In a national education test, at a school in the eastern province, students were asked: In your opinion, how can the national dialogue in Saudi Arabia succeed and strengthen links between regions across the country?
It is worth mentioning that half the class, 20 students, did not understand what the national dialogue was. One even wondered if it was related to the national anthem. Five students did not answer. I will therefore restrict my analysis to the answers provided by the remaining 15.
Abdel Qader wrote that the national dialogue was restricted to “a meeting between the heads of tribes for dinner every Wednesday. The gathering takes place in the home of a different tribal leader.” On the other hand, Saleh Faira said “The dialogue will achieve its goals only if the winners of scientific and cultural competitions are awarded prizes and if centers are opened for talent students.” Hisham said the dialogue would succeed “if the citizens of Mecca, Medina, Riyadh, al Qassim and Dammam met to solve the problems of students, employees and Muslims.” As for Salem, he wrote that “the dialogue will increase links between the countries of the Kingdom and a ulema from one country will visit another to receive information; we will then become friends.”
The above answers were provided by students who had spent 12 years in Saudi schools and are about to continue their educational journey and join university. It seems a decade was not enough to teach them how to write in a clear and concise style. These students, aged 18 or above, have never read a newspaper or followed the updates on the most important political project currently underway in Saudi Arabia .
Only one student gave an answer fit for his age and level of education. He wrote, “Moderation is needed in the national dialogue for the events during the recent [International] Book Fair not to be repeated. Each speaker should be given total freedom to say their mind. The time has come to stop excluding individuals because they belong to this or that tribe. This will not build a cohesive country.”
Nodal Abu Nawas, who teaches national education, told Asharq al Awsat, “I was not surprised by the replies, given the level of my students. If this indicates anything, it is the separation between the youth of today and social institutions. It is important to discuss the sessions held by the Center for National Dialogue in class and to analyze its recommendations.”
While the students’ answers might illicit laughter, they are also cause for sadness and bitterness. Have educational institutions and universities played a role in the national dialogue project? Unfortunately, only one university, to the best of my knowledge, has invited the center’s director, or his deputy or any of the participants to meet with students and highlight the work undertaken by the center. At present, there are no newsletters or magazines in schools that discuss the center’s activities and encourage students to find out more about national concerns.
The King Abdullah Center for National Dialogue is a national project that requires additional support from civil and educational institutions. Simply put, this project seeks to invest in the generation of the future. Its first step is dialogue and its next step will be to achieve co-existence as part of a more important aspiration: the strengthening of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia .