Helping others is the Saudi way
However, there is an equally important social component to the Vision. That is evident in the emphasis it puts on social responsibility and on increasing the size of the non-profit sector. And while the term “social responsibility” might be relatively new, the idea itself certainly is not.
Zakat, or charitable giving, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Saudis, like Muslims around the world, provide financial support to a host of charities that help the poor, orphans, the sick and those with special needs. There is little doubt that this financial support is crucial. Those of us who live in in the United States are familiar with the adage “every dollar counts, which one hears on televised fund-raising campaigns for various charities. And while many Saudis show their commitment to social responsibility by contributing money, others choose to demonstrate it by volunteering their time.
In recent years, a number of organizations across the Kingdom have raised awareness among Saudi youth about the importance of volunteering time to help others in need. For decades, Saudis of different age groups and of both sexes have volunteered to assist pilgrims performing the Hajj. There are also initiatives that target schools, hospitals and homes for the elderly.
For those of us living outside the Kingdom, it has become apparent that Saudis’ sense of social responsibility does not dissipate if they are living abroad. While some have joined charitable organizations that target less developed countries, others have chosen to dedicate hours of their time performing volunteer work in some of the most advanced and economically prosperous countries in the world, including the US.
There are about 65,000 Saudis studying in American colleges and universities. Their main objective is to acquire a good education, but many want not only to learn about and understand the communities they live in, but also to educate people in their college communities about Saudi Arabia.
To that end, there are about 355 Saudi clubs in 355 colleges and universities in the US, the first having been established 40 years ago. Many take part in cultural events that provide an opportunity to bring a flavour of the Kingdom to the US, often with clothes, handicrafts and food.
Other Saudi students help their local communities by joining or even initiating volunteer programs that serve different communities and needs. From feeding the hungry to visiting the sick or helping communities recover from natural disasters and fostering interfaith understanding, Saudi students’ sense of social responsibility is easily detectable in the US. Many view it as a moral imperative to leave a positive imprint on the communities they call home during the course of their education. A secondary motivation is to challenge the negative stereotypes that some Americans still have of Saudi Arabia, and to show that Saudis and Americans do indeed share some fundamental values, such as helping those less fortunate. One Saudi official at the Saudi Cultural Mission in Washington, which supports six such volunteer organizations, described it as “winning hearts and minds.”
Volunteering to help those in need is second nature for many young Saudis in the US, who view social responsibility as a moral imperative.
On a personal note, my own family began a tradition a few years ago. Americans commemorate Martin Luther King Jr Day on the third Monday of January by participating in what is known as a Day of Service. On that day, my family joins a large volunteer fair that brings together over a thousand volunteers to prepare care packages for the sick, the poor and those who could simply use cheering up. Every year, we look forward to joining our favorite two stations: making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and designing “get well soon” cards for people recovering from cancer treatment.
Making time to help those less fortunate is an incredibly rewarding experience. It creates a sense of community, fosters empathy and cultivates a general concern for the betterment of mankind. This sense of social responsibility will be a key to the success of Vision 2030. It is also a great way for Saudis to remind Americans and others of an incontrovertible truth: what unites us is far stronger than what divides us.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others. Twitter: @fanazer
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