Are these the budding entrepreneurs of a booming Turkish economy?" "Nah, they're just spending their parents' money," he responded. Most of these youths are the legacy of a corrupt business and government class that is endemic of all the Middle East. Most don't take notice of a well lit Ottoman mosque on the other side, across the Bosphorus, the narrow body of water that divides Asia from Europe. They also don't notice other Turkish youths who represent the majority of the population throbbing out of the rural hinterland - hurriedly busing tables - who are entering this kind of nepotistic hierarchy and whose ambitions in joining the fun and hip-ness of Reina are going to be thwarted in the land of very little opportunity, driving them into the fold of Islamic fundamentalists.

Alienation from a corrupt and unfair system is not something new, and Marx was busily describing it and offering remedies of "proletariat revolution." But whereas he saw religion as an "opiate" that reconciled the masses to a system that abused them in 19th century Europe, religion to the alienated youths of the Middle East is a blood-pumping amphetamine. The form of radical Islam they find incubating in Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism, but constantly mutating into a more virulent strand, is being touted to young Arabs and Muslims as their redemption from a sense of failure: It shall resurrect the glories of ancient times - times when even Spain was part of the Islamic Empire.

Most of the suicide bombers flocking to jihad in Iraq have good educations. They have come to realize that hard work isn't going to cut it: In the Middle East, getting ahead is about who you know and not what you know. In Jordanian neighborhoods that don't have Western fast-food outlets, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a cult hero because he seems powerful, while the Americans and the Iraqi government seem powerless. The appeal of radical Islam to the youth of the Middle East is that it is seen to empower the helpless individual. Their rebellion against dead-end lives is manifested by joining something akin to the terrorist cult of the movie "Fight Club." Since the concept of a participatory citizenship in shaping the course of society and state is absent throughout the region, more and more frustrated young men will turn into Zarqawis.

So instead of vacationing in Marbella, martyrdom through suicide bombing is marketed as the quickest path to frolicking in the company of 72 "heavenly" virgins.

Unless young Saudis - or Middle Easterners in general - are given another outlet to gain a sense of success and accomplishment, the recruiting pool for the jihadists will just expand, as will the ensuing turmoil in the region and beyond. This will not happen through pinning hopes on octogenarian hereditary leaders in charge of an antiquated form of rule and limited patronage. President Bush is on to something with his rhetoric of democracy: He is giving the youth some hope that there is a better way to get empowered other than the path of murderous mayhem. But can you imagine what would happen if America's allies, the house of Saud, don't deliver some measure of reform? The royals can always flee to Marbella, but even that place may become a target - after all, the fundamentalists still have fantasies of bringing Spain - or Andalusia as they still refer to it - back into the Islamic fold.