An exemplar of Saudi Arabia’s progress in women’s economic inclusion and empowerment

The Saudi government is working directly with companies like Serco to hire more local staff and promote equal opportunities for women in the Kingdom. (AFP/File Photo)
The Saudi government is working directly with companies like Serco to hire more local staff and promote equal opportunities for women in the Kingdom. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 04 March 2021

An exemplar of Saudi Arabia’s progress in women’s economic inclusion and empowerment

The Saudi government is working directly with companies like Serco to hire more local staff and promote equal opportunities for women in the Kingdom. (AFP/File Photo)
  • As country director of Serco, Mona Althagafi is in charge of operational delivery of services company’s core offerings
  • The Saudi national is playing an important role in establishing and growing the citizen services business in the Kingdom

DUBAI: Saudi women are playing a pivotal role in the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 transformation strategy, seizing new opportunities in higher education, traditionally male-dominated professions and, perhaps most importantly, in leadership.

Furthermore, it is Saudi nationals themselves who are taking the reins in the Kingdom’s big industries and institutions — in place of the many foreign experts previously relied upon to play these high-powered roles.

As a Saudi citizen and the first woman to be appointed as country director for Saudi Arabia for the international services company Serco, Makkah-born Mona Althagafi embodies this transformative national agenda.

“Saudi Arabia has changed,” Althagafi told Arab News. “In just a few years, the Kingdom has made very significant progress at so many levels, from social and economic to cultural, and what used to be taboo is now the new norm in the Saudi way of life.”

As country director, Althagafi has taken over responsibility for the operational delivery of Serco Middle East’s core offering of data, asset and workforce management and is driving new business growth in 2021 for both Serco Saudi Services and Serco Saudi Arabia.

The British outsourcing firm employs more than 4,500 people in the Middle East across four countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Iraq, covering transport, healthcare, citizen services, defense, justice and immigration. Women are estimated to constitute 40 percent of Serco’s employees in the Middle East.




Saudi women are playing a pivotal role in the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 transformation strategy as reforms take shape. (AFP/File Photo)

Althagafi is also playing an important role in establishing and growing the citizen services business in the Kingdom, to support Vision 2030 with a commitment to service excellence and customer experience, strengthened through the company’s ExperienceLab division.

With more than 20 years’ experience, Althagafi previously served at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in Riyadh, where she led the planning of the Smart Government Strategy, as well as the planning and execution of the e-government program strategy in line with Vision 2030.

“Mona is a passionate Saudi national and government services expert who we are delighted to have at Serco to lead our Saudi operations,” said Phil Malem, CEO of Serco Middle East, shortly after Althagafi was appointed in November.

“She has a wealth of local knowledge and experience supporting key businesses, ministries and governments, and combined with our international expertise, she will continue her excellent track record with Serco.”




Makkah-born Mona Althagafi is the first woman to be appointed as country director for Saudi Arabia for the international services company Serco. (Supplied)

The Saudi government is working directly with companies like Serco to hire more local staff and promote equal opportunities.

“Investing in the leaders of tomorrow will be a big priority, with nationalization continuing to be a priority across UAE and KSA,” Malem said in a company statement last month.

“What will be important in our role as leaders in the private sector, is how we can support this, by creating a localized workforce, but with international expertise.

“By investing in training and development that has an international flavor and focus, we are not only enhancing the skill-sets of our workforce, but we are also helping to create global citizens that have the future skills we need from the leaders of tomorrow.”

INNUMBERS

Women, Business and the Law 2021 report of World Bank Group

 

* 80 - Saudi Arabia’s score on 1-100 scale in progress in women’s economic inclusion and empowerment.

* 5 - Areas in which Saudi Arabia scored particularly well as per the report.

 

Althagafi says she is thrilled to be playing a part in this transformation.

“I’m excited to contribute to this important work and lead some of the best local talent and teams in the region, to help shape the transformation of different sectors,” she said.

“I’m also looking forward to driving new business growth and supporting the delivery of essential services in Saudi Arabia in 2021, which will make a positive difference to the region.

“I am also proud to be part of an organization that works to transform operations while focusing on Saudization of those operations through the many nationalization programs.”

Although she is Saudi by birth, Althagafi spent most of her childhood in the US state of Michigan. But, after graduating from the University of the Pacific in California, she decided to move back to Saudi Arabia, where she spent a year working in the management team of a private hospital in Jeddah.

“At the time, in the 1990s, there were not many opportunities for women to work,” she said. “From there, I pivoted into managing roles in the private sector, semi-government and government institutions and, later on, in some NGOs as well.”

Althagafi always hoped she would return to the Kingdom someday, both for her own personal development and to contribute something meaningful to her country of birth. That contribution came in the form of citizen services.




Saudi women take photographs with their mobile phones pior to the 2018 Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix Formula E Championship in Riyadh. (AFP/File Photo)

“Throughout my career, the projects and programs I worked on were mostly around citizen services, whether it be through employment programs, designing and launching government products or supporting NGOs,” she said.

Her most recent work with the Saudi government focused on digitization, another Vision 2030 priority, and the expansion of e-government.

“The challenge with e-government strategy is getting the entire government on board, and this will be done through a governance model across our government, and will be implemented hopefully soon by the e-government program,” she said.

Althagafi believes her work is already making a significant impact on how the Saudi population digitally engages with state and private institutions.

“This will not only enhance their lives but enhance the lives of generations to come,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of that journey in terms of improving the lives of citizens, whether it’s the government or even in the private sector.”

One area she has given particular attention is the design and launch of a digital platform for working mothers. She also worked on platforms designed to help women find work during the period before 2018 when Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving.

“There is still a percentage of women who don’t drive and still need that support to go to work, so this facilitated the lives of women in the workforce,” Althagafi said.




Mona Althagafi is confident the best is yet to come for women's empowerment in the Kingdom and Saudi Arabia’s transformation. (AFP/File Photo)

Although Serco has only a small-scale presence in the Kingdom, it has ambitions to develop the Saudi digital service sector.

“Our goal is to support Vision 2030 with customer experience and operational optimization,” Althagafi said.

“We are looking to increase the footprint in Saudi Arabia and align our programs with the Kingdom’s vision in different areas, such as general operations, maintenance, data management, workforce management, digital asset management and others.”

With the growth of mega projects like Saudi Arabia’s NEOM smart city, Althagafi expects customer experiences to improve rapidly over the next five years. In the meantime, she plans to hold workshops with government ministries and private sector leaders to identify opportunities.

She is confident the best is yet to come for Saudi Arabia’s transformation. “This is because things are progressing very fast,” she said.

As for young Saudi women exploring their career options, Althagafi’s advice is as clear-cut and logical as the programs she has spent part of her working life designing.

“Planning your future is the first step. Envisage where and what you want to be and put an achievable plan towards it. Break your plan into a short-term monthly plan as well as a long-term annual plan,” she said.

“Keep the plan flexible to accommodate any changes. But your plan should put you on track.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Saudi senior source denies FT report of holding secret talks with Iran

Saudi senior source denies FT report of holding secret talks with Iran
Updated 18 April 2021

Saudi senior source denies FT report of holding secret talks with Iran

Saudi senior source denies FT report of holding secret talks with Iran
  • Unnamed sources said the first round of talks took place in Baghdad on April 9

DUBAI: A senior Saudi official has denied direct talks have been held with Iran, four years after the two countries cut off diplomatic ties, contradicting a Financial Times report claiming discussions were ongoing between the two major regional players.

The Financial Times report, citing unnamed sources said the first round of talks took place in Baghdad on April 9, which included discussions on attacks against Saudi Arabia by the Iran-backed Houthi militia.

The report said the talks were being facilitated by Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who held talks with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed in Riyadh last month.

Interestingly, not only did a Saudi source deny the story, but neither the Iranian and Iraqi governments provided the FT with a comment.

The report comes as major countries – China, Russia, France, Britain, Germany – engaged with Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal have agreed to accelerate work on issues, including which sanctions on Tehran that the US would lift.

The nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, collapsed in 2018 when the US pulled out and then-president Donald Trump reimposed sanctions against Tehran.

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Saudi police catch seven quarantine violators in Eastern Province

Saudi police catch seven quarantine violators in Eastern Province
Saudi police arrested seven people for violating isolation and quarantine instructions. (SPA)
Updated 18 April 2021

Saudi police catch seven quarantine violators in Eastern Province

Saudi police catch seven quarantine violators in Eastern Province
  • Health Ministry reports 948 new cases, 775 recoveries, 9 deaths

JEDDAH: Eastern Province police on Saturday arrested seven people for violating isolation and quarantine instructions, after they were confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.

Regional police spokesman Lt. Col. Mohammed bin Shar Al-Shehri said they had been caught in Dammam, Abqaiq, Al-Ahsa and Alkhobar and that all preliminary legal procedures had been taken against them for their cases to be referred to Public Prosecution.
People who violate quarantine procedures in Saudi Arabia are fined up to SR200,000 ($53,333), jailed for up to two years or both.
If the violation is repeated, the penalty imposed from the previous incident is doubled.
COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise in Saudi Arabia, with 948 new infections reported on Saturday to bring the total to 404,054.
The country has 9,449 active cases and 1,018 of them are in critical condition.

FASTFACT

People who violate quarantine procedures in Saudi Arabia are fined up to SR200,000 ($53,333), jailed for up to two years or both. If the violation is repeated, the penalty imposed from the previous incident is doubled.

Riyadh reported the highest number of cases with 419, followed by Makkah with 210 and the Eastern Province with 133. Three regions reported cases in the single digits: Najran with nine, Baha with eight and Jouf with seven cases.
There were 775 new recoveries, taking this total to 387,795, and a further nine deaths due to COVID-19 complications. The death toll is 6,810.
Saudi Arabia has administered more than 6.9 million COVID-19 vaccine doses so far. Approximately 20 percent of the Kingdom’s population has now received at least one jab.
There were 51,126 PCR tests carried out in the past 24 hours, raising the total number conducted in the Kingdom to more than 16.12 million.


Dozens of world’s finest carpets cover floor of Prophet’s Chamber in Madinah

Dozens of world’s finest carpets cover floor of Prophet’s Chamber in Madinah
Visitors were allowed to enter the chamber in groups. All carpets were disinfected after every group. (SPA)
Updated 18 April 2021

Dozens of world’s finest carpets cover floor of Prophet’s Chamber in Madinah

Dozens of world’s finest carpets cover floor of Prophet’s Chamber in Madinah
  • More than 23,000 liters of eco-friendly disinfectants have been used for sanitizing carpets at the Prophet’s Mosque and the Bab Al-Salam corridor over the past few months
  • The channel reported that every carpet was fitted with an electronic chip containing data

JEDDAH: Dozens of the world’s finest carpets cover the floor of Rawdah Al-Sharifah (the Prophet’s Chamber) at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, as part of the Saudi government’s care for the Two Holy Mosques.
There are 50 carpets in the chamber and all are crafted from top-quality materials and woven to the highest standards.
Bandar Al-Husseini is head of the carpet department at the Services Affairs Administration of the General Presidency of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque. He said that the carpets had scheduled sweeping and cleaning programs that were carried out on a daily basis.
“In case a carpet is damaged it is immediately removed and replaced with another carpet,” he said. “The carpets are also subject to disinfection and sanitization processes around the clock.”
He told the Al-Ekhbariya channel that visitors were allowed to enter the chamber in groups, adding that all carpets were disinfected and sanitized after every group.


The channel reported that every carpet was fitted with an electronic chip containing data.

HIGHLIGHT

There are 50 carpets in the chamber and all are crafted from top-quality materials and woven to the highest standards.

“These chips can give information about a certain carpet since it was made and information about the cleansing history of the carpet and its future cleaning schedule,” Al-Ekhbariya reported.
More than 23,000 liters of eco-friendly disinfectants have been used for sanitizing carpets at the Prophet’s Mosque and the Bab Al-Salam corridor over the past few months.
According to the Saudi Press Agency, this step is part of precautionary measures taken to ensure the safety of worshippers and visitors during the coronavirus pandemic.
It also said that fragrances were used more than 7,743 times to perfume the mosque during the same period.

Mosque committees have been changing 450 carpets, and replacing the ones used in the Prophet’s Chamber every 10 days.

The mosque has also been applying preventive measures by distancing people, using marks on the carpets to avoid congestion.


Saudi charity platform receives SR260 million in donations in 24 hours

Saudi charity platform receives SR260 million in donations in 24 hours
Ehsan is designed to be easily accessible to all of Saudi Arabia’s residents, allowing them to donate to causes such as renovating and furnishing the homes of the needy, giving food baskets to families, providing care for the elderly. (SPA)
Updated 18 April 2021

Saudi charity platform receives SR260 million in donations in 24 hours

Saudi charity platform receives SR260 million in donations in 24 hours
  • Ehsan acts as a safe and legal way of donating money to worthy causes, with people putting their money into trusted hands

JEDDAH: Charity platform Ehsan has received SR260 million (($69.3 million) in donations in the first 24 hours of its launch.

King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, philanthropists and companies are among those supporting Saudi Arabia’s latest national charity campaign.
Among the largest donations received are: SR40 million from Waqf Sulaiman Al-Rajhi; SR25 million from the late Sheikh Mohammed Abdulaziz Al-Rajhi’s charities Nama and Ataa; SR15 million from Saudi Aramco; SR10 million from Saudi Telecom Co.; SR7 million from Al-Rajhi Bank, and SR5 million each from Saudi Basic Industries Corp. and Saudi National Bank.
The donations, which continue to be made, will benefit hundreds of thousands of people.
Ehsan is designed to be easily accessible to all of the Kingdom’s residents, allowing them to donate to causes such as renovating and furnishing the homes of the needy, giving food baskets to families, providing care for the elderly, helping dialysis patients, and housing orphans.
Each cause has a set limit and users can select which area to donate to and follow the progress of their contributions.
Ehsan has also integrated other charities’ services into its systems: Furijat, an Interior Ministry platform to help prisoners convicted of financial crimes, and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center.
It also allows users to pay Zakat, a form of almsgiving treated as a religious obligation or tax that covers immediate needs such as food, water, shelter and medicine for those in need.

FASTFACTS

Among the largest donations received are:

SR40m Waqf Sulaiman Al-Rajhi

SR25m Nama and Ataa charities

SR15m Saudi Aramco

SR10m Saudi Telecom Co.

Ehsan CEO Abdulaziz Al-Hammadi told the Al-Ekhbariya news channel that the campaign’s initial results had been exceptional, demonstrating the extent of giving from members of the community as well as their social solidarity.
“More than 2 million visited the site in the first four hours of the launch of the website, with more than SR70 million donated by private citizens alone so far,” said Al-Hammadi. “Through the platform, more than 500,000 people have promptly benefitted from the donations and more than 300 causes have reached their goals.”
Ehsan acts as a safe and legal way of donating money to worthy causes, with people putting their money into trusted hands.
Jameel G., a 67-year-old retired businessman, has traveled to a number of East Asian countries during the past four decades and made strong bonds and connections in a number of Muslim provinces and regions.
He said that, through this network, acquaintances would ask for help to build water wells or mosques in poor communities.
Over time, and amid less frequent traveling, he observed that construction prices were increasing and so were the funding demands. Also, the final results of the projects were not what were initially agreed on.
“Though most of my contacts are good and trustworthy people, it’s the third parties that I found to be making these demands and something was off,” he told Arab News. “The moment I found (out) that the money I was sending was swindled was when two mosques were being built at the same time and the pictures that I received were one of the same, same surroundings, same white-washed exterior and details. This incident happened 10 years ago and that was the last time I did any kind of philanthropic work.
“As I’m not very tech-savvy, I’ve requested the help of my daughter to show me how I can use the Ehsan platform to donate and I’ve also encouraged many of those I know who would like to donate money to go through the system. Too many Saudis have lost money with the aim for it to go to a good cause. It isn’t right. It’s not the Muslim way. Ehsan relieves us from that burden.”
Ehsan was launched on Friday by the Saudi Authority for Data and Artificial Intelligence (SDAIA).
The platform aims to promote the values of charitable work in Saudi society by encouraging donations and developing the nonprofit sector, increasing its efficiency and reliability, and contributing to enhancing the reliability and transparency of charitable and development activities.

SDAIA president, Abdullah Al-Ghamdi, said Saudi Arabia had been a pioneer in the charity field since the nation was founded by King Abdul Aziz.

“The Ehsan platform was established to help donations reach their beneficiaries easily, conveniently and promptly,” he added. “It is considered the latest advanced technological initiative, with the highest professional standards that supports and organizes charitable work in the Kingdom.”


Saudi expats’ Ramadan agony as loved ones pray for end to flight curbs

Saudi expats’ Ramadan agony as loved ones pray for end to flight curbs
International flights suspended due to coronavirus travel restrictions will resume on May 17, Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority GACA said in a circular. (AFP/File)
Updated 18 April 2021

Saudi expats’ Ramadan agony as loved ones pray for end to flight curbs

Saudi expats’ Ramadan agony as loved ones pray for end to flight curbs
  • International flights suspended due to coronavirus travel restrictions will resume on May 17, Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority GACA said in a circular

RIYADH: While most families look forward to gatherings around the iftar table during the holy month of Ramadan, many expatriates in the Kingdom face an agonizing wait on relatives stranded in their homelands by flight suspensions.
Every Ramadan, with sunset nearing, families sit together during iftar to break their dawn-to-dusk fast, giving everyone a chance to catch up during the month-long festivity culminating in Eid Al-Fitr.
However, many expats are anxiously watching airline schedules as countries ease travel curbs, opening the way for family reunions.
International flights suspended due to coronavirus travel restrictions will resume on May 17, Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority GACA said in a circular.
Anwar Pasha Ansari, an Indian expatriate working in Jeddah, told Arab News that his daughter Heba Anwar is stranded in India.
“No father and mother should go through this agony,” he said.
Ansari said that his daughter left Jeddah to appear for her bachelor’s final exam in New Delhi, hoping to rejoin her family to celebrate Eid last year.
“But perhaps destiny was preparing another fate,” he said.
Ansari said that travel bans “brought the curtain down for all parents like us whose children were held up in India.”
He added: “To add insult to injury, all students were asked to vacate their hostel and make their own living arrangements, which was a nightmare for parents working overseas.”

HIGHLIGHT

Every Ramadan, with sunset nearing, families sit together during iftar to break their dawn-to-dusk fast, giving everyone a chance to catch up during the month-long festivity culminating in Eid Al-Fitr.

With no end to travel restrictions in sight, Ansari’s daughter planned to travel to Saudi Arabia via the UAE after spending 14 days in Dubai.
Ansari said that when his daughter arrived in Dubai in January, they were elated at the prospect of reuniting with her.
But with only three days left of her quarantine, a temporary traveling restriction from Dubai to Saudi Arabia came into force and all hope was gone.
“Heba spent a substantial time hoping against hope that flights would be resumed and checking any news pertaining to flight resumption to Saudi Arabia,” said Anwar.
“She was only a couple of hours away from us.”
Finally, after all options were exhausted, Heba was forced to return to India, bravely telling her parents: “Papa and mummy, stay well, this phase will pass, too.”
Ansari’s story will be familiar to thousands separated from their children as the coronavirus pandemic challenges everyone’s patience, endurance and capacity to endure the hardships of separation.
Technology and video apps help, but are not enough to bridge the gap as families face even more time apart.
Raafat Aoun, a Lebanese expat working in the Kingdom, told Arab News: “The closure of flights has affected many expat families. My brother-in-law had to travel to Beirut to attend to an emergency. Now he finds himself in a very difficult situation as he is stuck there, and his wife and four young children are all alone in Jeddah.”
Aoun said that his brother-in-law had been stranded for more than three months.
“I am supporting them and extending them all the help I can. But this festive season is becoming very difficult for me, too. I hope and pray flights resume soon so that my brother-in-law can return to his family.”
Pakistani expatriate Syed Faiz Ahmad said that two of his relatives were stranded after traveling to Pakistan.
“One went to help his ailing father, leaving his family behind in Riyadh. But he got stuck. His wife and two children are all alone here and are desperately waiting for him to return, especially during this month of Ramadan.”