Saudi Arabia: An inclusion case study in the making

Increasingly, the issue of women's participation in all levels of decision-making institutions such as legislatures, parliaments, governments, boardrooms, and C-suites is a matter of global concern.

There has never been a time in human history where the need for good governance is so high on the global agenda. Not so much for the sake of people empowerment, inclusion, and diversity, but more so for the sake of ethical behavior, transparency, accountability, and sustainability.

Increasingly, the issue of women's participation in all levels of decision-making institutions such as legislatures, parliaments, governments, boardrooms, and C-suites is a matter of global concern.

Countries around the world are coming to the stark realization that diversity inclusion - mainly women - is a key determinant for good governance because it provides a holistic perspective to decision-making.

In fact, the most efficient boards tend to be those whose members not only come from various backgrounds, ethnicities, and communities, but who also bring with them unique skill sets and competencies, nurtured by life experiences that only each member's individual exposure could bring about.

Simply put, diverse boards have the competitive advantage of being the authentic representatives of the societies they serve and, as such, the concerns of the people are placed high on the agenda of the decision-making table. Diverse boards are efficient and popular. They bring about genuine reform because they attend to real-time issues. In turn, their success gets them the respect and buy-in of the people - which promotes sustainability - and the cycle lives on.

The issue of women in the boardroom or in governmental legislatures and parliaments is a new concept in Saudi Arabia. It took a revolutionizing royal decree to expose Saudi society to the importance of women's inclusion at the highest levels of decision-making when King Abdullah announced he would include women in the two most powerful political institutions in the country: the Majlis Al Shura (parliament) and Majlis Al Balady (city councils). The initial reaction to this decision was disbelief at worst, and elation at best. Up until then, baby steps were taken to include women on boards - but mostly at corporate and chambers of commerce levels.

As a Saudi woman, I am proud to be living during such a historic time. Without political will, change and reform will not take place - certainly not in Saudi Arabia. In fact, the country's reform history in areas of women's empowerment is mainly credited to political will. It took a royal decree to give Saudi women the right to education decades ago and to criminalize domestic violence last year.

However, is political will enough to bring about the socioeconomic reform we need? Maybe not. Certainly, the king's decision to include women in leadership positions is a turning point, but its sustainability will depend on key determinants that will judge the success of such a historic decision.

One of the first enablers - or disablers - of sociopolitical reform and good governance is the resistance, or lack thereof, of those who have been biased against women's empowerment ever since the creation of Saudi Arabia. Change does not happen overnight, hence, accepting women as equals will take time, commitment, and good faith.

Another enabler is the need for temporary quota systems to guarantee the inclusion of minorities and women alike. Such systems must continue to be the norm until such a time when social justice prevails by default. Without the positive discrimination of quota systems, inequality in decision-making will prevail.

And finally, the most critical enabler is the practice of transparency in all decisions taken and accountability for all acts implemented. Without all of the above, boards of all kinds, legislatures, parliaments, councils, and institutional entities will lose credibility and end up being dictatorial in nature.

I am positive, though. Saudi women are making history. We have embraced political will with our own actions. The women in parliament have set the stage for the second generation of women to follow suit.

Women in the chambers of commerce are blazing their way into elections in a world where male dominance prevails and, across the country, they are creating networks and partnerships in preparation for the upcoming municipal council elections in 2015.

Slowly but surely, we are getting the attention of men and, interestingly enough, they are becoming our strongest advocates.

Fatin Bundagji is president of TLC Management & Development Consultancy, a board member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and a founding member of Women Corporate Directors, Gulf chapter.

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