RIYADH: GHAZANFAR ALI KHAN | ARAB NEWS STAFF
Published — Monday 23 September 2013
Last update 23 September 2013 5:46 am
The Kingdom’s National Day, celebrated on Sept. 23, has come a long way in broadening the concept of unification over the years.
Though it meant unifying the disparate sheikhdoms into territorial integrity under its founder, late King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, its implications across the socioeconomic and cultural spectrum, however, were not lost on the successive rulers in the House of Saud.
It was Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah who fine-tuned the definition of unification as an operating philosophy.
After all, a country’s unity and territorial integrity demands that the various elements involved in holding it together — from demographic to socio-economic — should also be reinforced in the national interest.
Thus, it’s during the reign of King Abdullah that the Kingdom has embarked upon various reform programs for the harmonious functioning of the government with the participation of citizens and NGOs at various levels as well as liberalization of the national economy.
They were in addition to the Janadariya Cultural Festival, an annual cultural event being celebrated since the time of late King Fahd to promote the Kingdom’s rich cultural heritage.
Since 2005, a growing number of cities in the Kingdom have also laid out more elaborate celebration plans to mark the National Day.
This year is also no exception.
In Riyadh, a fireworks show has been planned, while all the streets in the capital city are decorated with Saudi flags, lights and artificial flowers.
The Eastern Province, the hub of the Kingdom’s oil resources, observed the National Day last year with a parade that brought together bikers, musicians and sportsmen, an unusually colorful sight in the Kingdom.
This year also, a range of programs are awaiting citizens and residents in the Eastern Province.
This spirit of patriotism has been largely infused and invigorated by King Abdullah over the past few years.
An extension of this concept at the social level saw the launch of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue (KACND), which engages in dialogue between various sections of the Saudi society for a better understanding of each other’s point of view.
KACND took this concept a step further when a new study prepared by it recently revealed that 35 percent of Saudis believe that non-Saudi residents do not have difficulties adapting to the local customs and traditions.
The study also disclosed that 45 percent of Saudis say they treat foreign residents with respect, honesty and fairness.
According to the survey, which covered some 700 respondents from all over the Kingdom, 54 percent of Saudis also believe in the diversity of foreign nationals living and working within the Saudi community, as such interaction is overall beneficial.
Around 75 percent of the respondents indicated their willingness to collaborate with non-Saudis in the market place, especially in promoting sales and general trade.
Faisal bin Muammar, secretary-general of KACND, said in a report recently that in the future the center plans to expand its phone surveys for monitoring public opinion.
“At KACND, we have hired a team of specialists in undertaking public opinion surveys. These teams will work with specially designed computers linked to communication devices to get a clear statistical analysis without any direct human intervention.”
Such an initiative makes it clear that the Kingdom’s leadership is deploying state-of-the-art technology in staying tuned to public opinion-a practice followed in advanced countries.
Most of the ministries, especially the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia, has become interactive accepting suggestions and questions from citizens and residents.
Of late, the Saudi media has also become responsive in addressing even some highly sensitive social and moral issues.
The media began pushing the envelope when they took up the case of a Saudi girl from Qatif, who was sentenced to lashes after being raped by a group of men who had caught her and an unrelated man together in a car.
The media highlighted the entire case and also the hostility that the Qatif girl and her lawyer faced in the legal system during the appeal process.
The king took note of the media coverage which resulted in his direct intervention in the case and pardoning of the woman.
In another case which happened a few years ago, Jeddah was hit by an acute water shortage during Ramadan, causing a lot of problems. Following the uproar in the local media, King Abdullah instructed the Minister of Water and Electricity to resolve the problem without further delay.
Such expeditious government action in response to media reports was unthinkable a few years ago and highlights the Kingdom’s keenness to remain alert to public interest.
Citizen journalism has also become a hallmark of the Saudi society under King Abdullah.
The print, electronic and social media played a seminal role in disseminating news of the flash floods that struck Jeddah in November 2009 and January 2011 during a heavy downpour.
It was the SMSes and video clips uploaded on YouTube and Internet blogs that swung government machinery into immediate action.
Not only this, King Abdullah has introduced reforms in almost all sectors. He introduced a number of economic reforms aimed at reducing the country’s reliance on oil revenue, limited deregulation, encouragement of foreign investment and privatization.
Today, the Kingdom is one of a few fast-growing countries in the world with a relatively high per capita income.
He is also credited with taking giant steps for women emancipation by nominating women to the Shoura Council. He has also announced that Saudi women will be able to vote and be elected in the 2015 municipal councils.
The shift in the modus operandi of the Saudi government was highlighted by prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“A few weeks ago, King Abdullah issued a circular to government departments instructing them to respond quickly to media criticism. This circular is an important document that can regulate the relationship between government departments and the media,” said Khashoggi, director general of Alarab news channel, an independent venture from the Kingdom Holding Company.
Most government officials have also started responding to media queries, resulting in a remarkable flow of information. Almost all ministries and government departments have also appointed official spokesmen for handling media enquiries, unthinkable until recently.
These reforms have come about on a graduated scale since 2005, when the king issued a royal decree that Sept. 23 should be declared an official holiday marking the Kingdom’s unification led by founder King Abdulaziz.
Since then, celebrations have been getting more colorful to attract the masses. The Ministry of Labor also pitched in by declaring the national day a paid holiday for all public and private sector employees. The changing scenario was inconceivable a few years ago, according to Khalid Al-Dakhil, a prominent political writer, who said authorities in the past had to listen to the religious establishment, which stood only for two national holidays — Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.
Another landmark decision aimed at strengthening the foundation of the Saudi society was empowerment of women through the ballot box. In an interview with Bikya Masr, Egypt’s independent TV channel, a member of the royal family spelled out her views on the royal announcement allowing women to hold office in the municipal councils and also vote in the next civic elections due in 2015. She was taking part in a panel discussion “Voices for Change in the MENA” moderated by former American President Bill Clinton.
Lauding King Abdullah’s announcement, the princess said: “While King Abdulaziz laid the foundation of the Kingdom’s unification, his worthy successors down to King Abdullah strengthened it brick by brick through enlightened leadership.”
However, it is now for the Saudi youth as well to forge ahead as the torchbearers of unification by strengthening the foundation through hard work and dedication to progress via education geared to market and professional needs.
“The problem with our nation and our young businessmen is that they are not planning for their future. We still live in the past and we are not planning for the long term. You would see most youth planning for only five years ahead and not more,” said Tareq Al-Suwaidan, Kuwaiti strategic planning expert and Islamic preacher, at a function held on Oct. 5 in Jeddah.
He was honored by public figures and members of the Jeddah Young Business Committee (JYBC) for service to the community.
Al-Suwaidan said: “I recommend Saudis to invest in young minds and prepare them to be leaders for their nation’s future. Studies have shown that leadership development starts from the age two to age six, which pushed me to establish day care centers to prepare those leaders,” he said. Ayman Jamal, chairman of JYBC, said the committee aims to support and motivate young businessmen and women by holding such meetings that have a significant role in motivating and helping them to promote their prospects on the employment and business fronts.
“Meeting such people would add to the young businessmen’s experience and knowledge and answer many of their questions. This would push them to aim high and achieve more,” he said.
King Abdullah, supported by Crown Prince Salman, has initiated a range of major economic, social, education, health, and infrastructure projects that have brought about remarkable changes throughout the Kingdom.
They include the launch of four mega economic cities, the creation of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and the Princess Nourah bint Abdul Rahman University for Girls, projects to expand the two holy mosques, provide more amenities to Haj pilgrims and other welfare measures. He also approved a historic revamping of the Kingdom’s judicial system and enactment of laws to formalize the succession process.
On industrialization front, King Abdullah has left no stone unturned for launching a sort of industrial renaissance.
The Saudi government through the Saudi Industrial Development Fund (SIDF) has disbursed 3,566 loans worth SR107 billion for setting up industrial projects across the country.
At the same time, he has given a new boost to the commercial activity, including exports and imports. This can be substantiated by the fact that the revenues of the General Organization of Ports, also called Ports Authority, exceeded SR4 billion last year, indicating an increase of over SR800 million a year before.
On the global level, Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah has been playing a pivotal role in different spheres.
The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) have distributed financial assistance amounting to SR80 billion in different countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
This is in addition to charity funding and institutional support provided by the Kingdom-based organizations to poor countries and their institutions on regular basis. Riyadh also renders diplomatic, moral and material support to its neighbors, and renders assistance through multilateral channels like OPEC Fund.
In fact, King Abdullah’s participation in international diplomacy reflects the Kingdom’s leadership role in support of Arab and Islamic issues and also for the achieve-ment of world peace, stability and security.