September 25, 2017

U.N.-Saudi Youth Forum: A Calculated Message

Arwa Damon, Mishaal al-Shemimry, Ahmed Mater, Maher Nasser, and Noor Neelofa speak on the panel "Cultural Diversity and the Power of Creativity" at the MiSK-UNDP Youth Forum in New York, Sept. 15. (MiSK Foundation)

Saudi Arabia has been sending bold messages domestically with the recent security crackdown on influential clerics, intellectuals, and other public figures, while simultaneously engaging in a global soft power projection, most recently through an event held in the heart of New York. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s MiSK charity foundation partnered with the United Nations Development Programme just a few days before the opening of the 72nd session of the U.N. General Assembly to hold a youth forum. The MiSK-UNDP forum “Promoting Tolerance for Peace and Sustainable Development: A Dialogue with Youth,” was not only addressed to the Saudi youth who are MiSK’s primary audience, but to the international community. The location and timing of this forum cannot go unnoticed, particularly with the historic Saudi-led blockade on Qatar over its support for Islamist organizations and individuals.

While the forum was centered around meeting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and promoting tolerance through intercultural dialogue, countering violent extremism was one of the loudest and most visible messages MiSK sought to deliver. Speaking directly after Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York city and the founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, was a Saudi woman Shura Council member, Kawthar al-Arbash. Kawthar became an outspoken critic of sectarianism after the loss of her son, who was killed preventing a suicide bomber from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant from entering a Shia mosque in the capital of the Eastern Province, Dammam. Following her touching “spark talk” presentation, was the panel “Countering Violent Extremism” featuring Nicola Benyahia of Birmingham, United Kingdom, who also lost a son to ISIL as a result of his being radicalized and later killed at the Syria-Iraq border. Inspired by this tragic incident, Nicola founded the counseling organization Families For Life to fight the shame felt by the families that experience radicalization. Others on the panel spoke of their global initiatives to counter extremism with social reconciliation. These panels were followed by a powerful conversation with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who said, “I don’t like to talk about a youth bulge, I like to talk about a youth surge.”

MiSK events have become an attractive destination for Saudi youth. The young tech-savvy crowd interacted with the different workshops and panels through live tweets and Snapchat stories, and attendees even took paperless notes on the MiSK-UNDP smartphone app. Young Saudis who are studying abroad predominated the crowd of over 400 delegates attending the forum, including U.N. representatives, entrepreneurs, Arab and Gulf student leaders at elite schools, and prominent Saudi public figures like Vice President for Women’s Affairs of the General Sports Authority Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud and Chairwoman of Time Entertainment Ameerah al-Taweel. Among the attendees from the Gulf were social media influencers, such as Sheikh Majed al-Sabah from Kuwait and the Emirati television anchor Diala Ali.

The forum presented examples of highly accomplished young Saudis from various disciplines and backgrounds, with a specific focus on women. Seven Saudi millennial women spoke in the forum compared to only four men. Among the seven women was Saudi Arabia’s first woman to work with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Mishaal al-Shemimry, who is a Miami-based Aerospace engineer and entrepreneur. Another millennial entrepreneur and social media influencer, Adwa al-Dakheel, was part of a workshop discussing the role of social media in furthering social and political inclusion. In outlining an action plan to move forward with youth and sustainable development, the 19-year-old Razan al-Aquil, the first Arab and Saudi woman to participate in the U.N. Youth Assembly and winner of the 2016 Outstanding Youth Delegate Award, addressed how personal development stimulates sustainable growth. The forum concluded on a high note with speakers and participants vowing to counter extremism, with the pledge “I pledge to be extremely together” led by Bjorn Ihler, a survivor of the July 2011 attacks on Utoya island in Norway.

This forum was not MiSK’s first partnership with a U.N. body. Earlier in 2017, MiSK held a forum with UNESCO in Riyadh addressing youth and social impact. With youth as MiSK’s primary targets, MiSK partnered with Harvard University to allow a number of high school students to enroll at Harvard’s summer leadership development program. Other partnerships for Saudi undergraduate and graduate students include: Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, The New York Film Academy, and Boston Consulting Group. MiSK’s collaboration with key global and educational institutions adds to its credibility and appeal both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad. These partnerships signal that Saudi Arabia is encouraging its young population to engage with the West and Western thought. At the same time, MiSK events present to Saudi youth an image of Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership that is modern, forward-looking, and filled with opportunities for youth.

The art of diplomacy lies in calculated moves, and the MiSK-UNDP forum was a very effective act of diplomacy. It communicated to the international community Saudi Arabia’s global commitment in countering terrorism, debunked misconceptions about Saudi women by providing counter examples of young and empowered Saudi women, and most importantly made a clear statement that Saudi Arabia, with the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, is embarking on a new era.

Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.