Eighth National Dialogue on Reform, Development
THERE is no satisfactory alternative to open dialogue in any society, and its success depends on how far it achieves its goals and objectives and on its impact on people. The Eighth National Dialogue on Reform and Development, the latest in a series of national dialogues established through the King Abdul Aziz National Dialogue Center, took place in Riyadh on Nov. 29-30, 2011 and provided a civil and sophisticated forum for exchanging views and decision-making. These dialogues are an important step toward the recognition of plural voices and diverse opinions. They open new lines of communication with the public and represent a move away from traditional methods. And this spirit of dialogue has been carried into the wider world. In October 2011, the signing of the agreement for the establishment of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, is a firm commitment from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah to foster interfaith dialogue between religions and respect and cooperation between nations, and to promote worldwide peace, justice and tolerance.
I was invited to participate in the Eighth National Dialogue meeting, which brought together 54 Saudis — 25 men and 29 women — experts from a cross section of religion, the professions, business, education, academia, and journalism.
The participants, who represented various voices in the country, were invited to address major issues related to the process of reform and development, the role of society, and the challenges and priorities for future reform and development.
Each participant gave a three-minute presentation leading to intensive interaction and discussion that evolved over the two days. This open exchange of views led to mutual understanding between participants and provided an incentive for future opportunities. Communication was clear and respectful while allowing critical voices to be heard. When I asked one of the participants, a university professor, whether she was happy with the process and outcome, she replied positively. “It allows the voices of Saudi women to be heard seriously and we can express freely our expectations and aspirations ... we hope that more issues, ideas and solutions on women and other topics will be discussed in future meetings. But I think that we also need to hear more the voices of average Saudi women.” Participants provided a number of definitions on the concept of reform. Wearing my sociologist's hat, I opted for the social meaning of reform as a gradual change in society for the sake of progress, evolution, and advancement. Ideally, reform seeks to achieve justice and equality for citizens in social, economic and political opportunities. Reform should result from the wants and needs of the people.
Participants were clear about the need for social and political reforms within the framework of the present structure of the country. Requests for the need for social reforms in Saudi society focused in particular on the education system and the status of Saudi women. Other challenges facing Saudi society were also discussed, such as globalization, cultural values and traditions, increasing population, poverty, youth unemployment, women's low participation in the labor market, citizen's civil and political rights, free speech and participation in decision-making, health care, and municipal services.
Many of these important issues have already been looked at. The previous seven national dialogues that have been convened in Saudi Arabia since 2003 have addressed issues such as questions of national unity, extremism and moderation; the role of women; youth education, employment, and culture; the labor market; and interaction with the “other” or world civilizations.
The discussion of day-to-day national matters, including social, cultural, educational, economic and even political issues, has become a vital necessity if we are to overcome the turmoil present in the Arab region. National dialogue is therefore a democratic tool to build consensus between government and other factions in society and a major instrument for communication. It is a key strategic component in strengthening modern governance, and a step toward social and political modernization.
Major reforms have already begun with the establishment of the Al-Shoura Council, the Committee of the Human Rights, the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and the municipality elections. Recently, King Abdullah ordered more reforms to be adopted targeting education programs, housing, social security and the expansion of job opportunities. And only last week Saudi Arabia's 2012 budget of SR690 billion was released aimed at strengthening human development and creating more job opportunities, giving highest priority and allocations to education and manpower training with SR168 billion and to health and social development with SR87 billion.
I believe that, while preserving our values and traditions, reform and change should come gradually from within our society through the education of the new generation to become more open and flexible and to learn about the healthy culture of dialogue. We need first to develop a clear, broad, and tolerant vision of the need for reform and change in today's Saudi society. Reform brings new ideas and initiatives for changing attitudes in society and in developing connectedness between different members of the community. Our major challenge is how to create a balance between existing social, cultural, and religious values and the requirements of a modern system of governance.
As a sociologist, I feel that more reforms should be introduced on issues affecting women and young people. The social, economic, and political potential of our country can only be achieved with the empowerment of Saudi women and the full participation of both young men and women in the development of their country.
Women play a vital role as agents of change, firstly in their primary role as mothers and in raising their children. They are a valuable resource for human development that can be effectively utilized in the national economy if they are allowed to join equally with men in all fields of education and to work in all sectors as active agents in the labor market. To this end, women's educational curricula should be updated, and restrictions on their job opportunities removed. They should also be encouraged to assume highly visible positions across every sector and region. Reform of the status of women is a vital and necessary step if Saudi Arabia is to move toward a modern knowledge-based economy.
And women should be part of a national social and economic vision that endorses the active role of women in development.
Similarly, more reforms should be introduced to involve young people in the development of their country. The educational system should be revamped to be more flexible and receptive to the needs of the labor market. The curricula should give increased emphasis to science, technology, mathematics, computer sciences, and foreign languages at all levels. Young people should be encouraged to become entrepreneurs by helping them start small businesses through the provision of micro-loans and business advice programs. And to urge the country becoming a healthy nation, a national campaign should be launched to show the positive relationship between exercise and good health, and sports centers should be built to encourage young people to participate in sports activities.
We also have to strengthen the concept of national social unity and develop a robust social identity built on good citizenship. To achieve this, civic education should become an integral part of school curricula so that children can learn about their rights and responsibilities. The building of civil society organizations should be also encouraged, as they can play a role both in reflecting the voice of the community and in providing resources and services to that community. They can also help the government in implementing reform projects.
Today, especially in light of the Arab Spring and the turmoil in our region, we need to promote dialogue through special coalitions, nongovernmental organizations and other innovative group processes to bring together different people and to learn how to deal with our most challenging problems. In Europe, the importance of dialogue has long been recognized by the European Union, which designated 2008 as “European Year of Intercultural Dialogue”. The establishment of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna will enable Saudi Arabia take a leading role in promoting dialogue between diverse nations and peoples. This is urgently needed to our troubled world.
— Dr. Mona AlMunajjed is a sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues. She can be contacted at: [email protected]