Saudi reforms should allow NGOs to spread their wings

Samar Fatany

Published: Updated:

Civil society organizations should be recognized as legitimate means for citizens to pursue shared interests freely, collectively, and peacefully. Unfortunately, tight state control on civil society organizations has repressed the independent voices of concern.

Saudi reforms should include the encouragement of NGO organizations that can help facilitate change and build civil society. It is critical in this period of unrest that has engulfed our neighboring countries to develop a more vibrant and effective civil society and promote local non-governmental organizations that can serve justice and the interests of the underprivileged.

Today Saudi citizens are more exposed to other cultures and they are well aware of benefits that are offered to citizens in other countries. The average Saudi is able to identify his needs and is becoming well informed of better policies that can greatly contribute to better standards of living. Government organizations, associations, and movements that support the status quo or advocate conservative reforms can no longer satisfy the needs of society.


It is time we amend the legal restrictions and regulations that stand in the way of creating an effective civil society to better serve the interests of the Saudi people. Citizens today already know that it is important to hold their government accountable. What they need is the capacity to do so within a legal and organizational structure. Unfortunately, civil society work is sometimes obstructed by the interference of government bureaucracy and red tape.

It is time we amend the legal restrictions and regulations that stand in the way of creating an effective civil society to better serve the interests of the Saudi people.

Samar Fatany

Currently the law requires all welfare societies to register under the central authority umbrella and permits are denied to many NGOs representing different segments of society.

Social activists are calling for lifting the ban on the activities of civil society groups eager to address various challenges and issues of social concern. They continue to reject rules and regulations that violate the legitimate rights and civil liberties of all citizens. Lawyers groups complain of restrictions that do not allow them to use their knowledge and research to call for the enforcement of laws and regulations that are Shariah compliant to serve the community and to guarantee the rights of all Saudi citizens. Women’s rights activists, professionals, academics and environmentalists reject the influence of hardliners who often exercise legal control over economic, social and cultural liberties threatening the progress and stability of the nation.

Good governance depends on the existence of an active civil society. Civic engagement is an essential element of participatory governance which focuses mainly on creating civic institutions and providing the opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions.

A stronger civic sense

It is important to build state-citizen relations and to create a healthy environment in which civil society can function and contribute to progress.

Government support for NGOs could create a stronger civic sense and promote responsible social behavior among members of the public. However, what is lacking is the experience to formulate a legal and regulatory framework for civic participation in public affairs. International standards in volunteer work and civic participation should be applied, and an awareness campaign to promote the universal culture of human rights should be conducted nationwide. These basic elements can facilitate the emergence of an efficient civil society capable of addressing the needs of the community and standing against injustice in a peaceful and organized manner.

NGOs perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions to bring public concerns to governments and to monitor policy and program implementation. NGOs can determine priorities and eliminate problems. The role of civil society is crucial because it can offer valuable support to ensure that government responds to the needs of vulnerable and disgruntled groups.

NGOs can provide research and analysis on key issues, promote creative solutions to improve the quality of services, inspire ideas for decision makers to use in tackling tough issues, offer opportunities for the public to connect with officials, and provide a platform to share the experiences of experts in the field. They can enable officials to engage in dialogue with civil society and offer more transparency and collaboration with stakeholders in the community in order to strengthen government services to the public.

It is time we support NGOs that can address the needs of citizens as they arise and that can help us build a more cohesive society. Slow and weak attempts to support civil society make it difficult to build effective citizenship that is essential for a modern day society. NGOs are engines of stability and are cushions against upheaval. A vibrant civil society creates a sense of belonging that can encourage citizens to become productive members of society.

Saudi society can prosper and develop with the work of more experienced NGOs. Policy makers are called upon to ease restrictions on NGOs in order to strengthen responsible citizenship and accelerate reforms.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on March 17, 2013

Samar Fatany is a Chief Broadcaster in the English section at Jeddah Broadcasting Station. Over the past 28 years, she has introduced many news, cultural, and religious programs and has conducted several interviews with official delegations and prominent political personalities visiting the kingdom. Fatany has made significant contributions in the fields of public relations and social awareness in Saudi Arabia and has been involved in activities aiming at fighting extremism and enhancing women’s role in serving society. She has published three books: “Saudi Perceptions & Western Misconceptions,” “Saudi Women towards a new era” and “Saudi Challenges & Reforms.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.