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Major humanitarian conference takes place in Saudi Arabia amidst national reform drive

This week, a major humanitarian conference, the 3rd Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum, took place in Saudi Arabia, gathering top policy makers from the world of humanitarian assistance at the Saudi capital. As Saudi Arabia has now become one of the leading global donors of aid, the conference aims to strengthen the country’s support for this cause.

During a press conference, the Supervisor General of Saudi aid organization KSrelief, which hosts the Forum, Dr. Abdullah Al Rabeeah (picture), a pediatric surgeon specialised in separations of conjoined twins, provided more detail on what the Forum intends to achieve.

He stressed that “it is a very difficult time for humanitarian causes, now with the earthquake in Turkey and Syria”. He explained that Saudi Arabia had been providing an air bridge, supplies, including heaters and food, 95 rescue staff and first responders – of which most are volunteers – and 3000 home units. Throughout all this, the organization was able to count on more than 3000 volunteering health workers from Saudi Arabia, as he also stressed the importance of the media for humanitarian work.

With regards to criticism on possible waste of resources due to theft, he stated: “With disasters, there is always chaos, but we need a scientific, non emotional response…The worst idea would be not to donate anything at all, just because part of the donations are sadly being siphoned off.”

He thereby concluded that the conference “aims to come up with conclusions to make real change on the ground.”

Also the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, spoke at the event. He highlighted how the volume of aid supplied by the Kingdom over the past seven decades amounts to $95 billion, which has benefited 160 countries around the world. He thereby also pointed out that Saudi Arabia is now spending more than 7 billion USD in development and humanitarian aid to low- and middle-income countries.

Another speaker, Balthasar Staehelin, who has served at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) since the early 1990s, highlighted the ways in which the ICRC dealt with digital transformation and data, explaining that “during a humanitarian crisis, people that provide their data often have no choice”, making it even more important to make sure their data are secure than otherwise, as “we can see that cyber attacks are on the increase.”

He thereby pointed out that “the ICRC also has sensitive data that are not personal data, for example on negotiations with armed groups”.

Furthermore, during the conference, it was also announced that the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief) signed two joint executive programs worth $6 million, with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), to support the Yemeni people.

Saudi Arabia in the midst of change

The conference took place as currently, major social and economic reforms are being implemented in Saudi Arabia. Under the name “Vision 2030” and strongly supported by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as “MBS”, reforms include major construction projects and profound changes to legislation.

As Mona Farag recalls in The National, “men and women are queuing in the same line at customs”, something that was not the case in the past, while the traditional dress for women – the abaya – is no longer mandatory. In 2017, pop concerts were legalized, while in 2019, sex segregation in restaurants was ended as it also became possible for Saudi women to travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission.

Men and women are now mixing in the workplace, while since 2018 it is also legal for women to drive, which however seems to have added to the problem of traffic jams.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is also making great efforts to attract tourists. Tourist attractions like Boulevard Riyadh City – a dynamic open air theme park – and Al-‘Ula an ancient Arabic oasis city located in Medina province in the north west of the country – offer something for everyone.

Another reform was to allow female business figures to receive a visitor visa for client meetings even if they are not married, something which was illegal before 2016. This is meant to contribute to foreign investment, modeled on the success of Dubai. Many Saudis are well-travelled and also speak very well English, making it easier to interact economically with the country.

Only this week, plans for a huge golden cube in Riyadh, which is supposed to become one of largest structures in the world, were also revealed, triggering a lively debate across the globe, indicating how the country’s changes are being increasingly noticed.





Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeah, the Supervisor General of Saudi aid organization KSrelief, a pediatric surgeon specialised in separations of conjoined twins, and a former Saudi health minister (Copyright: By Omar Chatriwala of Al Jazeera English – Saudi health minister Abdullah Al-Rabeah talks to Al Jazeera, CC BY-SA 2.0, )