Sunday, September 23, 2012

Saudi women have proven themselves in leadership roles

The column was originally published in Arab news
An extraordinary thing happened this week in Riyadh. Maybe it wouldn’t be so special in another country, but for Saudi Arabia it was a moment that makes one stand up and take notice.
That special event occurred at the Shoura Council meeting where Dr. Muneera Al-Osaimi and Dr. Afaf Altuwaitjri, the first women to become members of the inner circle of the Ministry of Health, rose and spoke before Shoura Council members about the ministry’s projects.
They were the first women to address the council. The council chambers reverberated with thunderous applause from an appreciative audience, but the sky did not fall and the ground did not shake. Rather, peace prevailed in the Kingdom.
Yes, I may sound a little sarcastic, but the event should put to rest any criticism of women actively engaging in government business. Consider the significance of the event: Two women — not on a video monitor — addressing the all-male Shoura Council. Their presence fills me with hope and optimism that women will have an active role in Shoura Council matters and not remain as mere observers.

Al-Osaimi and Altuwaitjri demonstrated that women are capable of handling the same job as men and the responsibility that comes with it. If these women could defend the important programs implemented by the Ministry of Health, then it stands to reason that they could do the same as Shoura Council members.
King Abdullah, through his wisdom and forward thinking, has opened many doors for women over the past seven years.
The university scholarship program that bears his name and the employment opportunities in the retail business sector are only two of many examples of the strides women have made in such a short time.
Working women are becoming true members of Saudi society. Name me one ministry that does not touch the lives of Saudi women.
If women become the beneficiaries of decisions made by these ministries, shouldn’t they also be part of the decision-making process?
Shouldn’t decisions affecting the lives of millions of Saudi women be made by women and for women?
I am not suggesting that decisions affecting the lives of women be made solely by females. But certainly the doors to high levels of government, such as levels that now include Al-Osaimi and Altuwaitjri, should be open to women to help in the decision-making process.
We have already witnessed Saudi women taking control of their lives. For one, Saudi women are waiting longer to get married. And for those who do get married, they are seeing the Saudi divorce rate rise rapidly.
The reasons are obvious. Women are no longer settling for living the way their mothers and grandmothers did. They understand there is a world out there that is inviting. Pursuing an education, jobs and marriage are decisions they want to make, not have others make for them.
But they also need a little help in making those decisions. Women in strategic positions in government, whether it’s the Shoura Council or in the ministries, will help them achieve their goals while at the same time help them remain true to Islam, their families and to their country.
Yet there are signs that restrictions on Saudi women stubbornly remain. Passport restrictions were finally lifted for Saudi women to visit Gulf Cooperation Council countries, but receiving permission to leave the country just got a little more difficult.
Women traveling alone used to carry a yellow card from their mahram that gave them permission to leave the country.
Now that card — a hard copy that single women cherish almost as much as their passport — is now replaced by an online version.
The mahram must go to the passport office and register his permission online.
Passport control officers at the border will view the permission online, which deprives the woman from having physical evidence that she has permission to leave the country. She will be at the mercy that the passport office competently registered the mahram’s permission.
This contrast between the trust the Ministry of Health demonstrated by giving its two female administrators the job of addressing the Shoura Council and the policy of keeping women on a short leash, as evidenced with the new passport office regulations, is painful.
Saudi women have come a long way in the past 10 years. This week’s wonderful reception from appreciative Shoura Council members toward their sisters is heartening for all women.
It’s my hope that the trust and appreciation so evident by the Shoura Council will extend to giving women a chance to join the council as full voting members and allow them the freedom, with consultation from their families, to choose their own path.

Failure to encourage academic research hinders progress

The column was originally published in Arab news
AFTER coming home after five years in England as a postgraduate student, I have come to realize how much I have grown personally and professionally. The King Abdullah Student Scholarship Program made it possible for me and the more than 165,000 other Saudis to forge a new life that guarantees many rewards.
As unusual as it may seem for Westerners, living independently in England has taught me to pay bills, like the UK’s mysterious television license (yes, you pay a tax to own and watch television in your home) and British Gas, with its multilayered and virtually nonsensical way it calculates how much gas you use during the month. I left the UK paying hundreds of pounds to close the account, although I heated only one room and cooked on an electric stove.

Perhaps most important, the time spent in the West has taught me to manage my time and conduct intense research, which required me to spend all-night sessions in the library, and then face the unappealing walk home in freezing weather. My fellow Saudi students worked just as hard. Other foreign students were not as lucky as Saudis. They not only struggled to maintain their studies, but they often took part-time jobs in restaurants and cafes to pay for their tuition.
At the end of the day I hope to become a valuable resource for my country. The government spent a lot of money on me to make my dream come true and it is my obligation to repay the government.
I marveled at the discipline I witnesses among my fellow students in an academic environment. But I am equally disturbed about many returning Saudis who have returned to old habits. Once graduates are free of the constraints imposed on them in academia, issues of etiquette, time management and working in a highly disciplined manner seemed to have disappeared. When a student sweats blood and tears to write an 80,000-word thesis, and then pass his defense session for his postgraduate degree, why resume the old habits of passing the time in a job before going home?
I don’t claim to have the answer why Saudis forgot about a society once steeped in science or why even among some young graduates science is no longer a priority to pursue.
Speaking to a colleague with a postgraduate degree recently, I suggested we work together on a joint paper in the field we shared. She looked at me as if I was crazy, noting that she had worked hard for her degree and now she only wanted to relax.
I often receive e-mails from US and European academics asking me to participate in projects, conferences or join them in co-writing papers. I receive nothing like that from Saudi academics. In Saudi Arabia, students — men and women alike — have little mobility in research or access to libraries to continue their work after receiving their degrees.
There is little value placed on research. It’s been my experience that Saudi universities do not provide time for their academic staff to pursue research in their fields that leads to publishing important papers.
Most western universities require that faculty members spend up to 70 percent of their time in research and 30 percent teaching. Saudi universities have not embraced the concept that professional research guarantees that your colleagues and students can count on you to provide the required information and learning tools to help students advance. Research is a contribution to the humanity in general and science in particular. Eastern Asian countries have developed extensive programs to guarantee time for research, to focus on education and knowledge, and to transform their countries from consumerist economies to knowledge-producing economies.
There is immense social pressure to conform to Saudi society once we are back inside the Kingdom. And as a result we have yet to change the balance of knowledge from being a consuming society to a knowledge-producing society.
We lag behind other countries as we continue to rely on oil and nonoil exports as sources of revenue without considering the advantages of what impact a knowledge-producing economy will have on future generations of Saudis.
Although one-quarter of the Kingdom’s budget is allocated for education we have no strategic plans for education. We have vague ideas, but we are unsure where we want to go. Teachers, for example, don’t discuss the goals of their courses before teaching their subjects.
King Abdullah had a vision of education when he implemented the scholarship program. The program can help Saudi Arabia re-balance the scale of international power and allow Saudis to get on the same footing as knowledge-producing countries.
It’s one thing to send students abroad for a first-class education and have them return with a degree in hand. It’s quite another to do something with that degree and to foster knowledge to the new generation and to continue learning ourselves.
However, the tools for continuing education for academics are by and large missing from our teaching arsenal. The culture to teach what we have learned abroad, and then apply that knowledge to better our economy and education system, is missing.
King Abdullah has taken a courageous step in introducing the scholarship program that sends students to five continents. It is now up to Saudi universities, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education to build on our newly acquired knowledge by creating libraries, research centers and opening facilities for visiting postgraduates and independent researchers.

Jeddah's 'Lord of the Flies' driving habits

The column was originally published in Arab news
In 2010, Saudi Arabia’s traffic department came out with a new program called “Salamati” that would improve traffic safety with the addition of 3,000 new traffic cops and 230 senior officers.
“Saher”, an automated traffic control and management system to regulate traffic conditions, also came along.
I commend traffic officials for making an effort to curb the guerrilla warfare that passes for driving in Saudi Arabia. And maybe the Saher program is generating plenty of revenue from traffic fines to fill the traffic department’s coffers, but I got to say that it doesn’t look like there has been much of an impact on the streets.
Saudi Arabia's streets

Since leaving Saudi Arabia in 2007, I studied in the United Kingdom and vacationed in the United States. I learned to drive and I quickly became spoiled.
I was spoiled for the simple reason that I lived and visited countries that had a healthy respect for traffic safety and traffic laws. You know, those minor things like stopping at traffic lights, signaling to change lanes, turning left from the left-hand lane. People observed the speed limit. They waved their appreciation when you allowed them to pass. When I took driving lessons in the UK and US, drivers displayed patience and courtesy as I navigated unfamiliar streets.
Since I don’t drive in Saudi Arabia, I, like most women, am busy on the telephone in the backseat of the car not paying a lot of attention to my surroundings. Now that I have returned, I have a new sense of what my country has become.
I was struck some years ago when I read a report that the safety of a country’s national air carrier is best evaluated by the country’s attention to traffic safety and traffic laws. That doesn’t bode well for the Kingdom’s airlines since I would wager that Saudi Arabia operates under the worst traffic conditions of any country.
Over the past 20 years, Saudi traffic officials estimated that 4 million traffic accidents killed 86,000 people and injured more than 610,000. A study by the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology predicts that the way things are going, traffic accidents will exceed 4 million annually by 2030.
It used to be that we could blame the horrendous driving in Jeddah on expats imported with no driving skills and hired to drive taxis. But now Saudis seemed to have adopted some of the worst driving habits I’ve ever seen. Speeding, dangerous lane changing, double-parking and blocking right-hand lanes, turning left or right from the far outside lanes. Having the kids ignore their seatbelts and dangle themselves outside car windows. And hopping over medians in four-wheel-drive vehicles to avoid traffic jams. Incredibly dangerous driving. Every car has damage as if it were some badge of honor indicating that you survived the day in Jeddah traffic.
This is not news, of course, and I can be accused of beating a dead horse. But think about this. When will the time come when we behave responsibly and follow traffic laws? I am guessing that “never” in my lifetime is not too extreme.
We know from the Salamati and Saher programs that the powers that be recognize that people are needlessly dying because of our dangerous driving habits. How to solve that? Well, it would require every single driver in Saudi Arabia taking a new and rigid driving test before being issued a driver’s license.
It would take hiring thousands of new traffic officers — beyond the 3,000 already added to the ranks — to enforce traffic laws. It would take Saudis to respect the authority of a traffic officer. It would take not hiring expats as drivers without driving experience. It would take new traffic signals, and proper and well lighted traffic signage.
It would require an iron fist from the Jeddah municipality and traffic department to enforce existing laws and implement new ones. But ultimately, it would mean a dramatic change in the mindset of Saudi and expat drivers to do what comes natural to them. Drive like crazed maniacs.
Let’s face it. Driving in Saudi Arabia is the law of the jungle. A survival of the fittest. Lord of the Flies on wheels. The weak are crushed by the most aggressive, rudest drivers on the planet.
Yet most Saudis are aware of this absurd behavior. Many Saudis have been to the West, are licensed to drive there, and even marvel and appreciate the wide open road and the relatively stress-free environment most roads offer outside urban areas. And for those who have not been to the West, television has certainly taught us that despite magnificent car crashes in movies, even villains observe traffic laws.
If Saudis are ever going to be serious about changing the way we drive cars and settle down to observe at least a modicum of driving civility and courtesy, they have a tough road ahead of them.
The pessimist in me says it is too late for this generation of drivers. We have made our bed and will lie in it. But I hope I am wrong and there is the political will among those in charge to begin changing the way we think when we get behind the wheel so we can preserve the lives of the next generation.