Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
October 26 – 27, 2008
Behind the Veils:
Greg and I are met at the Sunset’s breakfast buffet with two Turkish coffees already in play. For the record these are “medium sweet.” They mix sugar with the coffee grounds before brewing. The service at the hotel is over the top. They seem ready for us before we show up. It appears we’re the only Americans staying here and that in itself may bet the reason we’re easy to pick out of the crowd. It’s either that or the fact that Greg tends to tip our servers with U.S. greenback dollars. You decide.
They are big on buffets here. Breakfast looks like another amalgam of east and west. The table starts as most American breakfast buffets, with breads. Standard white bread quickly moves to croissant and pita. From here it quickly moves further east. Next are huge trays of hummus, tabouleh, goat cheese, and yogurt. Fresh veggies follow suit and then the hot items. Stewed tomatoes with basil are in the first serving tray, then rice, some type of egg dish, (frittata, scrambled, etc.,) then some type of sausage meat. They look for all the world like hot dogs, but are some cross of beef and herbs. There’s also usually some type of lamb dish. In essence it’s as if the hotel chef saw a picture of some American buffet and just filled it in with local foods.
Today we change gears completely and move from a one-day presentation style approach with 100 participants to a two-day workshop approach with about 20 people. Because our MENA region partner, the ZAD Group, set up all these events we’re somewhat less informed than usual. (Here’s a picture of Greg and Ahmad Haikal from ZAD in the limo.) These are their clients and we are acting mainly as the drop in big-shot Americans, so it’s not necessarily unplanned. What little we know about the next two days however leaves us off balance to start. My calendar says: “Train the Trainer Program College of Business Administration Jiddah, (CBA.)” We’re also told the day before that much of the class will be women from the college taking the Leading Bold Change™ course as an addendum to their business related studies.
What we’re not told until our limo, pulls up to the well-guarded front gate of the school is that men and women attend independent universities here. This particular school is the women’s version of the CBA, a place where men rarely travel.
We and our partners are simply not prepared for the level of accomplishment and sophistication of the people in the room. As we make our way around to introduce each other it becomes immediately apparent that Greg and I are outclassed by both the men and women here. Many of the participants have PhDs in such areas of study as human relations, psychology, women’s studies, education, etc. Most of these people hold their degrees from some of America’s finest universities: Harvard, Penn State, Ohio, Kansas, Vermont, North Carolina, and several from Michigan, not to mention European institutions. We’ve got our work cut out for us!
Our friend and fellow trainer Dr. Mona Mousa, someone I certified while in Cairo last spring, is a faculty member of the CBA and helped to set up this event. (Here she talks with one of our participants from the Panda Company, Haney Kandil, and Ahmad Haikal from ZAD.) She stressed to the dean, who is also attending the training, that diversity is vital to the success of the workshop both in who attended and how they are seated. In a gesture whose pure brilliance goes far over my head, the dean mixes each table so that men and women are seated together. In the states this would not in any way be considered progressive. I’ll remind you that we’re in Saudi Arabia, a place where women must wear head coverings and are still not allowed to drive in the streets. At one point a male participant takes me aside to tell me that I can be assured this is the only university level course in Saudi Arabia today where men and women are sitting together! My entire view of the importance of this class suddenly changes. Change management has never had more meaning.
Further discussions with class participants unveil that many of the women are in women’s studies programs and that they aim to use the Leading Bold Change™ program to do nothing less than help change the country’s views of women. One young man has a nonprofit NGO that deals with the issues of youth in Saudi Arabia. He started this organization right out of grad school. The women and men are all outspoken and not afraid to voice their opinions in this mixed session. There is a palpable sense of discomfort with some of the men when the subject of women’s rights is brought up, but everyone seems interested in collaborating to get whatever they can from the program. There is some meeting half-way here, compromise of the highest sort, which leaves me with a sense of hope and optimism for my work.
There is of course more spectacular food for lunch. And the realization there is no “facility” for men in this school. So each time one of the men needs to make use of said facility a woman faculty member must first clear the ladies room and then stand guard out front. We are indeed not in Kansas anymore! Before I leave, one of the men jokingly asks me to look in on his house near Detroit to see if I can get it to sell. Another man sets up a holiday appointment with me for a cup of coffee while he visits his other home in Burlington, Vermont.
The two days at the CBA go very fast. The conversation and level of participation is of the highest level. This is another session where the teacher is also the student. We have never before brought our program to a place where the stakes for change are so high and where the willingness to take change on might be a hazard to the personal freedoms of those involved. We learn a great deal from one another and I am sorry to leave them behind.