Exchange Matters / February 28, 2017

Exchanging Views: Changing and Shaping New Perspectives on Saudi Culture

By Meriam Sassi, Middle East Institute

Lujain AlUbaid, the social entrepreneur creating the legal and business infrastructure for non-profits in Saudi Arabia connects with event attendees at a Georgia Council for International Visitors event in Atlanta, Georgia.

Over the last three months, community-based member organizations have teamed with Global Ties U.S. and the Middle East Institute to host six young Saudi leaders in free events across nine different cities in the United States. From the woman who demanded that women be allowed into the Saudi workforce (and was heard) to a photographer who documents demolition due to gentrification in the medina, these professional and cultural leaders have given many Americans new insight into Saudi Arabia and its people.

Thus far, the program has welcomed professionals representing diverse fields, from award-winning writers to artists, from architects to activists. Many of these leaders choose to focus on the cultural aspects of their work and how this has impacted Saudi society. “It was refreshing to have a Saudi speaker talk about something other than politics,” explained Sandy Campbell, Executive Director of the Santa Fe Council for International Relations. Although politics are never the focus of the event, lively question and answer sessions engage speakers in a range of questions across the map—from the type of gear used on hikes by the first and youngest Muslim woman to climb Mt. Everest to how sharia law affects investing in Saudi Arabia.

Beyond their impact on local communities, the program has helped CBMs expand outside of typical organizational membership, and attract larger community audiences. Lily Ahlborg of WorldDenver said, “It was great to see new, young faces in the crowd. There were families in the audience who brought their young daughters to hear [the first and youngest Arab, Muslim woman to climb Mt. Everest] speak, and that reach was new to us.”

Seattle and Dallas saw similar experiences. In other cities, CBMs built new partnerships, and strengthened pre-existing ones, by co-hosting events with local organizations. The Georgia Council for International Visitors hosted two invite-only events for Atlanta-based Fortune 200 companies. Global Ties KC, on the other hand, reached outside of the Kansas City, MO area to host events in nearby Lawrence, increasing its programmatic visibility.

Investor Abdulaziz AlNaim discusses investing during times of uncertainty after being inspired to pursue a career in finance while watching increased foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia in Dallas, TX.

Through the partnership between Global Ties U.S. and the Middle East Institute, the Young Saudi Leaders Program seeks to build cross-cultural understanding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This will be accomplished through creative, impactful, and high quality programming of young Saudi leaders brought to the United States to share their expertise and unique experiences with American audiences. If you are interested in partnering with this program, you can contact Program Manager Judy Donner at