An Interview with Nadia Abuelsaud
I don’t know much about Saudi Arabia. And what little I DO know I have learned from news reports, some of which are probably viewed disapprovingly in the Kingdom. So I took my time responding to an offer to interview a Saudi woman with a successful and diverse background. I did not want to offend Nadia Mohammed Saleh Abuelsaud, the woman I was invited to interview, or anyone else, either out of ignorance or perceived knowledge.
But I decided to go ahead with an email interview because I had experienced a degree of success with the person who introduced me to her. He is an ex-pat American living in Saudi Arabia. In fact, based on his experience working for defense contractors abroad for four decades, my source had given me two interviews as the Trump administration came to an end. I trusted his judgment about the interview he was offering me. I also welcomed some information he sent me about the interview subject, Nadia Abuelsaud.
Nadia comes from a significant Saudi family — her late father graduated four decades ago from the first Saudi F-15 fighter pilot class and retired as an Air Force General. She also expresses her views directly, as you will see in the interview, below. I also was impressed by her medical and business experiences, as well as a story about her efforts to learn to play tennis well, while in her 30s.
I decided to start the interview by recounting the tennis story. First, I wanted to confirm that it was accurate. And if accurate, I thought it could serve as a graceful way to explore Western notions about how women have been treated in the Kingdom and opportunities for them, in terms of education, employment, and social past times. Along the way, she also brought up Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the author of Vision 2030 (published in 2016), and extremists in her country who she says are the exception, not the rule. The email interview, edited for clarity, follows:
I read about the start of your tennis career. The article read, “Nadia took up tennis at the age of 35, a later stage in her life than most players and following the birth of her four children. Two obstacles immediately presented themselves – finding a coach and finding a venue in a gender-segregated society. Nadia overcame the first by finding a tennis venue at a Jeddah hotel. She began her lessons in the heat of the day, clad in the traditional robes that women are, by tradition, compelled to wear in public in Saudi Arabia. Eventually, a male lodged a complaint that a woman was playing tennis at the hotel. The result was that women were thereafter banned from playing at the hotel where she had been taking lessons.”
Please tell me more about the experiences you had as a strong, independent woman learning to play tennis in a traditional Muslim society. Were you nervous about bucking the established order? Did you get support from friends and family? How did men in Saudi Arabia come to view your actions over time? Are there other ways you demonstrated independence?
I believe what you mentioned in your first question, based on the article, summed up the story. But permit me to add some important and useful points here:
Since my childhood, I have been used to seeing some of my uncles (and they are 10 uncles by the way), and they practiced this fine sport of tennis regularly. And I used to accompany them to the court and cheer for them with great enthusiasm.
With regard to “extremists,” our beloved Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the leader of Vision 2030 said, “We have never had this extremism and illogical strictness in our society, which started especially after the Juhaiman incident in Mecca in 1979, that cursed incident of the occupation of the Grand Holy Mosque in our beloved Mecca, by a handful of militants who exploited extremism by intentional misinterpretations of a few Qur’anic verses for authoritarian purposes that is never in line with what is actually written in the Muslims’ holy book, the Quran. For God Almighty said, “Obey God and obey the messenger (Prophet Mohammed) and those in authority among you.”
From this point of view, I will correct some of the inaccuracies in your questions that you posed and referenced about traditional strict Muslim society.
We are a Muslim society that believes in one God only, a society characterized by mercy, decency, and respect.
Our Holy Quran is for all believers of one God all around the world, regardless of race, and no one can be a Muslim unless he or she believes in Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets and that Mohammed (peace be upon him) is the last messenger for the same message: “Islam, which means complete surrender to one God ONLY.”
What happened in Mecca was the beginning of the extremism that was introduced and unfortunately started to have a voice and followers. It took root.
In my view, MBS’s Vision, after God’s will, was delayed until the perfectly appropriate time for the fear that things would slip out of control in this always safe and peaceful country.
And now, after these important and necessary clarifications, I will continue answering your thirsty questions about my beloved country.
As for your question about my practice of tennis, as I mentioned before, firstly it was not something new, nor did I ever care or fear that I was breaking the law or rules just by practicing sports in one of its forms.
Secondly, there were no strict firm government laws that prevented me from doing this. But there are always backward, extremist people (in the guise of conservative Islam), who exist in every society as you know, those who were offended and sensitive to watching women practicing any sport, unfortunately. And because of them and their attitudes, I suffered and was banned by the hotel management only to play in the afternoons and I was asked to practice at noontime in the unbearable heat of the Saudi Arabian summer.
The absence of these laws to prevent me was the ultimate in freedom, and all I needed was persistence and boldness (act outside the norms) in exercising my rights that my religion guaranteed me, first, and not to stop trying, as long as what I was doing was not a crime against the laws of my country.
With regard to the support of family and friends, I can claim that there was always a big admiration from them, which meant a lot to me at the time. And for the men in my society, trust me when I say that I had always a big thumbs-up from the majority of men I knew, except for a few misogynists who because of them I had never to give up.
Some of the other things that may demonstrate my complete independence, I may surprise you by saying that I got my driving license in 1997 from Jakarta, Indonesia, and my uncle helped and encouraged me to do so.
I was the first female head of department in a laboratory in two military hospitals in the Kingdom, Northwest Armed Forces Hospital in Tabuk and the King Fahad Military Hospital in Jeddah.
I was one of the few women in Saudi that attended a medical training course in Germany without a “mahram”, or in other words, a guardian, even though at the time I was married to a Saudi man!
I was the first event planner in the Kingdom and I am the founder of A2Z Celebration events management company.
So I guess if we are really in a suppressive, dictating Kingdom, how would I have been able to do and achieve all that?
Your late father is a legend in the Kingdom, having graduated in the first class of F-15 fighter pilots several decades ago. Did you get some of your independence from your parents? Did your father’s status in society make it easier for you to do something that was unconventional at the time?
I am always proud that my father, may God bless his soul, was a member of the beloved Saudi Air Force, but frankly, I never needed his social status to pursue my interests, my career, or exercise my rights.
He never forced me or my 3 sisters to do anything. On the contrary, he was always supportive of us all to be educated and empowered to achieve our dreams. And he was at the top of his happiness and pride when watching my many interviews on Saudi TV or Radio. His only request was to make sure that his name would be written after my name and before the family name so that people would know it was his daughter and not a daughter of one of his other 9 brothers.
What is the status now of women in Saudi Arabia? How have expectations changed over the years? Do you see more change coming?
The status of women in Saudi Arabia has and will always be one of the best conditions, Yes, the Vision has improved and empowered Saudi women, especially by protecting them by laws from any abuse and injustice, or harm that may be practiced against them by misogynistic strict guardians. This is just what we needed for this Vision to succeed to the max.
And many things contrary to what I noted above have been reported in the news media are just words of “truth” intended to be false.
And my proof of what I say is the huge number of Saudi female students on scholarships all over the world and in all specializations.
Our generation of women, along with that generation of women in Saudi Arabia, are those who will support our beloved country in implementing Vision 2030.
It is easy for Americans to look around the world and say that country A is run by a dictator; country B is under the control of an authoritarian regime; and country C fails to live up to United States standards of human rights. I’d like to flip the script with you. How do you view the strengths and weaknesses of the United States based on your experiences here, and also based on what you have learned from the media and speaking with other people?
In response to your question about beautiful America and its right to judge and criticize the nations of the world…
My late father always said, “Don’t point a finger, the other three are pointing back at you.” Allow me now to list some of the many things I love and respect about and in America:
I respect and love the diversity of races, the right of citizenship, and that every hard-working person has a chance of success and decent life, regardless of his race, gender, or faith.
I respect America for implementing the love of God in the Quran that says, “… and I made you peoples and tribes so that you get to know each other.”
I love American restaurants, brands, markets, technology spread all over the world.
I love and respect the stories of success and struggle of many Americans.
I love Disney, Universal, Amazon, Apple, Hollywood, and their films that predicted everything that is now happening in the world, including COVID-19!
I respect Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and others who expanded their dreams to explore outer space, BUT I would respect them more if they contributed to solving America’s homeless problem that really shocked me. But this is what happens when mercy is snatched from the law and people’s hearts.
God bless America.
You suggested “flipping the script,” and now I suggest we flip the coin. I will talk about the West in general.
Is forcing decent Muslim women in the west to wear bikinis and dress immodesty considered guaranteeing a human right?!
How can mocking women or men’s virginity in movies and by society be safeguarding a human right?
Is forcing women in the workplace, especially TV news channels (reference Fox News anchorwomen), to wear short dresses and show their charm to all people protecting a human right?
We all make mistakes, but is exposing and destroying people on TV and through other media outlets by scandalizing them and their entire family respecting a human right?
How can a citizen of a great country be killed by police just for his race in full view and hearing of the world, while he is dying and screaming, “I can’t breathe”? How were his civil and human rights safeguarded?
How can the President of the greatest country in the world talk about women in a way that no women whatsoever would accept? Where are women’s rights to decency and respect upheld and respected, when the leader of the greatest country on earth regards them with such condescension and disdain?
How can I not be completely free to protect my children from COVID-19 by not allowing my children to wear a mask (Texas and Florida)? Where is a mother’s right to protect her children? I think that falls in the broad category of “Human Rights.”
Is paying taxes to a country based solely on citizenship, regardless of where he or she lives, furthering human rights?
Don’t point a finger; the other three are pointing back at you.
And for the icing on the cake I would end this portion of my answers by saying:
I made a decision long ago to stick to my beloved country and sacred land unconditionally, and maybe all that I have been through and in this country is just an eventual blessing in disguise.
I remember being in New York City some years ago, in 2013, and every time I said I was from Saudi Arabia, people would say, is that Dubai???
And now the whole world knows where I come from.
How is Covid-19 being dealt with in Saudi Arabia?
As a medical professional having worked in two major Saudi Armed Force Hospitals for over 25 years, I can honestly say that I believe the Kingdom Ministry of Health has advised citizens and residents in a very transparent manner. Measures were taken early on to halt the rampant spread of the virus, which included border closings and the grounding of international and domestic flights. Curfews were imposed and enforced throughout the Kingdom and a masking mandate was put in place that remains in place up until today. As a people, we pulled together to fight and overcome this virus; our sense of pride and nationalism, and our unifying religion, enables us to respond as ONE.
Would you compare and contrast the Covid response in your native country with what is happening in the United States?
The United States is governed federally, by state, and by county. As my American husband explained to me, state’s rights and state legislatures can supersede federal law, which seems can’t be made and enforced anyway. So trying to mandate controls consistently in the United States is like trying to herd cats. It is exactly for this reason, that the US now has the highest rate of Covid cases in the world. There is so much division among individual state populations. The result is that the virus and its spread are very difficult to control centrally. We do not have that same problem in Saudi Arabia, where everything and everybody marches to the beat of the same drum. We definitely have more of a unity that is born of national pride that is also rooted in our beloved Islam. I don’t see that same unity among Americans.
As far as I a concerned, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has responded to and controlled the threat of Covid-19 at least as well as any western country and better than most, including the United States.
In answering one of my questions, you mentioned that now people know about Saudi Arabia — where you come from. Did it surprise you that people at one point did not know about your homeland? And even now, what is interesting and important about Saudi Arabia that you’d like to share with readers? Are there still things people may not know about Saudi Arabia?
Sadly, all that most Americans (and other Westerners in general) seem to know about Saudi Arabia is that the Kingdom is one of the largest producers of oil in the world and that 15 of the 19 9-11 terrorists were Saudi nationals. They may not even know that real number of 15 and by general consensus, fed by western media, assume they were all Saudi nationals; they weren’t.
There is also the lingering suspicion, over the past 20 years, that even the events of 9-11 were Saudi inspired, planned, and supported; there has been no proof to show that they were.
The other myth that many Americans believe is that the relationship that has been built between our two countries is based on commerce, primarily oil. While that may have been true dating back 83 years ago, when in 1938 an American petroleum geologist, guided the first drilling in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province (now Dhahran), the real alliance is built on stability and security within the Gulf Region and the Middle East in general.
Does that continue to involve commercial interests between the West and Saudi Arabia? Of course… the word “stability” is based on more than mere international politics and by necessity involves economic and commercial concerns; “security” assures “stability.” This is the matrix of ideas and facts that most Americans are unaware of, which unfortunately is not only ignorance but perhaps inexcusable “willful” ignorance.
The world and the US may have changed significantly over the past 20 years since 9-11; the Gulf area and the Middle East have changed significantly since the Iranian revolution (1978-1979), which spawned and fostered an extreme form of Islam and “Islamic revolutionary fervor” that swept across and throughout the region and gets blanket-labeled to include all of Islam and all Muslim countries.
Again, that label is too liberally applied. If any single country in the region is guilty of exporting and supporting terrorism and, by consequence, instability, it is Iran. Iran has its finger in Lebanon by having founded its own paramilitary within a sovereign state (Hezbollah) that is essentially nothing more than a form of Iranian occupation and survival via terrorizing the Lebanese and bordering neighbors. Iran has its fingers into the conflict in Yemen, supporting the Houthi rebels, which forced Saudi Arabia into a long and terrible war with its fellow Muslim neighbor. Iran has been involved in the politics and factional infighting in Iraq over the past 42 years and more and has done well in driving a wedge between the Islamic sects of Sunni and Shia. Ironically, the Shia sect accounts for only 10% of Muslims around the world, and yet this part of the world is promoted and dominated by its specter of extremism through Iran. Again, I go back to the real relationship that should exist between the West and Saudi Arabia and that is mutual cooperation in achieving stability in the region through mutual cooperation and assurance of security.
Socially, Saudi Arabia has changed and is changing dramatically since the introduction of Vision 2030 in 2016. The Kingdom has many historical and archaeological sites of interest and opened up the tourism industry in September 2019.
Since Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has introduced cultural and entertainment events throughout the Kingdom, for both its citizens and tourists and the previous “ban” on women driving has been lifted. Recall that I mentioned earlier I was a pioneer in women driving, having qualified for my driving license outside the Kingdom earlier in my life.
You mentioned Vision 2030. Here is what I found online. Home – Vision 2030 People can go to Google to learn more. But I’ve got you via email exchanges. Will you tell me what Vision 2030 means to you?
To me, Vision 2030 means the evolution of a more open Saudi society, in which women will not only be openly allowed but also widely encouraged to participate. Tennis is my main sport and in January 2021, I opened a Tennis Academy for children in Jeddah. Parents quickly noticed what I was doing and pretty immediately started requesting private adult lessons… and so the business grew. Prior to Vision 2030, this would have been difficult-to-near-impossible to do. The head of the Saudi Tennis Federation is a friend of mine, a female Saudi, recognized as one of the best lady tennis competitors in the Gulf. If the world was our oyster in waiting, the shell has begun to open wide, probably more for women of my daughter’s generation than for me, at this point, and for succeeding generations of Saudi women.
Is this the first time a government leader has issued a “Vision”?
Yes. The important thing to note is that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the author of Vision 2030, is young in the leadership hierarchy and is strategically placed to lead the younger generations of Saudi citizens — they are the Kingdom’s future and currently makeup 60% of the population under age 30, a significant segment of the Saudi population.
What other changes does the Vision signify?
Saudi prosperity and sole survival was based on oil production and security provided by other nations. Though that has changed over recent years (ARAMCO is now “Saudi-Aramco” now and Raytheon Patriot Missile batteries are now manned by trained Saudi military technicians and engineers), it has dramatically changed over the past 5 years. A good summary of Vision 2030 follows:
• It is now generally accepted that the rulers and citizens of Saudi Arabia must come to terms with a future in which oil resources play a far less significant role in the economy than has historically been the case. This is bound to change the implicit social contract between the government and its key constituencies.
• Saudi Arabia has a long-term plan – as part of its wide-ranging Vision 2030 strategy – to reduce the economy’s reliance on oil and the state by boosting investment in the private sector. Vision 2030 essentially continues, in amplified and expanded form, policies that the country has had in place for some decades. These have had some successes in generating non-oil growth and encouraging some Saudis to work in the private sector, but implementation has repeatedly fallen short of the ambitious targets that have been set, with the result that the Saudi economy remains overwhelmingly dependent on oil-fuelled government spending.
• Vision 2030 is prominently associated with King Salman’s son Mohammed bin Salman – or‘MBS’ – newly promoted to crown prince as of June 2017. The strategy has helped to brand MBSas a figure of considerable influence both within Saudi Arabia and internationally. But if it is seen as unsuccessful, existing criticisms of his individual leadership style are likely to deepen among those who resent his rapid rise. Personality politics within the royal family could thus end up being a distraction from the fundamental need to implement economic diversification.
• If the government’s ability to distribute largesse to the population is curtailed for the long term, it will need to focus on alternative sources of legitimacy. This could mean greater consultation and public involvement in decision-making, or, perhaps more likely, emphasizing the importance of royal rule as a bulwark against insecurity, terrorism, and chaos while maintaining or intensifying an authoritarian model of rule.
• Vision 2030 implies a degree of social liberalization to enable the growth of the entertainment and tourism industries, as well as extensive reforms to the education system, traditionally a stronghold of Saudi Arabia’s religious clerics. If followed through, this would transform relations between the state and its citizens, politically and socially as well as economically, and also the government’s partnership with the clerisy (intellectuals who form an artistic, social, or political vanguard or elite: intelligentsia).
• An effective renegotiation of the social contract will be critical if the government is to institutionalize and secure buy-in for the dramatic economic changes it wants to make. This means not only more effective strategic communication and consultation with the population but also a greater focus on inclusive growth and social safety nets.
• Currently, with multiple geopolitical threats afflicting the region, few people – at home or abroad – are calling on the new crown prince to adopt pursue political reforms. But just as economic diversification would have been more effective if more had been undertaken at an earlier stage, MBS has an opportunity to be ahead of the curve on political reform, rather than waiting for events to force it onto the policy agenda.
Is there something in the United States that may be similar to Vision 2030?
Your US Constitution? The opening words are telling and would seem to be very unifying for a people and their beliefs in ideals toward a common purpose.
“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
I wonder how many Americans have read and understood the US Constitution, its purpose, and its inclusiveness? Vision 2030 is very similar in its purpose and, well, the “vision.”
I also understand that there have been various social movements mapped out throughout American history, but they seem to be either social in nature with a political bent or social primarily with an economic expectation (also influenced by politics, of course). Vision 2030 is all-encompassing and emphasizes at once social and economic growth and prosperity. It affords the possibility for all Saudis to participate in this movement, in order to pave the way for future generations of Saudis.
As for applying a Vision-like movement in the United States that is all-encompassing (social, economic, and political) and crosses state lines, Americans can’t agree that there is a pandemic and the need to overcome it through precautionary measures and vaccines. Municipal law, State law, and Federal law seem always to be at odds with one another. By extension, if a memorial statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia can be deemed out of date, inappropriate, or even racist, why then does the New Hampshire state slogan still read as, “Live Free or Die”? There would seem to be a message of menace in there. Shouldn’t everybody in all states be able to live free? In Saudi Arabia, all Saudis and visiting expatriates have the right to live “free.”
You have worked in the medical field, in labs, for years. This requires certain skills. More recently, though, you established an events planning business. That’s a big change. Why did you pick events planning? Why was it needed in Saudi Arabia? How are people reacting to it?
I have always had many interests. Some 20 years ago, I founded my events management business in Jeddah, initially as a business to plan weddings and private parties. It evolved into a business that included the promotions of product lines in Saudi malls, eventually including the promotion of new malls and public launches of the malls. My business organized marketing plans for other businesses invested in Mall development Kingdom-wide. The business also staged events in association with Saudi Government Ministries, in various parts of the Kingdom. Though my day job for almost 25 years was as a licensed Medical Technologist in two major Saudi military hospitals in first Tabuk (in the north, near the Jordanian border) and then in Jeddah (further south and on the Red Sea), I always had an interest in becoming a private businesswoman. As my personality leaned toward many social aspects in dealing with people, I found that this particular business fits well with me. I am what Americans refer to as a “self-starter,” and I quickly put myself on a learning curve in developing a business field that was largely dominated by males as both customers and service providers.