Monday, August 25, 2008

Stop brain drain of professional Saudi women

TWO news stories published earlier this month got me to thinking about the future of professional Saudi women.

Just where do they fit in Saudi society and what contributions will they make – or maybe it’s better to say, allowed to make – as working professionals in Saudi Arabia.

The Boston Globe reported that 13 Saudi women recently completed an international diplomacy course sponsored jointly by Dar Al-Hekma College and The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

The same week, Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News published an interview with Saudi writer Wajeha Al-Huawaider, who warned that Saudi women studying abroad are reluctant to return home because they enjoy the freedom of independent living and they want to pursue greater employment opportunities.

These seemingly unrelated articles actually convey similar themes that dominate the lives of Saudi women. And in the case of women seeking diplomatic careers, it raises the inherent conflict Saudi women feel about the intense patriotism they feel for their country and the desire for their country to treat them better.There is no question that the Ministry of Higher Education has done much in recent years to provide scholarships for women to study abroad.

I am the beneficiary of such a program. The intent by the ministry is to give Saudi women a Western education so they can return home and contribute to society much like their fathers and uncles have done in the 1970s and ‘80s.

One reason why Saudi Arabia has flourished in the international business community over 30 years is because thousands of men studied in the West and brought that knowledge home to apply it to Saudi business practices.

Now women are given similar opportunities. But there is a twist. The reality is the Ministry of Higher Education wants its women to get the best education possible. The fantasy is that there will be well-paying jobs, respect and opportunities for advancement in the workplace.I’ve always admired the work performed at Dar Al-Hekma, with many of its bold and aggressive programs to prepare women for the workplace.

Its relationship with the Fletcher School is a prime example.Suhair Al-Qurashi, president of Dar Al-Hekma, told the Boston Globe, “We want women ambassadors, women officials, women leaders – not women working in the office.

My efforts here will push the ministry (of foreign affairs) to make serious steps. Now they have no excuse. We have a prepared group, and they are not secretary material.”Al-Qurashi is correct.

The ministry will have no excuse. But that doesn’t mean jobs will magically appear once these 13 young women apply. The reality is that only a fraction of the diplomatic corps in Washington, D.C. is female.This brings to mind Wajeha Al-Huawaider’s calls for Saudi women studying in Bahrain and other countries to return home with their new education and experience in foreign countries.

She complained that Saudi women searching for too much freedom abroad is a dangerous trend because they will be reluctant to return home to fight for change.The problem with Al-Huawaider’s concern is that many Saudi women don’t want to fight the good fight for greater freedom, demand driving rights and seek high-level positions in private and government institutions.

Do they want these things? Of course. But rather than pick up the cause, most young women are only too aware that they have one life to live. They feel they would be better served enjoying living an independent and rich life rather than beating their head against a brick wall because their male boss either feels threatened by their talent or wants them as a second wife.

I have spoken to many Saudi women. They view their future after earning a university degree as living outside Saudi Arabia, marrying a non-Saudi and being employed by a company that doesn’t care about the status of her family or whether she will be perceived as a “good Muslim girl.”

Why worry about a supervisor who thinks a woman is loose because she works in a mixed environment when you can work for a boss who is only interested in the results and quality of her work?That’s why it’s interesting to see that Saudi women want to become diplomats.

They have the best of both worlds. They demonstrate their loyalty by representing Saudi Arabia in the most prestigious way. They live abroad. And for the most part their lives are independent. Take that a step further.

Saudi women with international experience and education are eager to find employment with the United Nations, an NGO or a Middle East company based in the West. By Saudi standards, that is complete freedom.If the Saudi government beyond the Ministry of Education truly wants to benefit from the experiences of Saudi women, then an education is simply not enough. Only through efforts to change the environment in the workplace and in government offices will Saudi Arabia be allowed to benefit from giving women an education. Today, living and working abroad is appealing.

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