Excerpted from Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making a Difference in the Arab World, by Nafeesa Syeed and Rahilla Zafar, published by and copyright Knowledge@Wharton, 2014.
Her Royal Highness Princess Adela Bint Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud: A Royal Advocate for Women in Saudi Arabia
The daughter of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Adela Bint Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud is a longtime advocate of women empowerment and rights, particularly vocal about combating domestic violence. She has used her position to be an active public speaker and role model in Saudi society, drawing attention to issues such as improving women's opportunities in business and training. Much of the progress for women's rights in Saudi society has been unknown to those outside of the Kingdom. In a rare interview, Al-Saud sheds light on societal shifts and new laws that have directly impacted women's opportunities in the workplace.
Al-Saud also discussed the impact of 9/11 on the Kingdom, and the importance of providing opportunities for youth. In light of her father's image as a quiet reformer in the Kingdom, she spoke about her father's leadership during a transformative period in the country's history and what she's learned from him.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: What are the most inspiring things that you took away from your parents?
Adela Bint Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud: My parents are my role models. They have inspired me to be a dedicated person, to make a difference in my society, to balance work with family duties, and appreciate our values and traditions, all the while respecting other cultures and remaining open to them.
Knowledge@Wharton: What's been the reaction when you bring up such issues that Saudis don't discuss so openly, such as domestic violence?
Al Saud: Domestic violence is a taboo subject in all societies. Nonetheless, it is also one that is condemned by all of them. My peers understand that sensitive matters such as these need to be supported by people who are strong believers in the cause. However, discussing domestic violence is accepted by society because this program is semi-governmental and was formed by a Royal Decree.
Knowledge@Wharton: You are in a unique position to be a role model for women in the Muslim world. Do you feel that being vocal about such issues can have an impact on women's rights?
Al Saud: I hope my support to combat domestic violence will influence Muslim women to stand up against any act considered to be disrespectful or demeaning to their humanity, and to know that Islam has given them the right to live in dignity and in equality to men.
Knowledge@Wharton: When looking at countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan that have some of the worst conditions for women in the world, do you think it's possible for Saudi women to provide support and if so, in what ways?
Al Saud: Saudi and Muslim women everywhere can support each other by sharing knowledge and exchanging experiences in addition to learning about best practices to overcome challenges.
Knowledge@Wharton: For Saudi women, are leadership roles in the workforce limited by society and glass ceilings, or do many women prefer not to challenge laws and cultural norms that may limit what they can do?
Al Saud: I believe that more Saudi women are now aware of the importance of their contribution to the work force. Women should not be forced to work if they choose not to and prefer staying home to care for their children, which I consider to be a big job in itself. On the other hand, women who are qualified and wish to pursue a career should be entitled to do so. To that end, therefore, the Ministry of Labor has changed many of the laws that limit employment of women, and the Ministry of Commerce has revised laws to encourage women to start their own businesses.
Knowledge@Wharton: Many of the women I have spoken to from Saudi Arabia talked about how 9/11 had a major impact on Saudi society. From your observations, what has the impact been?
Al Saud: The tragic incident of 9/11 has affected the whole world, not only Saudi society. From my point of view, it proved to us that religion can be exploited to be both dangerous and destructive if taken to extremes, and, if manipulated, is capable of leading to fanaticism. For this reason, we push ourselves to take a balanced approach when dealing with ideological and social issues.
Knowledge@Wharton: One of the initiatives that's been greatly regarded in your father's reign has been providing scholarships so young men and women can pursue graduate education abroad. What are ways successful initiatives like this can continue to expand and evolve?
Al Saud: Constructive initiatives like providing scholarships to both young men and women will continue and evolve with the regular evaluation of their outcomes and assessment of their impact. It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia had offered scholarships on a smaller scale to men and women since the sixties and the results were very positive.
Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think initiatives such as Saudization provide opportunities for women as well? Generally what are things about it that work and what are areas where it could improve and be more effective in its goals?
Al Saud: Of course Saudization will provide more work opportunities to women. Saudi Arabia has about 9 million non-Saudi employees, mostly in the private sector. As a result, their income goes abroad and the local economy doesn't benefit from it. The positive side of Saudization is that it will provide jobs and reduce unemployment rates with regards to locals. It will also improve their skills and teach them to become more competent. [A potential] abuse of Saudization, however, is if an employer does not invest in the training of Saudi employees to enable them to reach high positions, or by the employees themselves by not working seriously to maintain their jobs as qualified staff. The private sector, on the other hand, carefully monitors the performance of their employees and as a result has become a highly competitive environment that motivates Saudi employees to perform to the best of their ability.
Knowledge@Wharton: Are there initiatives of your father's that you have been involved in?
Al Saud: The only one of my father's initiative I am involved in is The National Family Safety Program, which deals with domestic violence. Another two initiatives I am not involved in but have great admiration for are the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue and the King Abdullah Interfaith Dialogue Center.
Knowledge@Wharton: What are some things that you are most proud of in terms of his dedication to supporting women in Saudi society and your mother as well?
Al Saud: I'm most proud of the support he has shown to women by initiating the establishment of a program to combat domestic violence, as well as allowing women to be nominated to the Shura Council and elected to Municipality boards.
Knowledge@Wharton: Many women in the West judge Saudi society by the fact that women aren't driving, what do you have to say to that?
Al Saud: Women's driving is not the sole indicator of progress or development in societies. In many countries women can drive but face more challenges than Saudi women. Having equal rights for education, healthcare and job opportunities are priorities.
Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think there is more Saudi Arabia can do to help improve its image in regards to showing the opportunities it provides for women and the roles they play in society?
Al Saud: To help improve Saudi Arabia's image, it is important to pilot studies, conduct research and work on media approaches since these play an important role in transforming the perception of Saudi women's effective participation in society in different sectors such as education, health, non-profit organizations, social affairs, entrepreneurship, research, industry, culture and art.
Knowledge@Wharton: What are ways that you manage to stay socially aware and engaged with issues that women from all spectrums of society face?
Al Saud: Keeping in touch with colleagues and friends, and regularly attending various social events are ways that keep me aware of different issues in society, in addition to following news and programs in the media that deal with these issues.
Knowledge@Wharton: How has SAGIA (Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority) in particular been impactful in improving opportunities for women? What other organizations stand out to you in supporting women's opportunities in business and other sectors they typically didn't try to enter?
Al Saud: SAGIA, among other governmental and non-governmental organizations, has opened new opportunities to women by creating jobs for them, training them, exposing them to dealing with foreign companies, and giving them the chance to hold leading positions.
Knowledge@Wharton: Where do you see Saudi Arabia in five, 10 and 20 years from now in terms of women's roles and power in society?
Al Saud: Saudi women's role in society had developed a great deal in the last 10 years, and I feel that this will continue to grow to maximize the positive contribution of all members of society -- regardless of their gender -- to meet the developmental needs of our country.
Knowledge@Wharton: What inspired you to take on a more public role advocating for women's rights?
Al Saud: What inspires me is the dedication of men and women in my society, and their hard work to make a better future for our children.
Knowledge@Wharton: Were there particular examples in your upbringing and adult life that really inspired you?
Al Saud: No particular examples, only accumulative experience, respectful ties developed between myself and others who share my values and who believe that each member of society can make a difference in changing the negative circumstances that hinder the development of our country.
Knowledge@Wharton: Are there particular issues that you've spoken to your father about that either raised his awareness on an issue or prompted him to support and advocate for a certain change?
Al Saud: My father is a very good listener of any source not only of family members. However, he examines opposing points of views and weighs opinions carefully before giving his support to any particular issue.
Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the obstacles he's faced in terms of advocating for participation and independence?
Al Saud: Change is always confronted by resistance and obstacles. Therefore, preparing to face obstacles and planning for gradual phases of change will make the management and integration of change easier. My father does not make hasty decisions or resolutions; they are all carefully studied by concerned bodies and are well planned.