Thursday, June 25, 2009

Word of the Month: Tripartite

"It is in times of crisis that the world most needs a strong International Labor Organization."

It was Gibran Khalil Gibran who brilliantly described joy and sorrow as "inseparable" in his flawless work, The Prophet. Khalil writes: "When one [joy or sorrow] sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed." Surely enough, the International Labor Organization's 90th anniversary, a supposed time of joy, is no exception. Sprawled through the main corridor is a magnificent red carpet with dates etched on it in white, starting with 1919, 1920, 1921 all the way up to 2009... an exquisite gift from the Chinese delegation honoring the Organization's 90 years. But as we enter the first meeting of the International Organization for Employers, there are no balloons or cake in sight. Instead, the mood is somber as the following words permeate the hall: "This is the most severe crisis we have experienced yet, since nobody here was in business during the Great Depression of the 1930s." As if the Global Financial Crisis isn't enough of a buzz kill for any celebration, our "daily bulletins" are marked in bold font with a daunting Swine Flu alert: "H1N1 VIRUS: If you experience any flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough or sore throat, you should excuse yourself from the conference immediately and stay in your home, hotel, or residence."

As I take a swig of my vitamin-enriched water, an employer from Venezuela raises her hand. Her voice is frantic. "I am concerned about free enterprise in my country," she begins. "Property is being CONFISCATED by the government!!! Or nationalized, depending on what word you use," she adds sarcastically. "Venezuela is a dictatorial regime that has concentrated all power in its hands. Housing and personal goods may be next. There is no talk of new elections. And Venezuela has threatened to pull out of the ILO. This may be the last time that we attend this conference. I urge you to look into our matter and put it on the agenda."

My eyes open wide, this is serious stuff. How can she talk so openly without fear of reprisal from the government she represents? It is then and there that I understand the meaning - and value- of the term TRIPARTITE. The International Labor Organization prides itself on being a tripartite United Nations agency, meaning that it brings together representatives of 3 parties from each of its member states: governments, employers, and workers that all have an equal voice in the Organization's proceedings. For a long time, Saudi Arabia was not welcomed into the ILO because the government did not recognize labor unions, thereby violating the tripartite principle. The Venezuelan woman who was speaking out against her government was officially sent here from Venezuela. But she is an employer, representing the private sector. The government has no control over what she says within these walls.

Finally, I start to feel less like a freshman who has entered a graduate seminar without have completed the assigned readings. The system starts becoming clearer and perhaps Dr. Abdullah notices. "You can say whatever you like here," he explains. We represent the employers of Saudi Arabia and the Chambers of Commerce. We are separate from the government delegates."
Hmmmmm...... I think back to my time at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. Although the Jeddah Chamber is the official business club for employers and the only real non-government organization in Saudi Arabia- or so I was told on my first day of work- in actuality, it felt like a funny mix of all three parties. Although it catered to the private sector, it continued to annoyingly resist the efficient productive nature of business enterprises. At the businesswomen center, we operated like an NGO but still sugar-coated our arguments with government lingo.

I can't imagine how to begin working uniquely from an employer's perspective. Governments aside, the rift between employers and workers here is larger than I imagined. Given the financial crisis, the workers' unions have been talking about the need for a "new international economic order." On the other side are the employers. Their response to the workers is embodied in the following words "It's 2009, not 1970. This isn't the first crisis we fix. The workers' bench has forgotten that crises are cyclical. This is not the end of the free market or capitalism."

Dr. Abdullah slips me a piece of paper and asks me to choose a Committee to participate in during the next 2 weeks. These are specialized sessions to set labour standards and develop policies dealing with topics that have been singled out as particularly important for this year. HIV/AIDS in the workplace, the Application of Standards, the Financial Crisis, and.... my heart skips a beat...

Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work.

The stars are aligned for Dr. Lama and me. This is the FIRST time since 1985 (I was hardly a year old!) that gender is on the agenda! With joy sorrow and with sorrow joy. This is pure joy! The first meeting begins at 11:30AM.

Monday, June 22, 2009


June 1, 2009

Arrivee a Geneve. La receptioniste coquette smiles and glances at my passport from behind her desk at the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, located just a few steps away from the glorious United Nations Office with its 3-legged chair statue.

“Vous-etes avec la mission de l’Arabie Saoudite?” [Are you with the Saudi Arabian mission?] the receptionist asks me politely. “Ummm.. Oui [yes]” I reply. And just like that, I am transformed. Unknowingly, the receptionist has managed to conjure up that awkwardly familiar, nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m sure you know what I mean, that uncomfortable phenomenon of 2 worlds coming too close together. It can be a different situation that triggers it for each of us; in my case it’s the formal Saudi world of right and wrong, of protocol, of pushing cultural boundaries, of worrying about appearances and externalities. To deal with it in Saudi is one thing and to find it collide head first with my other world is another; the other world of travel and being myself and wearing whatever the heck I feel like wearing and, most recently, the sheltered 5 months debating and contesting and researching within the walls of the “Academy” at Yale.

As I started unpacking my summer dresses and pulling out my sneakers and beachwear (my suitcases that I was bringing back with me to Saudi for the summer holidays), I revisited the age-old question for Saudi women abroad; The Head Cover: To wear or not to wear? I recall the message I received from Dr. Lama Al-Sulaiman inviting me to join her with the Saudi Delegation at the International Labor Conference. [Dr. Lama is one of the women who were elected to the board of the Jeddah Chamber in 2005- a.k.a my former 'big' boss at the businesswomen center]. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and excitedly prepared a few suits and light scarves. Geneva. The UN. Saudi Arabia. Work and Gender. OMG OMG OMG. YAY. I call my mom. “What will you do exactly?” she asks. “I’m not sure but I’ll be Santa’s Little Helper. And when Santa is Dr. Lama, you know it’s going to be good!”

I’ve known for a few weeks I’d be joining the delegation so why am I only now apprehensive about my attire? For one, I didn’t think we’d be neighbors in the hotel that’s for sure. And Dr. Lama has to yet to arrive. How will we interact with these Saudis [pause for dramatic effect] who I imagine to be conservative male government folk? So yes. Apprehension.

Is it all in my head or a reflection of reality? I guess I’ll find out tomorrow!!

June 2, 2009

7AM and I’m up! 20-minute yoga, 30-minute workout at the hotel gym. Pray, shower, floss, eyeliner, shirt, pants, suit jacket. Honey and Toast. A peach.

Hotel Lobby, 9AM. The other Saudi delegates are staying in a different hotel and we are to meet them at the ILO.

“Oops I forgot my head scarf upstairs,” I tell Dr. Lama. “It’s OK,” she answers. “I decided we don’t need to wear them.” Her rationale is that the event is not a media spectacle and that we’re not in the limelight, attending as participants and observers and not official speakers. A headscarf when we don’t normally wear one is self-imposed, perhaps more complicated, and definitely contradictory, since we’ll likely keep it around our necks at one point or another. The fact is, the government doesn’t have a stated position on the matter (not yet anyway and who knows for how long). It shouldn’t be taken for granted that some of our Saudi businesswomen pioneers set the precedent of not wearing the ‘abaya abroad, unlike many of our Gulf compatriots, having adopted the suit and scarf ensemble when traveling with international delegations. So we’re not being too scandalous (this word seems to always find its way into my blog!) and for now we’ll enjoy the obscurity and hope to pull it off.

Simon Says No Scarf, so no scarf! I feel good. And ready. Yalla now what? Dr. Lama turns to me: “I can’t come with you to the first meeting but I’ll meet you there. Here is Dr. Abdullah Dahlan’s number. When you arrive at the ILO office call him and he’ll come meet you.” I can do this, I coach myself. I’m strong, smart, independent, terrible at directions but it’s just a short trek down the road and to the right.. or to the left or something like that.

Somehow, I end up on a bus and not too much later I’m shaking hands with Dr. Abdullah Dahlan, formerly Secretary General of the Jeddah Chamber (it seems everyone has had a foot in the Jeddah Chamber at some point!), former member of the Shoura Council, and currently a writer and long-term representative of employers at the International Labor Conference. He presents himself with confidence in his matching tie and handkerchief and delivers a warm, welcoming greeting to his new protege (me!).

Out of the corner of my eye I see the jet-black hair of a tall woman in a short dress strutting into the building. I laugh to myself as I enter the conference hall and see bare arms, low-cut blouses and big hair. My previous inner monologues now rendered ridiculous, I take my seat comfortably next to Dr. Abdullah in the front row as he actively participates in the discussion on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, speaking in elegant Arabic that is translated instantly into 8 languages and received by the other delegates via headsets. After the session, he exchanges embraces with international colleagues whose respect and friendship he has fostered over 27 years of attending this particular conference. I turn my attention in awe to Dr. Abdullah’s jovial approach and appreciate his mentorship of me. He purposely introduces me to every Jose and Mohammad and encourages me to speak my mind and participate whenever I see fit.

“Dr. Dahlan! We’ve both been here for 27 years!” One European delegate exclaims. “This means we started attending when we were 15!” The 60-something-year old men chuckle and I take in the moment, trying to make it sink in that I’m at one of those conferences I once imagined to be the ultimate “cool thing to do when I grow up.”

I’m already here? What? Praise the Lord! God is Great!

IT began as a field diary for my summer in Jizan (2006) under the title "Watch Out Bubba Gump." Now I'm not sure what it is... but I do know it's time for me to start writing again.