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Q & A with the UN’s Thoraya Obaid | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund the first Saudi Arabian to head a United Nations agency Takes a break at the Jeddah Economic Forum to speak with Asharq Al-Awsat about the Major challenges facing the Saudi Economy today.

(Q) From a professional viewpoint, can you suggest a program that caters to the Saudi woman’s pursuit in infiltrating the labor market?

(A) There no single ideal program through which women can work and participate in the current Saudi economic leap. Every woman and every society establishes their own program, and this program depends on the existing economy in the country, and what women want from that particular economy.

(Q) How do you assess the huge changes taking place in the Saudi society, which are for the benefit of Saudi women?

(A) When I read the newspapers during my visits to Saudi Arabia, I see the many positive changes witnessed by Saudi women. Ten years ago, for instance, we did not have as many working in the media industry, Saudi women have been able to learn, get educated, and formulate their own ideas and opinions, and now they have their own lives. If this indicates anything, it indicates a promising awakening of women.

(Q) As a member of the international trade commission, what, in your opinion, are the most important problems obstructing the development of the Saudi economy?

(A) One of the most important problems of which the Saudi economy suffers is the lack of diversity of qualifications or skills that Saudi woman could acquire. There are specialties that are closed to women, and we find women moving along one track, or into one melting pot. Part of the economic participation is that women acquire diversified skills and various specialties; therefore, the day will come when all specialties will be open to Saudi women. “Economy imposes itself,” i.e. it might impose some conditions on the society, and these conditions could require changes of some convictions. What is important is that we decide which convictions we want to change and which ones we do not want to change, because ultimately the decision is in our hands.

(Q) Do you think that the Saudi woman has reached a scientific and practical stage that allows her to become a consultant for major corporations or government departments?

(A) The last stage in the field of economy that women completed was crowned with a group of businesswomen becoming members of the boards of the chambers of commerce. This means that women are able to understand the economic field, and work in it. What is important is to continue and persevere, and this is how the Saudi woman would fulfill her aim.

(Q) In your address today, you mentioned three principal challenges that the Kingdom faces in its way to develop its economy. What is the most urgent of these challenges, and what, in your opinion, is the ideal way to face up it?

(A) The development and rehabilitation of youths, male and female, is a very important issue. From this starting point, I consider that part of the education ought to change so that it would introduce new skills compatible with the needs of the labor market. Unfortunately, what is currently happening is that a large number of our students graduating every year have skills that are not compatible with the jobs required on the market; therefore, we have to bring the education and its graduates closer to the jobs required on the market, whether in the government or private sectors. There is another aspect to which we ought to pay attention, namely the modernization of the education institutions, in the sense of developing the abilities of the teachers.

(Q) What roles do economic forums lead in developing the economies of the countries, and how do we direct the economic forums to serve the issues of development and of the population?

(A) The economic forums do not themselves invest; they merely are opportunities for the experts to meet and discuss various issues. The important thing in these forums is to come up with new ideas that could be applied. This is because the economy requires people, and not only equipment, and there is an important role and responsibility for businessmen and businesswomen to invest in education institutions in order to teach the youths of their countries new skills.

(Q) Do you, then, consider that one of the basic responsibilities of the economy is to support the development plans in the country?

(A) There is what is called the social responsibility of the economists. This is a very important principle that ought to emerge from forums, such as the Jeddah economic forum. There is recognition of the fact that work force is the basis of the world economic awakening; this appeared clearly in all the speeches delivered by today’s speakers at the forum. The problem is in the way the programs stemming from these forums are implemented, how we implement them and whether we follow them up and develop them or not. The crux of the matter is the quality of implementation.

(Q) As a Saudi woman, and as you occupy a senior post in the United Nations, do you consider that your country needs the United Nations, with all the interests of this international organizations, and what are the most prominent needs for whose satisfying Saudi Arabia requires the United Nations?

(A) In every country the United Nations is a guest that works there at the request of that country. Recently, we opened a bureau in Oman with the aim of serving the six Gulf countries. The bureau works with the officials of these countries to review the issues, which are vital for us, such as the issues of development, health, and education in every country; the aim is to link what is international to what is national. Saudi Arabia can choose the programs suitable for it. There is nothing called need, because Saudi Arabia can buy all the expertise it wants in the world. We serve Saudi Arabia because it is a member of the UN programs, and this membership entitles it to benefit from our services.