Arab world must tackle ‘deficits’ to create own vision: International experts

The FIKR17 conference was held in Saudi Arabia for the first time this week. (Arab Thought Foundation)
Updated 07 December 2019

Arab world must tackle ‘deficits’ to create own vision: International experts

  • Dr. Henry Awit, director of the Arab Thought Foundation, stressed that the unity of the Arab world was vital in order to shape a new vision
  • He added that Dhahran’s King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) was a world-renowned cultural center which sponsored innovation, adopted a modernist approach and embraced creativity

DHAHRAN: The Arab world needs to resolve many of its shortfalls in order to “develop its own vision” for the future, an influential regional conference has been told.
Hussain Haqqani, director of the south and central Asia Hudson Institute think tank, said gender gaps, institutional and knowledge deficits were among vital issues that the region had to tackle.
“The Arab region must develop its own vision and the only way to do so is by overcoming its many deficits,” he told Arab News at the FIKR17 conference, being staged in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
Haqqani was among a gathering of international and political relations experts taking part in a discussion session titled, “Today’s world ... Tomorrow’s world: The transformations, challenges and visions.”
Other participants in the seminar, held in Dhahran, included Naoki Tanaka, president of the Center for International Public Policy Studies, and Frederic Charillon, professor in international relations at ESSEC Business School.
“The region has a huge deficit in terms of knowledge,” Haqqani said. “There are about 400 million people whose language is Arabic but there are fewer books written in Arabic every year than (those) written every year in Greek, which is the language of 11 or 12 million people.
“Also, fewer books are translated from other languages into Arabic every year than are translated into Danish, which is the language of only 5 million people in Denmark.”
The former Pakistani ambassador to the US added that gender gap was also one of the deficits faced by the Arab world. “Half the society is women. A society that is excluding women will be behind any society that is including women.”
Institutional deficit, or the lack of functioning institutions, he said, was another challenge, particularly for the poorer Arab countries.
“The global trade in goods and services has only five percent of input from the Arab world, whereas China has 15 percent and India has 13 percent,” Haqqani added. “There’s no reason why the Arab world cannot improve its productivity … when you have the economic means and the intellectual means you will be able to have your own vision.”
Haqqani noted that societies were living in what he described as a “revolutionary state” where interconnectedness did not necessarily mean connection. “Everybody can communicate with one another, but everybody does not necessarily understand each other.”
Decision-makers and influencers played a vital role when it came to directing societies. According to Haqqani, their power was in helping consumers to process overwhelming information and analyze it logically, and in trying to maintain society’s stability.
“It is important to try and keep the equilibrium to keep societies stable as soon as possible, instead of allowing too much dispersal of views and ideas,” he said, while pointing out that although social media connected people, it also allowed them to disrupt. “One wrong idea can go and travel very fast. Fake news can travel very fast, so influencers and decision-makers have to assert themselves in a way in which societies find their equilibrium again.”
Earlier in the same conference, Dr. Henry Awit, director of the Arab Thought Foundation, stressed that the unity of the Arab world was vital in order to shape a new vision.
Awit told Arab News that Dhahran’s King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) was a world-renowned cultural center which sponsored innovation, adopted a modernist approach and embraced creativity.
He noted that the conference was “about outlining a new Arab vision, and we are today in the Kingdom that started the vision that invites to develop, invites to improve and invites to renew.”
The aim of the Arab Thought Foundation, he added, was “to spread knowledge and serve Arab societies and their development, hence we are open to everything that contributes to our purpose and aim.”


Tearing down the wall: Saudi restaurants adjust to the abolishment of gender segregation

Updated 28 January 2020

Tearing down the wall: Saudi restaurants adjust to the abolishment of gender segregation

  • New law urges restaurants to remove segregation in entrance and separate seating arrangements
  • Many restaurants have already begun to implement the law, but others stubbornly refuse

RIYADH: Saudi diners are still chewing over the Kingdom’s move to end the long-standing legal requirement for restaurants to have separate entrances for males and families.

As a result of reforms — involving 103 rules and regulations, manuals, models, and standards aimed at making life easier for citizens and visitors — men and women no longer have to enter restaurants through separate doors.

Naif Al-Otaibi, general manager of public relations and media at the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, said gender-segregation was now a matter of choice.

“It’s optional. We did not specify the number of entry points, so the investor is free to have multiple entry points and segregate (males from females) in their restaurant,” he told Arab News.

Many restaurants and cafes in Saudi Arabia, including American coffee chain Starbucks, typically have separate sections for families (women on their own or accompanied by men) and males.

The AlShaya Group, operator of Starbucks, The Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s among others, has said it will end gender segregation in stores and eateries that were opened before the new rule came into effect.

“We at Alshaya are planning to transform the old stores’ designs following the new desegregation law, but that will take place over the course of the next two years,” the company told Arab News.

An employee at one of Starbucks’ gender-segregated outlets said maintenance contractors had recently conducted an inspection of the site with a view to commencing remodeling work. “They will take out the wall that separates the male area from the families section,” the staff member told Arab News.

“They will also remove the signs at the entry points that say, ‘families’ and ‘males’ and merge the two separate sections.”

Just a few years ago all of this was unthinkable in a very different Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom had a strict policy of not allowing women to dine in a restaurant without a mahram (male guardian). They would be turned away if they did not comply with the rule.

Recalling an incident that happened 20 years ago, “D.K.,” a 37-year-old Saudi woman who wished to remain anonymous, said she found herself inside one of the white vehicles belonging to the religious police whose official job description was the “prevention of vice and promotion of virtue.”

She had been dining with her friends at a McDonald’s restaurant without a mahram.

But D.K. is amazed by the changes that have taken place since, and said the ending of gender segregation in restaurants was a huge step forward for the Kingdom.

She praised King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for advancing women’s empowerment by increasing their employment opportunities, enhancing the quality of their social life and expanding their personal freedoms.

While these steps might seem unimpressive to the average person in the West, cumulatively they were opening up the Kingdom in a big way, D.K. told Arab News, though she admitted that some conservative sections of Saudi society still wished to see the continuation of gender segregation in restaurants.

However, most restaurant owners were eager to move with the changing times.

Al-Amin Mahmoud, a 35-year-old father-of-four from Madinah, takes his family every weekend to a different restaurant. While in Jeddah on a short vacation, he faced a problem when he discovered that some restaurants did not have separate sections for males and families.

“I respect that decision, but I did not feel comfortable. I knew that the decision had been implemented. However, for me, having grown up in a conservative family and society, it does not suit me,” he told Arab News.

Father-of-three Habib Saleh, 41, said that businesses had the option to accept or reject the gender-desegregation decision.

“This is akin to the decision to ban sheesha from restaurants. Many people objected, saying smoking sheesha was the main reason they frequented the restaurants in the first place. Some restaurants who implemented the rule naturally lost regular customers, which affected their revenue,” he added.

Saleh pointed out that when considering applying the new rules, some business owners faced the same dilemma of having to be prepared to lose some customers.

“It will take time before people get used to it. Of course, people will either reject it or be suspicious about it at first. And we have to keep in mind that some of the people who are objecting to this decision do not mind eating in mixed restaurants when they are abroad. So, there is some amount of contradiction. 

“We have to remember that the segregation rule was in force for more than 30 years, so don’t think that people will accept it quickly,” he said.

For his part, Abdulrahman Al-Harbi, an architect, believes implementing the desegregation law will improve the bottom lines of restaurants in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Harbi said not only would managing a restaurant become easier but construction bills would also shrink. “I prefer open spaces. A good designer can provide clever privacy solutions to customers in different ways. 

“If we want to call ourselves a civilized society, we must get used to a mixed-gender environment,” he added.

Abdul Aziz Al-Qahtani, the owner of Bicicleta Coffee Shop in Riyadh, said that since opening a new branch in the capital’s U Walk, only one cashier counter was required.

“We had customers coming in and asking for separate sections, but we have to keep pace with development,” he said. “This change in the law has reduced costs in many areas for us. Now we don’t need two cashiers to serve a family section and a male section.

“We also don’t have to have large spaces any more to be able to divide it up into two sections.”