Monday July 22nd, 2024
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Al Oula: How Seven Women From Jeddah Founded Saudi Arabia’s First NGO

Founded in 1962, Al Oula is a female-led charity working to empower women and children.

Laleh Bergman Hossain

Al Oula: How Seven Women From Jeddah Founded Saudi Arabia’s First NGO

In 1962, a group of seven women based in Jeddah decided it was time to make a change. Taking advantage of the cultural renaissance taking place in the country at the time, these women created an organisation designed to empower those left behind by society. This organisation was soon registered as Saudi’s first non-profit, garnering the support of many prominent Saudi Arabian women - including Her Majesty Queen Effat Al-Thunayan, who acted as the first honorary President of the association.

The primary goal of the organisation in the 1960s was to empower women and children. Operating on the key principle that early intervention was the only way to break the cycle of poverty, Al Oula created a series of programmes designed to help women in skill acquisition. “We had computer training and development courses, reading and writing classes, and also courses for women assisting nurses,” Dania Al Maeena, CEO of Al Oula, tells SceneNowSaudi.

In addition, Al Oula ran an orphanage, an old folk’s home and a kindergarten to support working women. These programmes proved to be extremely successful, and many children from Al Oula’s orphanage went on to obtain masters and doctorate degrees, and some joined Al Oula’s administration. Dr. Baker Salma, who grew up with Al Oula, exemplifies this success. He ended up with a degree from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and a masters degree in Public health. Dr .Salma continues to provide full support to Al Oula’s programs by volunteering through various events.

Al Oula has always promoted progressive values, ensuring as far as possible that women were given educational and work opportunities, and placing particular emphasis on the importance of women’s participation in sports. “I think we were always trying to break the ceiling…we have always been game changers”, Al Maeena says. Indeed, the organisation established a ladies club with a functional women’s basketball team and hired trainers from Lebanon who trained women and girls in tennis and a variety of other sports. This has been a huge success story for the organisation, with many of Al Oula’s girls going on to represent the Kingdom.

Shomoukh, a player for the Jeddah United Gold team, is a notable success story. With support from Al Oula, she was able to join the General Authority for Strength Games’ training camps, and become a basketball player and certified sports coach. She also founded the Cocoon initiative, which works to empower girls to enter the sports field. Furthermore, Al Oula’s Girls Team represented the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the 7th Arab Junior Athletics Championship in Tunisia in 2019.

Dania Al Maeena began as a psychology major, and subsequently worked as a student counsellor - which left her with a strong motivation to help young children and especially young girls access the education they deserved. She initiated an extremely successful programme for underprivileged girls called My Future at an NGO in Riyadh, which included counselling and psychometric testing to ensure that these girls were able to continue their education. Prior to the programme, 95% of these girls did not continue their education post high-school, while 100% did after completing the programme. Dania subsequently managed a youth workforce preparation program at the Ministry of Labour, before joining Al Oula in Jeddah.

Since then, Al Oula has implemented several impactful initiatives, motivated by the idea that “while you can’t change everyone’s lives, you can improve people’s quality of living.” The Happiness Programme supports over 2,500 beneficiaries with basic supplies such as housing, food, school supplies, and medical assistance. The organisation also runs skills programs, focusing on developing 21st-century skills in children aged seven and up, alongside continuing various sports programs including swimming, tennis, basketball, and yoga.

More than a charity, Al Oula is also very much a community project. One of their flagship initiatives in their annual Tea and Coffee Festival, which celebrates the rich cultures and traditions associated with these beverages. The festival is an important cultural event in Jeddah, and involves participation from over 20 countries around the world. The festival’s slogan, ‘A Cup for a Good Cause’, combines celebration with social impact, emphasising Al Oula’s mission to foster positive change. Additionally, Al Oula has engaged in crisis work - for example, providing housing for those impacted by the 2009 Jeddah floods

Saudi’s Vision 2030 - the country’s roadmap for economic and global engagement -  has included the lifting of many restrictions on women’s rights and freedoms. This has helped Al Oula’s ability to operate, allowing them to focus more on development rather than just support. CEO Dania also said that Al Oula is proud to play an important role in the vision, “focusing on how we can help the vision achieve a vibrant society, so that we don’t leave anyone behind.”

Al Oula's journey, led by a group of visionary women since 1962, underscores the transformative power of female leadership. What started with seven women in Jeddah has grown into a force for societal change, consistently challenging traditional norms and advocating for the rights and opportunities of women and children. The continued success of Al Oula is a reminder of the impact that women-led organisations can have on their communities.