JEDDAH: With an experience of more than 19 years in IT, coupled with a strong educational background in computing, Arwa Al-Aama’s goal is to participate in Saudi Arabia’s technological advancement. As vice mayor at Jeddah municipality’s IT department, she is the first woman to hold a leadership role in IT in a Saudi governmental agency.
Her work has resulted in the municipality winning 8 prestigious awards in IT. She also holds the position of vice mayor for women’s affairs, in which she pursues her second personal goal - empowering Saudi women. In this role, Al-Aama opened up new job opportunities to women in municipal services in the Kingdom and is responsible for improving the quality of municipal services provided to women.
Al-Aama is also a member of the executive committee for the Saudi National eGovernment Plan and the Saudi National Science and Technology Plan. Al-Aama spoke to Arab News about her views on the Kingdom’s development in the next few years.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
What changes will have a major impact on the lives of Saudi nationals within the next 20 years?
We have witnessed many changes over the past three to four years in this country. In the coming period, I expect more female leaders and decision makers to step forward. I also expect more focus on globalization by opening up investment possibilities to foreign investors in the Saudi market. I expect the next generation of women to be stronger and more independent.”
What do you think of current leadership roles in the Kingdom’s various organizations and what are the contributing factors?
We are expecting more educated people and PhD holders to return to the Kingdom, so the competition for the leadership role will be tough. In the past, such a competition hardly existed due to a lack of candidates with a PhD or Masters degree. I think the standards for choosing a leader will be much higher and developed. Leadership will not be exclusive to certain groups. For example, the appointment of Adel Fakeih as labor minister indicates a change in skills that are now expected of a leader. Fakeih came from the private sector and then he worked in the government sector. This is why he understands the needs of merchants, citizens and government employees.
What are the most difficult challenges that need to be met with in the Kingdom within the next 20 years?
I think the difficulty will lie in how to convince society about any new decision. For example, any changes affecting the role of women are always difficult to become accepted and implemented. Our experience in the municipality is a model story. We faced difficulties when all people refused our work in the municipality, but when we did a great job and won many awards, the male employees started to believe in the importance of our contribution. Today, about four departments called for the employment of women. All in all, women have to work as well as men within the framework of Islamic law.
Can you give an example of a creative project you would like to establish in the Kingdom?
I would like to change the communication management system. Each government sector has its own system with a high budget. Building such a system requires a lot of time and money. For example, we paid SR9 million and dedicated 18 months to implement this system. The government wastes billion of riyals and a lot of time on these management communication systems. I would like to set up a company that creates this system and distributes it to other sectors for free.
KSA in three words
What three words would you use to describe the Kingdom in the next 20 years and why?
I would describe Saudi Arabia as an Islamic lighthouse, a lighthouse for civilization and as the Kingdom of the Two Holy Mosques. I chose these descriptions because I want the Kingdom to guide people. I believe the Kingdom should be a beacon to other countries. Actually, we have Islamic rules and we implement some of them, but we don’t fully enjoy Islamic morals. For example, we want to deal with corruption and even get rid of it in consonance with Islamic rules. We should then also put an end to bad streets, and the marriage of underage girls and many other violations. Once we eliminate these, the Kingdom would be truly an Islamic and a lighthouse to civilization.
Responsibility of officials
What characteristics do you think are important for officials in the Kingdom and how would these characteristics contribute toward the Kingdom’s further development?
Enjoying the Islamic morals and implementing them is the most important characteristic that each leader should have. Characteristics that each leader should have include understanding people’s backgrounds, accepting others’ ethics, respecting people’s culture and knowing very well what a leader should be doing. Leaders should also have a great love for their country.
How can we improve on human rights in Saudi Arabia and what are your expectations in this field for the next 20 years?
In the next 20 years, Saudi nationals will make more progress in the human rights field. I would like to shift this responsibility to a ministry. Such an initiative would certainly change things. In the Kingdom, a large number of divorce cases are pending in court. Children’s rights are also ignored in most divorce cases. Marrying off little girls is also a violation of human rights, and these phenomena must be stopped. I expect much improvement in solving problems related to workers’ rights. Minister of Labor Adel Fakeih is working hard to ensure the rights of citizens and expatriates.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Kingdom today?
The Kingdom is too big and it has many different backgrounds and culture. The biggest challenge is to satisfy the society as a whole.
What are the most prominent economic activities in the Kingdom and what are neglected sectors that need to be developed?
The most active sectors in the Kingdom are food and textiles. In contrast, the most neglected sectors are health clubs for women. We need a ministry to allow investment opportunities in the health clubs and gym sectors. We also need to have permission to establish institutions and training centers. Unfortunately, many Saudi students return from abroad carrying certificates in rare fields that are still neglected in the Saudi market, so they can’t use their expertise. I would also like to create institutions to train Saudis for different careers and boost Saudization. Saudis would be happy to prepare themselves for a career in official institutions.
There is a huge demand for housing in the Kingdom because of the increasing young population. The government has allocated SR250 billion to housing. Do you believe the housing sector needs much attention from the government and private sector?
We need options for Saudi nationals to own houses. I think affordable housing projects will not satisfy all segments of society. For example, people with medium salaries will not accept a two-room house. I advise government organizations to benefit from the practice of Saudi Aramco, which provides loans to its staff. Employees must pay monthly fees. Also, women should be allowed to rent houses and sign contracts with the apartment owners. Unfortunately, many successful women, who are divorced or widowed, can’t rent a house, only because they don’t have a husband or ‘mahram’ (a male guardian). I think, widows and divorced women should be allowed to live in buildings meant for families.
Role of SMEs
There is a need to boost small business enterprises (SME) in the Kingdom, as it creates various jobs. What role do you see for SMEs in the Kingdom’s economic development?
The sector is considered to be very important as it promotes innovation. However, I feel an organization should lead the sector and it should organize SMEs’ activities and support them. For example, this organization could provide young people with loans, and offer training and support with the help of experienced businessmen.
Education has always been a priority of the Saudi government. What changes would you recommend for the education system to prepare Saudi youth for work in a knowledge-based economy?
Many skills are absent in our students, such as presentation skills, IT skills and communication skills, as well as the English language. Such skills have to be taught from the first day at school. In universities, we need to create fields that serve the needs of the labor market. We need public relations colleges, graphic design and many other fields that are really not taught in Saudi public universities at the moment. We should establish more vocational training institutions in the Kingdom. Youth in the US prefer these to universities. I think such institutions would receive many students.
How do you see Saudi women contributing to the workforce and the political arena in the future?
We need to make it easier for Saudi women to invest their money in the Kingdom. Now, most women keep their money in banks for no clear reason. I advise the Ministry of Commerce to initiate investigating this issue and start supporting women to invest. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah recently decided to allow women to participate in the Shoura Council and municipal elections. This will surely affect the lives of Saudi women. In addition, women are working in Saudi embassies abroad and in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I hope to see women as ministers.
Women’s future role
How do you see the future role of Saudi women?
I think women have to understand our society’s background and follow the Islamic restrictions. They should not cross our social and Islamic limits. I have seen many businesswomen and leaders not respecting the Islamic and social rules. Women have to respect the work environment and the audience they are targeting while they represent the Kingdom.
What measures and standards are yet to be applied in Saudi media and what are your expectations?
Facebook and Twitter’s main aim is to open a discussion between people without standards. At the same time, official pages belonging to government organizations should be restricted with certain rules, so the people cannot create rumors and post them. During the Jeddah flood in 2009, our Facebook page was buzzing with rumors from people. The IT team refused to close the page, so we started observing the page 24 hours a day, updating it and making sure that it was free of rumors. Identity theft issues should be solved to ensure the rights of government offices.
I advise social media organizations to ask for an identity certificate to make sure that no fake pages are opened. I expect the social media phenomenon to continue as when people get the freedom to speak and deliver their voice, they will never ignore this media again.
What impact will social media have on change in the Kingdom?
People are communicating through social media to launch campaigns, help poor people and call for their needs. For example, in Ramadan, my daughter and some of her friends organize meals for the poor through social media. I believe that social media helps to empower the new generation.
What impact has the social media had on the Kingdom’s traditional media?
I believe that social media will never kill traditional media. Social media has many advantages such as interactivity with readers. Traditional media can show pictures in different sizes, whereas social media have no space for them.”
Learning from past
What main mistakes have been repeated in the Kingdom over the past 10 years? How could we eliminate these to help the Kingdom develop?
The flood catastrophe was a big mistake and I wish it will not be repeated. Another mistake that I would like to avoid is in the government purchase system. This system allows for big mistakes that may lead to catastrophes. A unified system that lists corruption and assembles a blacklist could ensure that such mistakes would never be repeated. Some Umrah pilgrims also cause issues when they come to the Kingdom and stay forever without an iqama (resident permit). We don’t have a system to monitor illegal expatriate workers.
What should leaders in government and private sectors do to ensure the Kingdom’s growth and sustainable development?
I wish that our leaders would learn from the experiences of others, see best practices in the world and plan ahead for the coming years. Their plans should match with the needs of the country and its various organizations.
Message to youth
With youth making up the majority of the Saudi population, what message would you want to give them and what would you say to the rest of the population?
I am very proud of our young people. They are very ambitious. I want to highlight that our youth need to be proud of their country, their language, and their religion. I also want to say that older generations should be proud of the king and the country. source:arabnews.com