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2008 Winners

The Rawabi Holding Award prize-giving event for 2008 was held on 23rd January 2008 at the Institute of Directors. The prizes, for making a significant contribution to promoting Saudi-British relations, were awarded by the donor, Mr. Abdulaziz al Turki (see below for his speech).

They were given this year to Mrs. Caroline Montagu and Mr. Frank Gardner. Mr. Al Turki gave a speech entitled “A Perspective on the Saudi Economy: 2007 and Beyond”. Mrs. Montagu and Mr. Gardner talked about their work over many years in Saudi Arabia and both gave affectionate accounts of their experiences in the Kingdom.

The event was attended by about 150 people and included HE Abdullah al Shaghrood, Minister Plenipotentiary at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London.

Click here to read Mr. Abdulaziz al Turki’s Speech

Mrs. Caroline Montagu’s Speech

What have I seen over 25 years?

I would like to thank Shaikh Abdulaziz Turki and the Saudi British Society for this prize, for giving it to me and for this opportunity to pay my dues. Shaikh Abdulaziz is a great example of the active good will that exists between Saudi Arabia and the UK.

I would like to acknowledge some debts of gratitude. I have been going to Saudi Arabia for nearly 25 years. Without the help and good will of these people I could not have managed and certainly could not have worked there. My contribution to Saudi British relations is really intangible but probably has been continuity, recognising good people and good things in Saudi Arabia; that people work hard for their country, and that any developing country is fragile, despite in this case its great wealth.

My first acknowledgement is to the late and great Abdullah Dabbagh, Secretary General of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce & Industry in the 1980s, who gave me support and protection from my first visit onwards. He was a father of the nation and I hope is acknowledged as such for his breath of vision, hard work, wit and determination to expand the Kingdom’s business, investment and industry.

The early days in the 1980s saw ferociously determined technocrat deputy ministers working to develop the industrial base. I mention the heavenly duo Mubarak al-Khafrah, Deputy Minister of Industry, and Abdul-Rahman al-Zamil, Deputy Minister of Commerce. I was once privileged to hear Mubarak twist the arm of some undecided businessman into investing trillions into a petrochemicals joint venture. Abdul-Rahman was a joy to visit with his quick wit and JCB approach to red tape. Their hard work was one reason I stayed working with Saudi Arabia. I was then working as a business writer, writing on oil, banking, industrial and economic development, and persuading expatriates, especially in the Eastern Province, to allow large documents to fall off their photocopiers.

My second acknowledgement is to Sinclair Road, then director general of the now defunct Comet (Committee for Middle East Trade, a private/public pressure group). I spent years as a business writer, writing reports for him, the DTI and the European Union, for the EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) and most papers under the sun. The monthly EIU newsletter, the Saudi Arabia Monitor, became a good magazine and a reflector of Saudi private sector attitudes to the government. Here I thank Wahib bin Zagr, and not least for the mounds of caviar eaten in his house with his wife at tea time.

But my equal thanks go to my Saudis and expatriate friends, families like the Alirezas, Kanoos, Zamils. And among the expatriates all those I bored rigid asking questions and probably not understanding the answers. But I had a rule: I never used any information given me by an expatriate after 7.30 in the evening, though I squirreled it away on my computer at midnight.

There were lovely outings: sleeping in the desert outside Riyadh on those stone age sites in the moonlight with beady eyed expats picking up axe heads – and returning them, snorkelling on the 14 mile reef off Jeddah to see a world of such exquisite beauty by only turning the face 45 degrees. Swimming and sunbathing with friends in the private beaches by Jeddah creek. Seeing with Alan Munro and others a pickled dugong (large marine mammal) in Al-Khobar and its small daughter also pickled.

It was due to Comet too that I started meeting and thinking about women’s issues, apart from conversations with one or two long standing Saudi woman friends and my English friends who taught me all I know about Jeddah society. Louise Waters of Comet asked me to go with her to Saudi Arabia and talk to women. We did. I admired them a lot and that was the beginning.

Thanks go to Women in Business, Tara Culhane and Ahmed Suleyman for organizing the big Jeddah women’s conference in 2003; the momentum from then has if anything increased. There were some 600 women at it. I remember a senior woman academic saying with awe she never thought she’d see the day of a major women’s conference in the Intercon in Jeddah.

I’ve also had encouragement from the British Embassy, Riyadh, sometimes more, sometimes less. I am particularly grateful to Nadia Plumbly for contacts with women in the NGO movement in Riyadh and Jeddah in 2003, and to the consulate in Jeddah, particularly to Cecille Elbeleidi and Carma Elliot.

This is a brief acknowledgement of my gratitude to only a few of the many, many people who have helped me. My husband and family head the list. I have never worked full time on Saudi Arabia. Nor have I worked much on any other countries except Afghanistan which I cannot emphasise enough needs your care, commitment and energies.

I have seen so much change in Saudi Arabia over 25 years. I want to point out this modernization to you because it is headlong change in a period of 30 years in what must have been one of the most conservative countries on earth. Housing, housing and more housing, malls, more malls, more more malls; competent young Saudis educated in Saudi Arabia but in the private sector; see-saws in the oil price from $10/b to $100/b; development of capital markets, insurance, western financial instruments, changes in foreign investment access; physical infrastructure, manufacturing, oil facilities, roads, air transport, schools, universities, health, defence. The systemic infrastructure – bureaucracy, civil service – has not caught up. I’ve seen massive urban expansion, population growth, the mobile and the internet; and, very important, Saudi Arabia fully opened to world news and views.

Saudi domestic products are a now a source of pride; in the early 1980s they were embarrassingly provincial. I remember gratefully being given in Jeddah some men’s aftershave called the Voyages of Casanova which I gave to my sons. Then there were awacs buzzing round Riyadh like bees with their hives on top of them, and those huge refuelling B52s that took off from what seemed like the centre of Riyadh with every office window rattling and all talking drowned.

When I started working on women’s issues ten years ago, I tried to promote what Saudi women had been doing and act as a channel to make sure their work and their needs were known in the UK. Initially that came out of a report I wrote for the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) in 2000.

When I first started meeting women, they were hardly meeting each other across the Kingdom because it was hard for women to travel by themselves. Those in the Eastern Province did not know what their sisters were doing in Jeddah and those I met in Riyadh were low key. This has changed considerably. Women have more freedom that they had 10 years ago, but still absolutely nowhere near enough. At least now women have identity cards, can travel by themselves and stay in hotels by themselves.

My work I guess took off when I realised that the Saudi NGO sector was rapidly expanding; in 2003 I did some work for the British Council on women’s NGOs. These are extremely active, both the more traditional charitable societies and the new specialised NGOs like those for Down’s syndrome, physical disability, family therapy, congenital problems, training and, for instance, factories in downtown Riyadh (making surgical gowns and light bulbs). I tried to tell people in the UK that this flourishing sector existed in Saudi Arabia. People of course didn’t know and those who knew about Islam knew that charitable giving – zakat – is one of the five pillars of Islam, but they hadn’t put together this information with the social imperative of looking after the disadvantaged. There is more to be done to erode cousin marriage, reduce family violence of all sorts and to care for the mentally and physically disabled.

Two years later in 2005 the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) accepted that under the Global Opportunities Fund (GOF) Engaging With The Islamic World initiative charities were an important player in Saudi Arabia in their own right and in the development of that compendium phrase “civil society”. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy took this up; I and two others went across the axis Riyadh–Eastern Province–Jeddah and met and listened to the needs of men’s and women’s charities. This encouraged some GOF spending in Saudi Arabia.

This trip made me realise how much was going on. Particularly, one day in Riyadh when the charity from Buraida in the Nejdi heartland came to see me in the Intercon. Three women came in; my Arabic ran out; they said they didn’t mind men at all, collared the first man in the foyer they could find who could translate and, until the special translator came, this bemused heart specialist was translating for a charity that is pushing out the boundaries of activity: teaching girls about the perils of cousin marriage, teaching water conservation, teaching parenting, helping with disabled people in their homes, doing outreach to the villages, offering Islamic microfinance … and fending off the men who said they would like to come to the lectures.

This FCO report was another first but it shouldn’t have been, except that institutions like the FCO and the British Council do not have time to do this sort of work. Yet finding out what people are doing to improve the lives and lot of the people in their regions is important, both for a better knowledge of the country and to see where effective expertise can be offered.

All this led me to do a SOAS Masters Degree, and a dissertation on “civil society” on the charities and associations I had met on the Saudi axis (Jeddah-Riyadh-Eastern Province) a topic, believe it or not, with no references in the SOAS library in either Arabic or English. This has led to a new plan to go this February/March to some provinces in Saudi Arabia where some great NGO work is being done and to write on these initiatives.

The King’s programme is leading to major reforms that theoretically put women in the mainstream of society and the economy. A major question being asked is how to modernize, change and retain Muslim values. At a previous Saudi British Society meeting discussing Mona al-Monajjed’s new book, Saudi Women Speak, this was the key topic. Last autumn 2007 at a Middle East Association (MEA) conference four Saudi professional women stole the show, one in financial services, a senior radio commentator and two from the women’s section of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry. I was pleased to be asked by the MEA to ask them over. I was surprised that the conference delegates were surprised at their high quality. These were modern Saudi Muslim women.

With the need to keep the ulema on side to prevent greater fundamentalism, the Saudi government has a tough row to hoe. This leads to discussion of essential Islam versus current practice and recalls the Prophet’s community of Medinah in the seventh century AD where the Qur’an proclaimed a basic and fundamental equality between men and women; it is neither Islamic laws nor Shari’ah that prevents women’s emancipation; it is tradition and cultural additions.

So reform for women and for the country is inexorable but slow. Some 80% of the country is conservative; and many more educated women are conservative than liberal. But women need freedoms, respect and recognition; they need rights, reforms in family law, in the courts, in divorce, in recourse against family violence; they need to be seen and to take an equal place in Saudi society. They are tough, determined and will not stop.

I am pleased to have had this opportunity to recommend their issues to you and thank you for listening.

Past Events

Travels with Maridadi by Bizzie Frost

The talk, Travels with Maridadi took place on Thursday 25 April in which former long-time resident in Saudi Arabia, Bizzie Frost, shared her remarkable adventures travelling across the deserts and mountains of the Kingdom and its neighbours on a Harley Davidson with her husband.
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