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National dialogues and genuine reforms   

Arab News - 24 February, 2012
Author: Fatin Bundagji

The concluding deliberations from the final session of the 9th National Dialogue on "Saudi Media, Reality & Means of Development" will be presented today (Friday, Feb. 24) to the highest authority in the Kingdom: King Abdullah. And I have the opportunity to be part of this high profile, mainly elitist event.

The Minister of Culture and Information Abdul Aziz Khoja along with senior officials as well as 70 participants (male and female) from all over the Kingdom came together during this two-day event in the city of Hael.

For the ninth time, and over the period of nine years, the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue has successfully concluded one of its brainchild products: The Annual National Dialogues. Initiated in 2003 by then Crown Prince Abdullah, the dialogues’ aim is to bring together various segments of Saudi society to publicly discuss divergent issues affecting the harmony and prosperity of our nation — and more importantly its unity and security.

There were five topics ready for us to deliberate upon during sessions of two hours each. All participants had the opportunity to present their points within a three-minute time-frame after which the microphones would automatically switch off. The topics under discussion were bold and future driven.

Topping them was the subject of “Freedom and Accountability in Saudi Media,” followed by “Media's Relation with Public Sectors,” “The Role of New-age Media in Addressing National Issues,” “What Saudi Society requires from the Ministry of Culture and Information” and concluded by the need to formulate an “Ethical Code of Conduct” for the Saudi media industry.

As bold as the topics were, I was somehow disappointed by our interactions. Almost all of us tackled the issues at face value focusing mainly on theory rather than practice. After an hour or so of theoretical presentations, a breath of fresh air struck us as a young lady began to speak… She was confident and calm. Her voice was controlled and her message was perfectly timed. Her task was not easy for she was addressing an audience of senior experts, bureaucrats, educators, and ministers… and to top that, her message was being broadcast live Kingdomwide. Her name was Rowan Al Marwany, she was 14 years old. She introduced herself as the product of the “remote control” generation.

Her message hit us all like thunder. Whereas for nearly two hours we were caught in theory and blame, this young girl forced us to listen and think and come to terms with the reality that our time as the “older generation” leading the young must be revisited if we want a better future for our country. What we need is for us embrace this stage of our life and become the partners of our youths by working with them hand in hand to design the future they wish for, not what we think they need.

In listening to this wise young girl, I felt that her message must be shared by all. I hope that I have done justice to her three-minute interaction for I have translated some of it literally and in other parts I have paraphrased it so as to safeguard the essence of her message. Rowan’s message, as well as her voice did not represent her as a young girl of 14 years, but rather it showcased her as representative of 60 percent of our society. “I am of the generation of the “remote control’ which I use to my free will and I have a different point of view”. I believe that freedom and responsibility are the result of preparation and nurturing. If we provide the fertile soil that produces responsible citizens then we can guarantee that “responsible freedom will always prevail.

“My freedom is that I worship Allah as if He were in front of me” with no supervision but with total commitment. “My freedom is that all of us are ‘Shepherd’s that have been entrusted to care for our flocks. To me, my first flock is my mind, my thoughts, my values, and the principles of my community.” Freedom for me is to be able to make sure that all those around me are provided with the support that will help them to achieve their full potential.

“Responsibility for me is in my ability to be proactive, to initiate and to achieve. Responsibility means that I must empathize with others, respect their freedoms and accept them as they are.” I am responsible. As such I have the right to contribute to the building of my country’s institutions as well as its media. Only when we as a nation know that this concept of inclusion is deeply rooted in our society’s collective consciousness — and only when we put our country’s interest above our own can we safely claim that we have a free and responsible media.

“Another point I want to focus on is that of our mindset. It seems as it were, that Saudi society is above criticism. This tragedy starts within the confines of the family circle and eventually passes on to all of our public and private sectors. I saying this out of experience, as a student of middle school I am saddened by the approach our school system has taken. It considers itself above reproach and above criticism.”

“For this I have a simple message: We are a generation that believes that mistakes are part and parcel of the learning process. We believe that listening and acknowledging the need for reform is “free and responsible behavior.” Accepting criticism and fixing what needs to be fixed does not undermine or belittle, quite the opposite it builds credibility and trust and proves to us that our system is strong and dependable. We are a generation that sees things through a different angle — a wider one.”

As I conclude my article, I hope that today (Friday) will be the start of a new awakening. I hope that today as we visit King Abdullah, a new beginning will emerge before us. Tradition has it that during the last sessions of the National Dialogues, the participants personally present the concluding remarks to the king. Tradition also has it that only one participant is chosen to undertake this task. I hope that this person with be our young Rowan, representing our society and calling for genuine reform for youths and women alike.

— Fatin Bundagji is president of TLC Consultancy. Write to her at: fatinbund@yahoo.com
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