The cruising scene isn't too hot in Abha, a small, southwestern Saudi town.
Bored young men stroll through the dusty town or drive down the sleek Abha-Gizan highway at breakneck speeds, according to travelers' accounts. And under the watchful eyes of the muttawa — the dreaded Saudi religious police — women, clad in enveloping, all-black abayas, shop unobtrusively in the marketplaces.
Abha is a fairly typical Saudi town.
But since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Abha has held a particular fascination for many experts.
Situated in the remote southwestern province of Asir near the Yemen border, Abha — along with the neighboring town of Khamis Mushayt — was home to at least six of the 9/11 hijackers.
The local mosques, the resident imams, the remoteness of the mountainous province have all come under scrutiny in an attempt to uncover why the young men hijacked planes that fatal day and flew them kamikaze-fashion into U.S. buildings.
But as conflicts and terrorist attacks across the world continue to wreak a deadly toll, demographers have been looking at population patterns to see if they offer some explanation for human violence.
The 9/11 attacks refocused attention on a 1997 study by two Canadian psychologists arguing that societies with a high proportion of young males are more prone to violence.
Adding a new dimension to the study of the roots of violence, Neil Weiner and Christian Mesquida argued that societies with a high ratio of males aged between 15 and 29 are more likely to be aggressive and militaristic.
And earlier this year, a new study on gender and violence hit the stands — and sent ripples of anxiety in the international community.
Skewed Sex Ratios and Security Implications
In their book, Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population, political scientists Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer discuss the alarming global security implications of a surplus of males in the world's most populated countries such as India and China.
In the past few decades, age-old cultural preferences for boys have combined with modern technology advances such as prenatal sex determination tests to increase the number of sex-selective abortions in Asia. When parents learn they are having a girl, they often decide to abort.
The result is a dramatically skewed Asian sex ratio, with males far outnumbering females. While the current official Chinese sex ratio is 117 boys born for every 100 girls, Hudson and den Boer say in the reality, the rate is about 120 boys for 100 girls. And in India, the official birth sex ratio is about 114 boys per 100 girls. But spot checks in some areas show ratios of up to 156 boys per 100 girls.
The consequences of the severely skewed sex ratio, Hudson and den Boer warn, will be a far more dangerous world than the one we now know.
The political scientists cite historical examples of societies with disproportionately high ratios of males that embarked on war and aggressive colonization. They warn that the alarmingly skewed Asian sex ratios will have disastrous implications for global stability.
For security experts, the implications of the study are immense. At a recent security conference, Hudson says CIA analysts approached the authors after they presented their paper on gender ratio and global violence.
"They asked about our work and wanted our opinions about U.S. policy options for governments affected by abnormal sex ratios," says Hudson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.
Marauding Males Without Mates
Hudson and den Boer's bleak picture of pathological testosterone imbalance, where bands of mate-less young men are more likely to rampage, raid, maraud and attack, dovetails with Weiner and Misquida's demographic warnings about young male aggression.
Saudi Arabia, for example — the home of 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers — has an overwhelmingly young population, with 56 percent under the age of 20 in 2000, according to official figures.
And while there's no gender ratio imbalance among Saudi nationals, among foreign workers, men outnumber women by two to one. Foreign workers — mostly from India, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt and other Asian nations — make up an estimated 25 percent of the oil-rich kingdom's population.
"From my point of view, throughout history, violence has been virtually monopolized by young males," says Hudson. "I believe this argument does have a biological component. Young adult males are the strongest, largest individuals in any society. And in any society where there are clashes of interest, some clashes are going to be determined by force."
Crashing the Glass Ceiling of Violence
But some experts warn against a tendency to view men as perpetual perpetrators of aggression and women solely as victims of male violence.
Given the chance, they say, women are perfectly capable of being vile and brutish. The recent images of female U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners are just some instances of women breaking the glass ceiling of viciousness and catching up with men — in the worst possible sense.
"I don't want to give women too much credit for not being violent and I don't want to solely discredit men for violence," says Amy Caiazza of the D.C.-based Institute for Women's Policy Research.
"It's very true that women have been less likely to be perpetrators of violence throughout history, and even women elected officials tend to be less supportive of military spending. But this is not to say that women are not capable of violence. Women are more likely to be in conflict in places where the gender roles are rapidly changing."
From 'Bearers of Life' to 'Killing Machines'
Typical examples of societies in transition, according to Caiazza, are Palestinian and Chechen societies, where the growing numbers of female suicide bombers have prompted pundits to ponder the alleged feminine transition from "bearers of life" to "killing machines."
But some experts say there are several hidden factors behind the seeming slew of mothers, daughters, sisters and wives in Chechnya and the Palestinian territories willing to turn themselves into deadly shrapnel.
In Chechnya, for instance, some experts say the untold numbers of men who have been killed, imprisoned or have simply disappeared during more than a decade of conflict with Russian security forces have pushed women to join the ranks of fighters.
And studies of families of Palestinian female suicide bombers have uncovered a complex web of factors combining to make "martyrdom" a desirable option for women. These include the hardships of the Israeli occupation as well as a lack of social and cultural freedom and opportunities for many women in traditional Palestinian society.
Angry Young Men and Bellicose Governments
While Bare Branches does not look into sex ratios of Middle East countries — in large part because foreign workers form significant proportions of overall populations in many Persian Gulf nations — Hudson says some Muslim-dominated countries such Pakistan and Afghanistan suffer from what she calls "a double blow," or abnormal sex ratios coupled with a disproportionately high ratio of young men to older men.
And on a policy level, Hudson believes surplus young males typically exert pressure on governments to "adopt postures that are bellicose, to be sensitive to the rhetoric of being tough and avoid being perceived as being emasculated."
The argument is particularly significant for Arab countries with a large youth population, where there is widespread dissatisfaction with governments perceived as pro-American and therefore unable to represent Palestinian interests on the Mideast issue.
Although Caiazza is hesitant to solely blame males for the world's violence, she does concede that gender is an important — if often overlooked — issue.
"Despite the fact that women traditionally are not perpetrators of violence, they carry on the value system of a society," says Caiazza. "So when you ignore gender issues and violence, you are often in danger of ignoring the moral support for violence. I think women have been ignored in terms of how we make policy because our approach to terrorism focuses more on getting rid of the bad guys rather than understanding why people do bad acts."