Abdulrahman al-Moshaigeh remembers leaving his mud-brick house and walking on unpaved roads to what was then the only elementary school serving Buraidah.
“There’s no comparison,” said the former member of King Abdullah’s advisory Shoura Council, born in 1945, as he contemplates the changes that have swept his hometown, the capital of Qassim province in Saudi Arabia’s conservative heartland. “Now we have more than 150 elementary schools for boys, and it’s difficult to find a girl not in school,” al-Moshaigeh said as he sat at a banquet where two roasted lambs were served with local dishes in a villa in the city.
Even by the standards of a country where women are barred from driving cars and shops close at prayer-time, Qassim has the reputation for being conservative, strictly adhering to the austere interpretation of Wahhabi Islam practiced in the Arab world’s biggest economy. That makes it an important testing ground for King Abdullah’s drive to modernize the country and draw women into the workforce.
Saudi rulers pay attention when there are signs of resistance to change from places like Qassim, said Robert Lacey, a British author and historian of the Saudi royal family.
“The Al Saud have no trouble selling their modernization agenda to the traders of Jeddah, to the energy economy of the East or to the bankers and business community of Riyadh,” he said. “Those Western-looking interests want more. But many religious conservatives in Qassim want less.”
Abdullah, born in 1924, has made reducing unemployment in the world’s top oil exporter a priority after popular unrest toppled or threatened leaders across the Middle East since 2011. He unveiled a $130 billion spending plan that year. More recently the government has taken steps to tighten labor regulations for foreign workers, so more jobs go to Saudis.
The stimulus has helped the main Saudi stock index gain 20 percent this year, while Morgan Stanley’s emerging-market benchmark dropped 3.9 percent.
The money and the employment drive are filtering through to Buraidah in Qassim province, about 350 kilometers north of Riyadh via a motorway that passes rolling sand dunes and date-palm groves stretching across the horizon.
Abdullah al-Wably, a local businessman, said Buraidah’s economy is growing at between 5 percent and 10 percent a year, enough to provide jobs for young people in the region entering the labor force. Nationwide, growth will slow to 3.6 percent this year from 5.1 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“Jobs for the youth, boys and girls, and housing are the priorities,” al-Wably said in an interview at his home.
The focus on opportunities for Saudi women has been a feature of Abdullah’s eight-year reign, though change has been limited. Since the Arab Spring began two years ago, the king has granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections, though it won’t apply until the 2015 ballot. In January, he appointed the first female members of the Consultative Council, naming 30 women to the 150-strong advisory body.
The ban on driving remains in force. Conservatism in places like Qassim province is one reason why reform hasn’t moved faster, Lacey said.
“Women certainly will not drive in Saudi Arabia till Anaizah and Buraidah say yes -- though there may be more women and men there who are ready to take that step than we might imagine,” he said.
Some who aren’t ready are vocal about it.
Sulaiman al-Jubailan, a cleric from Anaizah, another town in Qassim, has mocked the Western pressure for expanded women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. In a 2010 video on YouTube, he said women in the U.S. are treated like the “cheapest” of commodities, and sold as if at an auction.
Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Luhaidan, a cleric from the province, told the Sabq website last month that Saudi women shouldn’t drive because they risk damaging their ovaries. Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, a local resident and preacher, said in 2010 that people who support the mixing of genders in workplaces and schools should be put to death for being un-Islamic.
Most prominent of the region’s conservatives is Salman Al-Oudah, a cleric with more than 2 million Twitter followers who was jailed in the 1990s for being a member of a religious movement that called for a more Islamic society. In March, he published a letter online saying the Saudi rulers must take steps to stamp out corruption, and warning of the risk that “religious, political and cultural symbols lose their value.”
The province has a history of opposing change. Juhayman al-Otaybi, a native, was the leader of the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamists seeking to shift the country onto a more conservative course. Their action led the government to ban all forms of public entertainment.
“Job creation in areas outside the bigger cities is very crucial,” said John Sfakianakis, chief investment strategist at MASIC in Saudi Arabia. “There is a disproportionate number of Saudis over the age of fifteen years who are out of the labor force in places like Qassim and other rural provinces.”
While it’s common to see women alone in malls in Riyadh, or smoking cigarettes at cafes in Jeddah, it’s still rare to see a woman walking without a male guardian in Buraidah. Women have begun working in the city’s shopping malls, though. And at Qassim University’s College of Business and Economics, Obaid al-Motairy, the dean, says his 3,000 students include 1,000 women whose academic performance is “excellent.”
“We want to improve critical thinking and leadership,” Obaid said. “Students need skills, not just knowledge.”
King Abdullah’s spending spree helped Saudi Arabia, like most of the oil-rich Persian Gulf nations, avoid much of the instability that has spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria, Iraq and other nations.
Another reason for the “resilience of the Al Saud” amid regional unrest is the dynasty’s “deep ties with its heartland provinces” such as Qassim, Crispin Hawes, managing director of research firm Teneo Intelligence, said by telephone from London.
The kingdom, and its heartland, haven’t entirely escaped the wave of protests. As well as demonstrations among the Shiite minority in the oil-rich Eastern Province, there have also been occasional protests in places like Buraidah. In March, police arrested 176 people during a demonstration there by family members of prisoners held without trial on terrorism charges, the official Saudi Press Agency said.
About a week after the protests, the Interior Ministry held a press conference in Buraidah to provide details on the number of people in Saudi security prisons and to deny allegations that prisoners were mistreated.
“Protests there would be of more concern to the government than what happens with the Shiites in the East,” Hawes said. “If there was a problem with loyalty, that would be something they would deal with quickly.”