4 Reflections from the Inside Out: Saudi Arabia

March 2016, by So-Young Kang

In February, I had the privilege of being invited to visit one of the most mysterious places in the world – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – with a group of World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders (YGL). What I experienced was nothing short of breathtaking and meaningful on many different dimensions. Here are just a few of my reflections.

1. Explore from position of humility.

“Start and end with a heart of gratitude and respect.” – One of Awaken Group’s T11 Principles

Whenever exploring and visiting a new place, a new culture or a new people group, it’s sometimes challenging to remove our own biases – be it cultural, religious, political, social or economic. However, I believe it’s important to at least have the consciousness of personal bias and the intention to learn with an open mind and heart. I am not blind and deaf. I read the news media pushed out to me. And I chose to keep my heart and mind open to listen and learn about a country I knew very little about and hear the stories of those who are proud to call this Kingdom their home.

Source: YGL Journey group hosted by Saudi YGLs Loulwa Bakr, Fahd Al Rasheed, Muna Abu, Asma Siddiki, Sofana Dahlan, and Khali AlKhudairin; taken in Historic Quarters of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

2. Things are not always as they seem.

We are bombarded by news of women’s issues and the suppression of the rights of women. One of the biggest topics of discussion was around why women are now allowed to drive. These are issues that are being discussed and debated from within as well as outside the country. While there are real challenges being faced to empower women, there is also a concerted effort to create opportunities for women and equalize things. We visited GloWork by fellow YGL Khalid AlKudair whose company is focused on creating ‘glowing careers for women.’

Source: At Glowork office with Founder, Fellow YGL Khalid AlKudair in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

We spent hours meeting with women entrepreneurs and advocates who are creating a new norm within the country and breaking traditional barriers by helming significant positions of influence within government, business, and the social sectors. Do I believe the journey is over? I don’t think the journey ever ends and I believe there are many from within who have dedicated their lives to continuing the journey of equality and empowerment for all. I was inspired hearing some of their stories.

3. There is more than one model of change.

Is it possible that there is more than one way to achieve an outcome? While we cognitively would agree, the truth is that we often ‘judge’ based on our own models and paradigms. Coming from the US, which is a more direct culture, we often address issues head-on by talking about it, debating it, and pounding our fists as hard as we can. This may work in the US where sometimes the loudest voice wins. But other cultures, such as in Saudi Arabia, have different cultural norms of how things get done. Perhaps it’s by speaking softly and building a quiet coalition that real change will take place. What I believe is critical is to start dialogues with defining what progress is and how success is defined. I suspect that many conflicts and disagreements stem from different definitions.

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Source: Closed dialogues with His Royal Highness Prince Sultan Bin Salman, 3rd son of King Salman (present King), President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. First member of the royal family to be an astronaut and first Arab and Mulsim to fly to outer space. Leading the challenge of growing the tourism sector for the country.

4. Progress is progress. It doesn’t mean that things are perfect.

Hearing from the likes of the CEO and Chairman of Aramco, the largest oil company in the world, and HRH Prince Saud al Salman, fellow YGLs Fahd Al Rasheed, CEO of KAEC, and Loulwa Bakar, a female film maker who studies in New York, an artist who creates art based on her Muslim faith, a woman who was willing to be jailed for her radical views and a woman who moved back to Saudi Arabia for a better professional career, I see a nation that is going through its own internal transformation journey. It’s a nation where people are full of hope and have dreams for a better tomorrow. It’s full of complex, deep-rooted challenges with differing views on how things should be done…strangely not unlike my own country. The issues are different.

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Source: With students at the international school in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), a new $100 billion mega city boasting the largest and most strategically appealing port in the region led by fellow YGL Fahd Al Rasheed

Perhaps I am an optimist. I see progress and am a believer in fanning sparks of progress to make it grow, rather than putting them out with negativity because the fire is not big enough. Change starts with sparks. Let’s all be sparks of positive change in all of our respective countries.

A special and warm shokran to our amazing hosts and friends from Saudi Arabia. Thank you for a truly once-in-a-lifetime adventure and showing us a bit of your home, hearts, and culture.

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