Now the driving ban for women has been lifted in Saudi Arabia, Venetia van Kuffeler meets Dr Thoraya Ahmed Obaid to discuss empowerment and the deep changes taking place in her country
Dr Thoraya Ahmed Obaid had a 35-year career at the United Nations (1975 to 2010), and was the first Saudi Arabian to head a UN agency. Dr Obaid is currently a member of the Board of the Centre for Strategic Development, a governmental think tank established to support the ongoing economic development of her country. Internationally, she is a member of the Kofi Annan Foundation, and the Transition Team of the newly appointed Director-General of the World Health Organisation. The recipient of many awards and honours, Dr Obaid is one of three Saudi women to receive the King Abdul Aziz Medal of the First Degree (the highest national recognition), and received the UN Population Award for her work to promote development and human rights through a culturally sensitive approach. Dr Obaid was the first Saudi Arabian woman to receive a government scholarship to a university in the US in 1963, and has been ranked among the 50 Most Powerful Arab Women by Forbes magazine. Throughout her career, Dr Obaid has championed the causes of women’s and young people’s health and empowerment.
- Can you tell me about your upbringing? Did it influence your choice of career?
My background is a simple one. I come from Saudi Arabian parents, both born in Medina, the Prophet’s city. My father was educated in the Medina mosque, so he had a religious education. It was this background that made him believe in empowering me through education to the highest possible level, and I received my PhD in English Literature as a major and Cultural Anthropology as a secondary area in 1974. He and my mother believed in the first word of the Quran which is an order to ‘READ.’ They felt it was their Muslim duty to educate their children, both boys and girls. And through education, each of us can make our own decisions about his/her life and accept the responsibility that comes with the decision. The support of my parents made me commit myself to education as far as possible, and to work and be productive. It allowed me to make decisions about my own private life. This is what empowerment is all about.
- There is talk of a new Saudi model built on economic and social development rather than relying on oil and religious clerics. Given your role at the Centre of Strategic Development, can you explain more about this? Is this an accurate picture?
The Centre for Strategic Development is a think tank established as a semi-autonomous institution to lead and inspire economic vision and development. Through a collaborative approach that unites comprehensive policy research, expert insights, and meaningful stakeholder engagement, the Centre for Strategic Development becomes a valuable knowledge resource to inform national economic strategy. I am a member of the Centre’s Board of Directors and thus have a role in guiding its development.
The Saudi government is embarking on this national programme to shift our economy from oil dependency to production-based economy as expressed by the national 2030 Vision. There are hopes that it materialises as the days go by and it is already a learning experience for the country and all of us citizens. No change is linear and we will face challenges, but hopefully, we can all cooperate to meet these challenges. The country has many well-educated and experienced people constituting rich human resources, which can move the country forward.
- UK-based think tank Chatham House recently said that the end of the Saudi women driving ban ‘reflects deep changes in society.’ What is your reaction to the government lifting the driving ban for women? Has there been a backlash?
Chatham House’s assessment is accurate. Changes are taking place not only in terms of driving for women but also the appointment of women at decision-making levels along with ensuring that services provided to women are freed from the Guardianship requirement which has no legal basis, as King Salman has ordered. Members of the highest level of the religious institution in the country have been consulted on the issue of lifting the ban on driving and they have endorsed it, as they explained, because it did not have a religious basis and that it is viewed as an economic necessity by the country’s leadership. There are many voices in social media that do not approve, but I believe the train has left its station and the route is open for change.
- It would be interesting to hear a bit about your various responsibilities championing the causes of women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia.
Youth – young women and men – are not only the leaders of tomorrow; rather it is all about what we do with them today so that they can be the leaders of today and tomorrow. Therefore, I value my present role as mentor of young professional women. I decided after retiring from the UN, in which I served for 35 years, to make mentoring young professional women as my social responsibility. I meet them over coffee and I listen to their hopes, dreams, concerns and challenges, and we discuss these issues in order for them to reach their own conclusions.
More formally, as a member of Majlis Ash-Shura (Consultative Council), I supported all recommendations that aimed to improve the situations of women or expanded the enjoyment of their rights. For example, as a member of the Human Rights Committee, along with the other members, both men and women, we developed a Personal Status Law/Family Law that would ensure the rights of all members of the family and of course women within that context. In addition, with another colleague, we developed a proposal to allow Saudi women married to a non-national to give her nationality to her children at the age of 18, with improvements of the existing system. It has not been discussed in Majlis Ash-Shura yet.
- What were the main issues that you dealt with during your four-year term as a member of the Majlis Ash-Shura?
Majlis Ash-Shura is a consultative body that provides recommendations to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques so that he can make the final decision. There are three specific functions of the members: 1) review the annual reports of the various ministries and comment on them and provide recommendations on how to improve their performance; 2) amend existing laws in order to meet the contemporary context; and 3) propose new laws where they do not exist. As a member of Shura, I had to be part of all the discussions and voting on recommendations as appropriate. Therefore, Majlis Ash-Shura discussed sectoral reports such as education, labour, environment, religious affairs, social development, youth, trade, etc. As a member – initially and later as the Chair of the Human Rights and Oversight Committee along with the members of the Committee – I reviewed reports from the Human Rights Commission, the General Audit Commission, the National Anti-Corruption Commission and other bodies.
- What do you think is Saudi Arabia’s greatest diplomatic challenge?
To me, the most pressing diplomatic challenge is for Saudi Arabia to deliver its own messages in a way that can be well understood in a global context. Our image is mostly negative especially as it relates to the stereotype of women as oppressed and disempowered. However, with all the progress that has taken place over the years, we are still faced with a solid wall of negative stereotyping. When you put the country in a historical perspective, that it is only 87-years-old, then one can appreciate that changes have taken place very rapidly. If you consider that girls’ formal education started in the late 1950s and compare that to the large number of Saudi women in higher education institutions in the country and other countries now, one would realise that change has really been very rapid; actually more rapid than the movement of change in Europe for example. There are women working in various areas and in both public and private sector. Yet the stereotype of the disempowered Saudi women continues in the media. The movement of progress for Saudi women is not put in its historical context, which is very critical in understanding change in any society.
- What does the future for Saudi Arabia hold under the leadership of King Salman and the new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?
It is natural for us, as in other countries, to hope that tomorrow is better than today. Therefore, we all hope for a transformation of the country towards being a productive society, where all talents are valued and all rights are respected and guaranteed. This is what the 2030 Vision is all about.
- What do you think has been the most memorable day or event of your career to date? (Good and/or bad).
There are many memorable days in my career, especially when I visited local communities in resource poor countries and saw women who were trying to make life out of very little. It makes you want to do whatever you can to help them improve their lives and become economically independent, living with dignity. Whenever I saw a woman starting to read, or delivering her child under good medical conditions, or earning enough to live with dignity and treated with respect without violence – all these remained memories with me that grounded me in the reality of my own life.
Outside of my career, I have two memorable events. The first when I received King Abdul Aziz Medal of the First Degree in 2013 from King Abdullah, may he rest in peace. What more would a citizen want from one’s country other than this highest honour! The second was when I held a ballot and voted in the municipality elections in 2015. It was a very special moment in my life – nothing matches that.