In the evening of Monday, Dhu AlQa’adah 1st, 1425AH, corresponding to December 13th, 2004, Islam Online network invited Jafar Mohammad Alshayeb, a Saudi writer and researcher, to speak about “National Dialogue in Saudi Arabia: Prospects and Results”.
Alshayeb is a businessman, a social activist, and obtained his Master degree in financial management from the United States. He is concerned with civil society and human rights issues, has several writings in this field, and sponsors Althulatha Cultural Forum in Qatif, Saudi Arabia.
Alshayeb stated that dialogue in Saudi Arabia is a newly developed thing due to the prevalence of a unilateral intellectual status for a long period of time which resulted in the occurrence of a huge social disunion. When the first national dialogue meetings started, there were many doubts around the possibility of national dialogue success. However, after four rounds of dialogue in various Saudi Provinces, the effects of these meetings reflected positively on the social and cultural reality in Saudi Arabia and because National Dialogue initiative was implemented officially by the state, there were response and reaction on different levels.
He, also, mentioned that national dialogue in Saudi Arabia is still at the beginning of a long road, but it has overcome many barriers of various religious, intellectual and sectarian approaches, besides that it must set suitable common grounds for dialogue between different components of the Saudi society.
He believes that what national dialogue had accomplished in a short time is greatly significant in spreading dialogue among those different components of the society. The most prominent obstacle is that dialogue is still limited to an elite group and did not prevail broadly among members of the society.
As for the outcomes, he mentioned that national dialogue has several positive results such as it was capable of equally gathering different Saudi sectarian and intellectual approaches together and that by itself is a great achievement.
In regard to the future of national dialogue, it depends on its capability of achieving its goals in spreading communications and dialogue concepts between different Saudi social segments as well as promoting trust and convergence among them.
Alshayeb has no doubt that the Saudi society went through many stages of intellectual development and that the economic factor had the biggest influence on social and intellectual life in the Kingdom. Since the seventies, economic growth contributed in the withdrawal of civil conditions within the Saudi society because of reliance on the revenue economy. It, also, contributed in the emergence of unilateral religious and intellectual orientations that had limited intellectual diversity in the society within the past thirty years.
Therefore, observers note that economic growth in Saudi Arabia had not been accompanied with political and social progress at the same pace which created a state of confusion and imbalance in cultural and intellectual scene. Nevertheless, intellectual elites in Saudi Arabia contributed in bridging these gaps through creating a developmental process, demanding reforming many systems and re-qualifying political and intellectual foundations in the Kingdom; especially in regard to broadening the extent of public participation and making initiatives to reform this imbalance. It seems that those initiatives are still in the beginning of the road but hopefully they will integrate with the official efforts of the state in order to find an intellectual and social environment that coincides with changes which the Saudi society are going through.
As for the Fourth National Meeting for Intellectual Dialogue which was held in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia under the title “Youth Issues; Reality and Anticipations” in December 6th and 8th, 2004, Alshayeb stated that this meeting was dedicated to issues related to youth in Saudi Arabia who represent more than 65% of the total Saudi population. That meeting was preceded by several workshops for these young people which were carried out in different Saudi cities and in which 650 young male and female participated. Those youth discussed four topics that are important to them which are education, work, culture and society, and citizenship.
When the fourth meeting was held, sixty of young men and women were invited to it from those who had participated in the workshops, besides forty participants of intellectuals, academics, businessmen and scholars. All of them discussed the above mentioned topics as well as issues related to them, and suggested a set of recommendations for each topic. Representatives of some official organizations that are concerned with youth issues, also, participated in this meeting as observers to be directly acquainted over the discussed topics.
Alshayeb believes that this experience was successful in terms of dialogue, frankness and openness; however, many hope that the suggested recommendations are applied in order to turn into practical programs that address the current issues.
He confirmed that the dominion of certain religious or intellectual trend in any society would alienate the other components of the society and deprive them from interacting with its issues and public affairs. This situation creates a defect in the society’s effectiveness and ability in confronting difficulties and changes. As for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that situation was prevalent for a long time, then, it found that such a situation caused problems and social obstacles which deprived the society from communication and making progress. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is currently concerned with national dialogue, culture of tolerance, reinforcing national allegiance, communication between different social components and respecting sectarian diversity.
Through several national dialogue meetings, it was obvious that there are still extreme religious trends that refuse dialogue principle and persist on their previous stands towards other different trends and orientations. Consequently, that stand negatively affects the national dialogue march or social integration projects unless there are clear and firm initiatives seek addressing those extreme positions and limit their influence on the society. However, addressing this issue requires tremendous efforts and a long time to create social balance and admit diversity in the Saudi society because unilateral orientations were the dominants for a long time, and caused an enormous cultural changes in the society towards extremism.
In regard to women wearing veil “hijab” in Saudi Arabia, Alshayeb mentioned that it is still an official obligation on Saudi and non-Saudi women in public places, and the law punishes violators. On the other hand, wearing hijab is a social issue that is defined by customs and traditions within each society. As for inside the Kingdom, hijab’s constraints and ways of wearing it differ from a region to another. Furthermore, Alshayeb does not think that there are any foreign pressures on Saudi Arabia in regard to wearing hijab obligation.
As for the objectives of national dialogue draft, he said that they are briefed in promoting culture of dialogue in the Saudi society. He believes that if this objective was adopted, national dialogue draft would achieve a lot in this field.
However, many think that this objective is less than what should be pursued and hope that recommendations which are suggested in national dialogue meetings are implemented in order to address the current issues and problems. Nevertheless, Alshayeb believes that most of those recommendations may not be achievable and applicable, and they just represent hopes and anticipations of the participants in those meetings.
Certainly, these meetings contribute in reducing social tension as well as promoting understanding between various elites in the society, and this is what the Saudi society used to lack for many years. National dialogue meetings could reduce tension and extremism, and be a natural and acceptable means for containing different extremist trends. Unfortunately, those trends persisted on using violence to impose their beliefs and opinions on the Saudi society.
The spread of dialogue culture through those frequent meetings contributed in creating positive bilateral relations as well as correcting the prevalent stereotypes about each other. It, also, set proper common grounds for communications between diverse intellectual and religious elites in Saudi Arabia.
Dialogue is a civil value which must be promoted in any society, and Islam always urges Muslims to respect dialogue principles whether others parties agree or disagree with them. It is noted that dialogue clarifies the stand of others, and makes extreme and strict groups review their previous positions which were based on a set of fallacies.
As for improving educational curricula in Saudi Arabia, Alshayeb stated that it is still the most debatable issue because it is based on a certain understanding; especially in religious curricula which are severely stringent and detailed. Long time ago, some changes were carried out on those curricula but they were slight and limited, and did not keep pace with changes and developments.
In the last national dialogue meeting, educational curricula issue was one of the major topics that were discussed. Some indicated that those curricula are so detailed and frequent, besides they depend on memorizing and do not go along with current developments. Moreover, a set of recommendations that suggests developing curricula, merging some subjects together to reduce their number and comprehending practical fields as well as informational technology.
However, there are strong reservations by many religious authorities over reviewing and comprehensively reforming educational curricula. They refuse making changes and even if they did, changes are too slight and limited. It is hoped from Saudi intellectual leaders to study this issue and make pressures on those authorities in order to accomplish the required reform.
The United Stated claims that it encourages reform in the Gulf region including education, but it actually concentrates on what serves its economic and strategic interests. However, the hostile perspective must not control our intellectual dialogue with other parties, and we must deal positively with the coming changes which require more awareness of these transformations and the ability of dealing with them.
He mentioned that it is necessary to make women more involved in public affairs and hold the responsibility of their public participation in order to make them capable of confronting the outside pressures and interacting with transformation requirements in a competent and a reliable way.
Alshayeb said that sectarian pluralism was one of the main topics that was discussed since the beginning of National Dialogue initiative. Participants in these meetings had been chosen to represent different intellectual and sectarian trends existing in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, issues discussed in those meeting put this diversity into consideration. There are seven different Muslim sects in Saudi Arabia, and these national meetings offered them the opportunity to discuss common national issues.
The issue of sectarian pluralism was raised several times in those meetings which concluded to various recommendations that encourage accepting diversity and national unity. The issue of reviewing educational curricula was raised again in the last meeting which resulted with recommending addressing sectarian issues through educational materials and programs. Therefore, the Ministry of Education adopted a significant program entitled “Call for Tolerance”. It, also, resulted with promoting national allegiance through criminalizing who ever assault, attack or deprive citizens from their rights because of their regional or sectarian affiliation.