Western policymakers can easily forget that the future of nations belongs to their young people. After all, America’s last great youth-driven decade, the ’60s, ended more than a half-century ago. In European countries like Germany, Italy, and Portugal, birth rates languishing well below replacement levels ensure an aging population, higher tax rates, and shrinking opportunities. The fact that more than a quarter of the current population of Japan is over 65 makes planning for the future an exercise in providing the elderly with adequate pensions and health care.
However, for much of the rest of the world, the demographic realities of the West are reversed; with 42% of the world’s current population under the age of 25, the global future belongs to the young rather than the old. According to the World Bank, nearly half the world’s population between the ages of 12 and 24, a total of 525 million people, lives in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The global growth rate for Muslim populations, meanwhile, is nearly twice that of non-Muslims, with an average increase of 1.5% per year versus 0.7%.
For rulers of countries with young and growing populations, a youth-driven future can seem either promising or terrifying. The youthful nations that will dominate the future of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East can choose the path of inclusion of young people, innovation, and opportunities for personal and economic growth—or else they can try to repress the demands of young people through force. Which path the West encourages will determine the fate of the planet for decades to come.
Nowhere on Earth is the contrast between these two models for dealing with the youth-driven future more starkly apparent than in the differing pathways that are being staked out by Iran and Saudi Arabia, each of which has laid claim to leadership of the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. Both are Middle Eastern Islamic countries with above-replacement-level birth rates (though Iran’s ruling Persian Shia majority group is not having nearly as many children as Sunni and other minorities in the south and west of the country). Both countries offer models of the future role of Islam in politics.
Perhaps the most significant point on which the Iranian and Saudi models diverge is the radically different approaches they offer to dealing with their countries’ youth. While Iran utilizes and empowers backward, reactionary, anti-Western Islamist and police forces to crush the aspirations of its young people in the name of Islam, Saudi Arabia has chosen to draw on the energy of its youth in order to fight the dangerous and backward Islamist countercurrent that formerly constrained opportunity and social life in the country. It is putting its faith instead in nationalism combined with economic empowerment and dynamism. Since the success or failure of these opposite approaches is likely to shape both the region and the larger Muslim world for decades to come, it is important for the West to choose wisely.
In Saudi Arabia, where Saudis under 30 now constitute the majority of the kingdom’s population, the state has embarked on an ambitious program of youth-oriented reform. This effort began by clipping the wings of the religious police, removing their power to investigate and arrest, and reducing these once-feared authorities with whips and clubs to spectators armed with nothing more than the ability to call the police.
In Iran, the Pasdaran and Basij forces, the regime’s domestic shock troops that crack down on young people, have meanwhile become the backbone of the state’s enforcement of backward doctrines that legitimize the diversion of public funds to ruling families and cliques. As the authority of Iran’s clerics decays, these forces are called in with depressing regularity to beat and maim students, women, gays, sports stars, members of minority groups, and others who refuse to pledge allegiance to a corrupt and aging regime—which offers only repression at home while empowering repressive violence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere in the name of Islamic revolution, which is meant to put the entire region permanently at odds with the West.
Saudi Arabia’s investment in young people is aligned not only with the kingdom’s own future, but lends enormous weight—social, religious, and economic—to an ongoing revolution in regional politics whose impact parallels that of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, But Western observers—including many who made their names studying Salafist manifestos—have often been slow to recognize the importance of this shift. While countries like Iran and movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and its sister Islamist movement in Saudi Arabia, the Sahwa, or “Awakening,” movement, once used the energy of young people to spread virulently anti-Western and violently anti-imperialist ideology, young Arabs and Muslims equipped with cellphones and internet connections no longer see returning to a mythical Islamist past as the way to realize a better future. Nor do they see any reason why their legitimate pride in their world-shaping heritage should condemn them to the rule of clerics who preside over ruined economies, or militants who promise a world of perpetual 9/11s.
Only seven years ago, Sahwa-inspired summer camps and after-school programs made spectacles of destroying ouds and other musical equipment to discourage young people from playing and enjoying music. In 2022, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture is rolling out extracurricular music classes in 100 schools between May 26 and Oct. 19. The kingdom has hosted American country singers, Korean K-pop band BTS, an annual electronic music festival, and Arabic and Western orchestras. Ironically, the Royal Commission for AlUla, a city in the Medina region of Saudi Arabia, hosted a two-day Iranian music festival, in which Iranian singers who have never been permitted to perform publicly in their home country sang in front of an audience of Saudis and Iranians from the diaspora.
There have also been big economic changes. Recent investments in Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure have lifted the King Abdullah Port to first and the Jeddah Islamic Port to eighth in the World Bank’s global Container Port Performance Index (CPPI). Saudi Arabia’s investments in infrastructure, tourism, and industry will be the drivers for job creation for young people, 115,000 of whom have received hospitality training to compete in the country’s nascent tourism sector. In contrast, Iran’s investment in its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs and endless regional wars will only isolate the country from the world and further alienate and disenfranchise its young people.
Adjusting to this new regional reality in which the firebrand conservative revolutionaries of the past have become octogenarian impediments to a more hopeful, youth-oriented future has taken many Western experts by surprise. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, young people throughout the 1980s and 1990s bought into reactionary-revolutionary clerical rhetoric and looked toward the Iranian regime as a beacon of hope in a region plagued with poor governance and corruption—turning the region’s religious conservatives into the odd bedfellows of would-be revolutionaries in the West. Yet both the Islamic Revolution in Iran and its Islamist counterparts in Egypt and Gaza have manifestly failed to deliver what young people in the region actually want: jobs, economic prosperity, and opportunities for personal growth.
Today, professors in Middle Eastern studies departments in American universities, and Western policymakers who see Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah or the leadership of Hamas as revolutionary icons representing the aspirations of the youth, are manifestly behind the times. On the ground in the Middle East, these figures are widely reviled by the people whose hopes and dreams they have shattered—especially the young. The shift is perhaps most noticeable among young Shia Arabs in Iraq and Lebanon who chant against the Iranian regime and its representatives among their own leadership. In Babel, in Iraq, young protesters defaced the image of Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Nabatea, Lebanon, protesters chanted “all of them means all them, Nasrallah is one of them,” implying that Hezbollah is just as venal and brutal as all the other Lebanese political factions.
The Iranian model is destined for failure, and any chance that the regime reforms itself is slim. The Iranian ruling order’s raison d’etre is to fight the West around the world, starting by dismantling American regional security order, putting it at odds with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the other Gulf States, and Israel. The regime’s most violent efforts are reserved for the Iranian people, on whom it must make war in order to sustain its grip on power.
The kingdom, on the other hand, is betting on its young people and a strong relationship with the West. It has sent hundreds of thousands of young people to study in Western universities, mostly in the United States, as it embarks on a visionary plan to open Saudi Arabia to the world by building new high-tech cities, allowing women unprecedented freedoms, encouraging large-scale concerts and sporting events that are attended equally by both men and women, and by promoting other cultural and social innovations that a decade ago would have seemed like sheer science fiction to outside observers of Saudi society.
The decision by Saudi leaders to embrace the aspirations and power of the kingdom’s youth was not taken lightly, nor was it risk-free. After all, the last youth-driven set of social innovations in the kingdom led to 40 years of social and political disaster. Following the return of the mujahedeen from Afghanistan after their defeat of the Soviet Union, young Saudi religious fighters sought to leverage their new power in order to socially mobilize and participate in the political process in the kingdom. Key members of the so-called Awakening leadership were welcomed with open arms and given material and political support by the Saudi government. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Awakening was the most powerful political current in the kingdom, as political leaders had no choice but to accommodate many of their demands in a political climate shaped by the Iranian Revolution and, even closer to home, by a radical fundamentalist called Juhayman al-Otaybi, who took over the Holy Mosque in Mecca.
This reaction reversed the kingdom’s path from a trajectory of fitful modernization to a conservative, regressive one. Theaters were shuttered, the authorities of the religious police were upgraded, and members of the Awakening movement were given free reign in the Education Ministry, Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and other arenas. The Awakening movement also targeted the strategic relationship with Washington that is central to the kingdom’s national security and sovereign interests. The movement’s leadership, as their slogan had it, sought to “remove the infidels [i.e., American troops] from the Arabian Peninsula.” The Awakening movement succeeded in imposing its will on the state when al-Qaida’s bombing campaign resulted in U.S. Central Command moving out of the kingdom to Al-Udeid Base in Qatar.
The Awakening movement has always been a threat to social progress, but one that enjoyed enough prestige and could marshal enough support to constrain the Saudi state. Today that power has dissipated and the state has found itself in a position to end the Awakening movement’s influence once and for all by harnessing the ambitions of Saudi youth. Two-thirds of Saudis are under 30 years of age; they did not grow up in the politically charged days of the war in Afghanistan or the political mobilization of the Awakening, and their sensibilities differ from those of the previous generation. From what they see on their computers and iPhone screens, the aging emissaries of the Iranian Revolution and the various Muslim Brotherhood groups in the region can promise only violence and the disintegration of the stable state structures that are necessary for economic growth and raising children. Who in their right mind wants to mortgage their hopes for a family and a career to fanatics with an unblemished 40-year record of delivering misery and failure? When the Muslim Brotherhood briefly took power in Egypt, the majority of Egyptian society—and especially the young—backed a military coup to remove them from power. Yet Egypt remains an economic basket case. The last time anyone in the region looked to Egypt for answers was in 1967, when Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser promised a glorious victory over Israel that he comprehensively failed to deliver—a moment in history that is even further away from the minds of the region’s youth than the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman understands that empowering his generation of Saudis is the kingdom’s path back to the future. The geriatric clerics who rule Iran understand that they can promise no such path. Instead, they are stuck in a cycle of violent repression, in which they meet the dreams of their country’s youth with beatings, prisons, and torture chambers. The question Western governments and policy analysts must ask themselves echoes the battle cry of the ’60s youth: Whose side are you on? The answer must be the side of the region’s young people, and the leaders who are brave enough to support them.
Mohammed Khalid Alyahya is a fellow at the Middle East Initiative of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Middle East Peace and Security. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English.