Laura Bashraheel - Saudi Gazette - January 19, 2013
JEDDAH – Thoraya Obaid is the perfect example of a woman who has led by example. Sure of her convictions, Obaid’s 35 years of work in the UN has prepared her for yet another challenging role in today’s world.
One of the 30 women appointed to the Shoura Council by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, Obaid brings a personal dynamism to her new role.
It is her long experience in the United Nations that puts her in a position to support communities and to work with people — especially women and youth — to achieve social justice. It is their concerns that are paramount to her, and she believes that the task at hand is achievable — if all contribute.
In her pathbreaking effort for Saudi women, she became the first UN under-secretary-general to be chosen through a transparent interviewing process and not just as a “political appointee,” and during her years at the UN, she was instrumental in supporting governments and civil society organizations and in providing various development programs for women and youth — the two issues closest to her heart.
King Abdullah, then Crown Prince, nominated her for the key post, as Executive Director, for the UN Population Fund, and it is his visionary push for reforms that has led to this gradual change in societal roles.
Obaid’s experiences are diverse based on her various roles in the UN, including providing support to development programs as well as humanitarian assistance to people affected by natural disasters, wars and conflicts.
These experiences have made her very insightful, not only about the importance of engaging communities in their own development process but also about the impact of wars on communities, especially women, children and the elderly.
She said, “Wars are hateful things,” and as a Saudi she is thankful to Allah that the Kingdom has been protected and prays that it will always be safe and peaceful.
“It makes you count your blessings, and realize how lucky we are in many ways.”
On how the new appointees would assist in enhancing the Shoura, Obaid said: “On issues that already exist and new issues to come, the perspective of women is integral to discussions. Whatever impacts women impacts men as well, being members of the same family. We should not view women’s issues in isolation from the main progress of society.
“We will not be able to succeed in endorsing recommendations that would ensure the rights of women and facilitate their lives, without the support of our brothers in the (Shoura) Council.”
Obaid is hoping to focus on social justice, which impacts all members of society.
“There are key issues such as the employment of young people, who constitute 60 percent of the population under the age of 30, and income for households headed by women. We need to have our brothers involved in discussions and the formulation of recommendations because we all form one unit of citizens of our country.”
On one’s role in the Shoura, Obaid said: “Hopefully we will be able to produce recommendations that are balanced and relevant and which fit within the context of our society and the directions of King Abdullah. Such recommendations can then be submitted to King Abdullah as the President of the Council of Ministers, and once they are approved, they will be ready for implementation.”
Apart from its main legislative role, the Shoura’s other role, according to Obaid, is to monitor the performance of governmental institutions.
“Ministers come to the Shoura Council to respond to questions by members whose role is to review implementation and suggest possible corrective measures.”
According to Obaid, it is very important to look into social issues, including women’s issues from a cultural point of view as this resonates with human rights agreements to which the Kingdom is a party.
Obaid said: “When Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, asked me what I would bring to UNPFA (United Nations Population Fund), I said I would bring the cultural perspective.
“Unless culture is taken into consideration in development, efforts cannot succeed. With difficult social issues, you have to understand the connection between what people believe and how they function and then try to bring the issues of human rights closer to the issues of culture.”
Responding to questions about her entry into the United Nations, she said, “It was during the UN’s first International Year of Women in 1975 that I entered the global body. I got the chance as a young professional, as a social affairs officer with a focus on women and development.
“It’s been a long voyage. I lived in three different countries from 1975 to 1998, namely, Lebanon, Iraq and then Jordan. Two of these countries were impacted by wars. I saw how wars destroy not only the infrastructures of the country and kill people but most importantly, they kill the spirit of a nation.”
“I gave birth to my second child during the bombing in Saida and so it was easy for me to understand the plight of women, especially the suffering of the Palestinian women living under occupation.
“When I was the Director of the Regional Office for Arab States at UNPFA, we produced a film, ‘Born at the Checkpoint’, where the sufferings of Palestinian women giving birth at Israeli checkpoints were recorded.
“She would die. The baby would die. Women would bleed, because they would be stopped at checkpoints while in labor.”
The film was shown by MBC’s Kalam Nawaim and used internationally. It was a cry for help to stop this form of violence against women.
The disturbing tragedies at checkpoints prompted UNFPA to move the maternal health services in areas close to villages so that women did not have to cross checkpoints.
“So wars do teach you how to be flexible, how to change programs and to meet emerging problems all the time. It is about survival and the protection of the life and health of innocent people. In the end people are the victims. In wars people pay and among the people it is specifically the women, the old and the children.”
“When I worked at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) from 1975 to 1998, I worked in the Arab region — in the Mashriq (region of Arab countries from the GCC countries to and including Egypt).
“My task was to work with national partners, both relevant governmental ministries and civil society organizations to support them as they develop their own programs for their women citizens, within their own national context. I learned about Arab society and its similarities and differences from visiting the cities and the rural areas.
“In 1978, for example, I introduced the participation of women in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which was providing support to the emerging new Oman in community development in villages. Its purpose was to enable communities to develop themselves with their own capacities. We also trained the early women members of the UAE Women Union in the skills of organizing and participating in meetings and conferences. Other programs included costing the household work of women and seeing how it could be taken into consideration in national budgets, as well as statistics that provide a clear picture of national populations and the overall regional view. So it was a combination of research, data collection and actual field activities.”
Another activity was to support communities affected by wars. “After the massacre of Palestinians in Tall Al-Zaatar refugee camp, we worked with Dar Atfal El-Sumud for children whose families were killed to establish a healthy home for the children.
“We supported federations of women — Palestinian, Iraqi, Jordanian, and Emirati to implement the programs that they themselves have in their work plans.
We had a large portfolio on women’s programs. In 1998, following an opening for a regional bureau for Arab states in New York, I got that position.”
It was at this stage that the new Saudi Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador Fawzi Shobhokshi, initiated the idea of nominating Obaid to the post of Executive Director of UNPFA that had become vacant.
“I was considering retiring and returning to my region to join my husband Dr. Mahmoud Saleh. However, Allah had another plan for me then as Allah has a different destiny for me now,” she quipped with a quick laugh on why she stayed on.
The post had opened up because the incumbent Dr. Nafis Sadik of Pakistan was retiring.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“It was then that Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, then the Crown Prince, in his own vision and wisdom, nominated me for the post. There were eight countries vying for this post, including Egypt. Finally we were five.”
Because there was so much political pressure, Secretary-General Kofi Annan put in place a transparent competitive selection process, the first ever in the United Nations for selection of under-secretary-generals. It became an official policy after that.
On the work of UNFPA, Obaid said it works with nationals to develop programs on population, including statistics, and a wide range of reproductive health programs, including maternal health, upon the request of governments themselves.
“Of course, this would mean we were dealing with laws, parliaments, governmental departments and civil society institutions in the field.
“The whole idea is that it is their agenda, their people and they know what’s best for them and they can do it.”
Regarding Saudi Gazette’s question as to whether such agencies are here in the Kingdom, Obaid said, “The UN works mostly in developing countries that are resource challenged. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UN works with governments that provide funding for their own programs. There is a UN office in Riyadh, with all the agencies in it. “The programs are national programs and we do not sit in New York and write them. It is all based on national development plans.”
Supporting women and youth tops Obaid’s agenda. “I believe what we invest in the youth now is what society will reap now and in the future.”
“There are many events and programs happening when it comes to youth but they need to be fine-tuned and strategic. “We have to look at the problems concerning youth, such as employment, income and the educational context and whether it’s effective to give them skills that allow them to compete in the market.”
She also said that there is a need to consider the attitudes of young people.
“Are they willing to work in unpopular sectors? This is the key. But, whenever I go to the malls and I see women working there selling women’s items, I tell them ‘bravo, bravo’ keep on working, do your job well and take care of yourselves.
“I know there are some weaknesses and they can be corrected as the Minister of Labor had said. But ensuring livelihood for women who support themselves or their families is essential. I think that this message of support is important to raise their morale and give them courage, Insha’Allah.
“We all know that Saudi Arabia is built by evolution — step by step and (we have) to be sure that the step is strong, then move on.
“However, young people are always impatient; they want things to happen yesterday, not today. It is part of being young.
“So how do you deal with the aspiration of our young people, those who do not come from wealthy families or who do not have any support? How do you work with them so that they understand the process they need to go through and that they are part of?
“We adults need to understand them and work with them to ensure they find their rightful place in the society. We, as a country, are blessed with what we have. At the same time it has created a sense of dependency but this is changing slowly as well.
“They see a different life and want it, but don’t have the means to get there. But at the same time they are not willing to take certain jobs. The government cannot employ everybody. It is important that the private sector fulfills its social responsibility. The challenge is with the private sector, which in spite of Saudization initiatives, still does not find that young Saudis are competent for the job and considers them costly as well.
“According to private sector reasoning, the salaries and entitlements of Saudis are higher than expatriates, and they don’t work as hard as they do. Also they cannot discipline Saudi nationals as they do expatriates.
“So from a commercial point of view it is better for companies to hire non-Saudis, if they consider only the margin of profit without consideration of the issue of developing national human resources and national capacities.
“But the new programs by the government in this direction should be an asset.
“I hope that the young Saudis will seize this challenge and change their mindset and I see many living examples now working in jobs they might not have taken a decade ago.
“Not everyone can be a manager or director. Some work at different jobs and levels. In every country there are jobs that need to be done and it is the people of the country who should carry this responsibility ultimately.
“I’m proud to see Saudis working in fast food chains or supermarkets, areas of work that would have never been considered as appropriate for nationals.
The right thing is to find ways to become independent and have one’s own income because it gives a sense of self-respect and personal dignity.
“It is not the kind of job you do, but the independence it brings with it and the human values associated with it that gives dignity. These are the values that young people should have.
“When brought back to the subject of the Shoura, she said it should listen to the people and understand what they want. This is our job,” she said.