(MENAFN - Arab News)
Encouraging Saudi youth to strive for excellence should be one of the main goals to be achieved in the next 20 years, according to Abdulmohsen bin Abdulaziz Al-Fares, CEO of Alinma Bank. "The Kingdom needs to adopt a different perspective as regards the real meaning of excellence," Al-Fares told Diana Al-Jassem of Arab News in an exclusive interview at his head office in Riyadh.
Emphasizing that job creation is the biggest challenge facing Saudi Arabia, he said the only solution for tackling the unemployment problem is to intensify the commitment to job creation at all levels among all employers across the Kingdom.
According to Al-Fares, young Saudis should seize the opportunity and show their personal commitment for achieving success with tenacity and determination.
What, in your opinion, are changes that would have a major impact on the lives of Saudis in the coming 20 years?
As you know, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a significant period of change. The average age of the Saudi population is very young. We have to work hard for job creation. We need more quality education, more health services, and more investment in establishing new businesses. If we do this, I can envision a Saudi Arabia 20 years from now that has progressed in ways we are yet to even comprehend. However, such a future will depend on the way that we set and execute our plans in such areas. In addition to these issues of health, education and job creation, which will impact the lives of Saudis, we must also be mindful of water scarcity, declining and/or shifting petrochemical demand, women entering and impacting the work force, changing family dynamics, and demographic trends in the major population centers of the Kingdom.
Role of leadership
What do you think of the leadership roles regarding organizations in the Kingdom? What are the factors/reasons for their current state?
Leadership is critical at all levels of society, whether we are talking about government, the private sector or even local communities. Most importantly, there are core competencies associated with leadership and there is interplay between leaders and their constituents, whether those are employees of a company or government agency or members of society at large. What I can see is that Saudi Arabia has competent leadership and is taking necessary steps to cultivate future generations of leaders. There is all-round appreciation of the leadership of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and his administration. Even the international community has on many occasions lauded King Abdullah for his strident efforts to fix a course for Saudi Arabia that will make it one of the success stories of the 21st century. And as you know, strong leadership at the top tends to drive strong leadership at all levels below, which can be seen. I am particularly encouraged by what we are seeing from the maturing generations of Saudis who are now reaching an age at which they are expected to take on more responsibility in their respective fields.
What are the most difficult decisions that need to be applied in the Kingdom within the next twenty years?
I mentioned earlier the issue of water scarcity. In order to ensure the availability of drinking water to a growing population, relevant government and private organizations will need to be successful in educating citizens and residents about responsible water use and other aspects of environmental stewardship. Here, you are asking an entire population to change their relationship with the most fundamental requirement for life on earth. I can also see that job creation will continue to require tough decision-making. The Nitaqat program is evidence that firm measures are indeed being taken; but to meet demand over the next 20 years, more fundamental changes will also need to take place. And here I am talking about the orientation of Saudi workers with regard to potential careers. While it is important that Saudi youth be encouraged to strive for excellence, we will need to adopt a different perspective with regard to what excellence really means. For instance.
Give me an example of the most creative project that you wish to establish in the Kingdom?
Saudi Arabia is a technically competent nation as such. We lead the world in oil exploration and extraction technology and we are currently driving to become a leader in solar and other clean technology as well. This is possible thanks to our highly skilled and educated specialists in these fields. I feel we should be able to further leverage this expertise to become a leader across the various sectors of science, technology and research. My vision would be for Saudi Arabia to begin establishing leading technology companies that break new ground and help contribute to the rapidly developing world of the 21st century. After all, we have the talent to produce a Google, or a Facebook, or a Baidu. We simply need to provide the right environment to cultivate our own contributions.
KSA in three words
What three words would you use to describe the Kingdom in the coming 20 years and why (these 3 chosen words)?
Self-sufficient, prosperous, connected. If you look around the Kingdom each and every day, I think you can see how the seeds are being sown for a future in which the Kingdom shows strong evidence of the aforementioned qualities. This nation is being built literally before our very eyes according to a strategic plan that will indeed make us self-sufficient, prosperous and connected.
Regarding the Kingdom's officials, what characteristics do you think are important for such individuals? How would such characteristics contribute toward the Kingdom's further development?
I assume by "officials" you mean those individuals occupying key positions in government. Such individuals must show wisdom and must balance optimism and pragmatism. By this I mean that they must have lofty goals and must have a vision for the future that is possibly slightly beyond their grasp. At the same time, they cannot ignore the real, pressing needs of today. It is wisdom that will allow these officials to know when the time is right to reach for the stars and when it is prudent to work at ground level. And of course any official must be fully competent and capable of executing their mandate; but that goes without saying. Additionally, we should enhance efficiency and transparency and fight all types of corruption.
How can we all improve human rights in Saudi Arabia? What are your expectations regarding human rights practices within the coming 20 years?
It is individual commitment that establishes human rights in a society. No government can police 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time. Therefore, if we as citizens and residents don't take full responsibility for ensuring human rights for all, then Saudi Arabia will never be successful in this regard. Thankfully, we have something to our advantage. Because of our Islamic heritage, we have at our disposal the absolute final word on human rights. The challenge is to be true to that heritage and to make it manifest in our lives. We, then, will police ourselves by committing to the highest authority, who knows all, sees all and calls us all to account for our actions. Compassion and consideration will flow freely from within. Our religious establishment as well as the educational system will help us in being mindful of our rights and responsibilities.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Kingdom today?
In one word: Jobs. I hate to have to reiterate an issue that is being addressed with the utmost urgency by our leadership; but it is just so critical that it bears repeating. The statistics are sobering with regard to the number of jobs that must be created in the next several years; and I have seen numbers that range from 200,000 to 400,000 per annum. This means that commitment to job creation must exist at all levels among all employers, in all industries in all regions on the Kingdom. No one is exempt from this responsibility. There is, of course, no easy answer and the reality of the situation is that sacrifices will need to be made by all. Nitaqat is one part of the solution, but I would point again to the importance of personal, individual commitment. Rising waters lift all ships and conversely a sinking ship with no lifeboats leaves all passengers in the water regardless of their status. Using this analogy, I think we can say that employers will have to make difficult decisions in order to keep the labor market afloat. This will mean some sacrifices, but in the long-term it is for the benefit of all and for the benefit of the Kingdom as a whole.
There is a huge demand for housing in the Kingdom because of rising young population. The government has also put an emphasis on this sector as it allocated high budget for housing. Do you believe housing sector needs much more attention from the government and private sector?
As you may know, the mortgage law will bring the much-needed change to the real estate market. Once in place, and with some time, it will resolve a number of outstanding issues that currently contribute to some difficulties in making home ownership a reality for so many citizens. At present, and into the future, the Kingdom's financial institutions will play fundamental roles in home ownership. We, at Alinma Bank, are already addressing housing demand through our numerous home financing services, all Shariah-compliant, of course. And once the mortgage law is in place, Alinma and the other banks will have a strong framework in which to operate as we move to close the gap on home ownership.
Role of SMEs
There is a need to boost small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the Kingdom as it creates various jobs. What role do you see for SMEs in the Kingdom's economic development?
I alluded to this issue earlier with regard to job creation. SMEs are absolutely essential; and when I speak about the need for economic diversification, I recognize that such growth will only be possible if we have a strong environment for the nurturing of SMEs. We, at Alinma Bank, have a commitment to these aspiring business people and have stepped forward through the Riyada program to ensure that they have access to support, mentoring and even some financing. And once again, banks will need to play a role in developing this sector through small business financing.
Education is always a priority of the Saudi government. What changes you envisage in education to fit Saudi youth in a knowledge-based economy?
Students need tangible and sometimes transferable skills. To paraphrase an oft-quoted saying, "Give a person a fish and you feed him or her for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed him or her for life." When I speak of skills, I mean all skills; we do not need to confine ourselves to certain professions such as engineering or medicine. For instance, communication is a skill unto itself that can be applied across so many professions from things such as journalism, to public relations, to marketing and beyond. They have to be self-aware, understanding not only their own competencies, but also what they don't know. And they need to know how to pursue knowledge to fill in these gaps.
How do you see Saudi women's contribution in the labor, social and political arenas in the coming 20 years? And what's required in order for Saudi women to actualize your future vision?
Saudi women are proving themselves and are taking on roles and responsibilities that make positive contributions to Saudi society and the economy. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and his administration have made a commitment to increasing the profile of women in government and to providing women every opportunity to excel, both academically and professionally. This will only continue moving forward. After all, we did not build the world's largest and hopefully, one day, the finest women's university - Princess Noora Bint Abdulrahman University - as just an exercise. That facility and all the other fine educational institutions for women across Saudi Arabia are meant to produce strong capable graduates. Saudi women will undoubtedly make their mark.
What measures and standards are yet to be (and must be) applied to Saudi media? And what are your expectations in the next twenty years?
Media is growing by leaps and bounds with the younger generations stepping forward to address demand for media content of all types. This makes this current period an exciting time for media. Independent television producers are developing worthwhile content, and on the Internet there has been an explosion of youth driven content, including YouTube channels, blogs and forums. These are important creative and informational outlets, and I see their development being a net positive for the Kingdom.
What impact will social media have regarding change in the Kingdom?
Recent statistics show that Saudi Arabia is a leading nation in YouTube and social media use; and with social media, we are seeing real-time dialogue on important issues, and frankly, some not so important issues. But this dialogue is shaping the nature of public discourse.
Learning from the past
What are three or four mistakes that have been repeated in the Kingdom during the past two decades? And how could we eliminate these mistakes in order to develop the Kingdom?
I think that looking for mistakes is far too easy. Anyone can point a finger. It is more important to put the past 20 years in context. To speak frankly, Saudi Arabia, in many ways, has been asked to do in a few short decades, what it took other nations centuries to do. Just think back the industrial revolution and how long it took for that to develop, unfold and mature. Yet Saudi Arabia went from being preindustrial to fully industrial in the blink of any eye. The successive changes that have faced the Kingdom have happened equally as fast with technology pouring into the country, driving change at breakneck speeds. In such an environment, bumps in the road will be encountered. The issue is how well we are progressing in navigating those bumps and whether we are progressing to a point where such obstacles will no longer be an issue. I think unequivocally, Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction. What is important is that we stress effectiveness, efficiency and quality in all that we do and that we improve on these over time.
Message to youth
Given that the youth make up the majority of the Saudi population, what message would you want conveyed to them? And what else would you say to the rest of the population?
My message to the youth is that they have to take personal responsibility for their future. Aid and assistance will no doubt abound, but this does not absolve a person from taking personal responsibility. In addition, they need to set long-term objectives regarding what they want to be, and they must strive to achieve these objectives.