Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Image Credit: Agencies

Tariq A. Al Maeena, Special to Gulf News

There is no denying that Saudi Arabia has made tremendous strides across most strata in the past few years, strides hard to imagine not so long ago. This is a sleeping giant that has woken up from a decades’ long slumber and is now stretching and flexing its muscles from that long sleep in the doldrums of progress.

Significantly this change has contributed to the freedom of choice to women who had been marginalised for more than three decades. Things have changed now and women find themselves stepping gingerly onto horizons previously alien to them.

The right to work, to travel, to study, to entertain and all without the permission of a male was a delightful power that was granted and was accepted with equal vigour. The issue of male guardianship, once a dominant force of contention between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world slowly disappeared into the twilight of yesteryear. Today the only boundaries facing a woman in her professional or personal life are the ones she sets for herself.

But along with such progressive changes, some hiccups are sure to follow. One that I have been following for some time with interest is the growing concern among younger Saudis about the state of marriages, as this institution has somewhat taken a back seat to the demands of the new face of the country.

In talking to several younger individuals from several levels of Saudi society, I had the distinct impression that with a few of them there existed some concerns. Almost everybody was in full agreement with the changes taking place and were highly supportive of the government’s direction for a better tomorrow. In fact, a dominant theme that seemed to arise with regards to progress was a new sense of confidence that we were unstoppable in our march to greatness.

While these cases are in a minority, when it came to the question of marriages, a few had some misgivings. Talal, a 29-year-old Saudi working at a multinational company and drawing a respectable salary tells me that finding the right partner is getting to be more difficult than ever before. Traditionally, marriages were usually arranged by the heads of households and while that still does hold in rural Arabia, in the metropolitan cities, the young and ambitious Saudis want to take charge of that event themselves.

As Talal says, “My parents want me to marry and settle down, and to a degree, I want to do the same thing as I am approaching 30. But I prefer to find the right partner myself. Today there are a lot of opportunities to meet someone at work and determine if they are the right choice for me. But the ones I talked to at work were just not interested. Even chance meetings at cafés are not fruitful. Perhaps we should get back to parents arranging the whole thing.”

Mona, an economist and well sought for her financial acumen says: Look, I’m 28 and I feel my life has just started. I am a bird learning to fly higher and higher. I saw how my mother suffered in the confines of a home and a kitchen. She was forcibly married out of high school and had no opportunities to excel in her own ambitions. I don’t want to follow her path that way. Today, I set my own rules and that does not mean in any way that I am a bad or selfish person. It is that I have empowered myself to be independent. Marriage, for now, is out of the picture.”

Suzanne, a 27-year-old business owner tells me that she is not ready to hand over the reins of her life to some male, at least not for the moment. “I worked for 5 years saving every penny at an oil company and after I quit, I put all my savings into a bakery with my cousin Mona. We started with one small stall in a mall and today we have 5 different outlets in Jeddah selling all kinds of cookies and muffins. I cannot see myself turning all my hard work to the dictates of a husband who may decide that work is not for me. My business is my passion for now, and marriage has to wait.”

There were several other similar stories from both genders, leaving me to surmise that with the new changes in the country, marriage vows just have to take a back seat for now. Some women are enjoying their newly acquired freedom and are not so quick to relinquish any part of it.

Men on the other hand have to begin thinking out of the box and accept the new realities of an equal partnership with these empowered women. Eventually, a right balance will be struck but for now some hiccups remain.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a noted Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena