Motherly advice from Dr. Thoraya Obaid, the first Saudi to head a UN agency

Illustration by Luis Grañena
Updated 21 March 2019

Motherly advice from Dr. Thoraya Obaid, the first Saudi to head a UN agency

  • In an exclusive interview for Mother’s Day in the Arab world, the woman who paved the way for a new generation of Saudi women shares her life lessons
  • ‘Have faith in Allah, and believe in yourself and that you were created to bring good to the world,’ she advises

RIYADH: The first Saudi to head a UN agency, the first Saudi female to graduate from a US university on a government scholarship, one of 30 women to be appointed to the Shoura Council for the first time, one of 100 notable “Muslim Builders of World Civilization and Culture,” and editor of “The Oxford Dictionary of Islam.” These are just a few achievements on the remarkable CV of Dr. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid. 

For years she politely declined media requests for interviews, saying it was time for the next generation to take the spotlight. But after a year of attempts by Arab News, she finally granted the newspaper an interview. 

 

As the Arab world marks Mother’s Day on March 21, Arab News decided it was a good occasion to sit down with Obaid, a mother of two girls, because she has been a role model to so many young Saudi women.

 

She has been an advocate for women’s rights worldwide, most notably as under-secretary-general and executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) from 2001 to 2010. 

But what most people do not know is how humble she is. “Please don’t call me Dr. Thoraya, call me auntie,” she said in a soft voice.

Early beginnings 

“I was 7 when I left for Cairo (to study at a boarding school). There were no girls’ schools in Saudi Arabia at the time, in September 1951, and my father had the same principles for his sons and daughter. He followed our Islamic teaching that advocated education for all,” she said.

“I started crying when he took me to the school in Cairo and told the teacher to take me away.”

Years later, she asked her father how he felt at that time. He told her: “I felt that if I let my fatherly emotions take over, I’d have bundled you up and taken you away.” 

But he decided against it, realizing that this moment would make or break her future, and he wanted to empower her through education.  

That moment, Obaid said, helped her cope anywhere in the world. 

She learned to make a new family through bonds with other students and teachers at the boarding school. 

She went on to get a PhD in English literature, with a minor in cultural anthropology, from Wayne State University in Detroit.

“My generation was focused on education,” she said. “You learn that education isn’t only for you, but also for you to serve others.” 

Working life

Obaid has lived and worked most of her life outside her country, in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and the US. 

During her time with the UN, she travelled the world. After her meetings in various countries, she would insist on going to villages and poor urban areas where the UNFPA supported government projects, so she could meet the people there. 

“These are the real people that must be empowered to change their own lives, not the ones we meet in the ministries,” she said. “Unless you go and see the poor, the sick and the very basic human rights violations, you won’t know what the country is about, especially if you’re stuck in nice hotels.” 

Even though she sought to visit these impoverished areas, heart-wrenching scenes would always get to her. At the UN they called her the “crying executive director,” but she was not ashamed of her tears. 

In one African country, while checking maternal programs in the village, she encountered a sickly woman who was thrown out of her home by her husband. She told her story to Obaid, both of them with tears streaming down their cheeks. 

In South Africa, she visited the cell in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 17 years. The guides were all former political prisoners, who said they kept the prison open in order to demonstrate that apartheid should not exist anymore. As she cried silently, she told them: “You know, there’s another apartheid happening again, in Palestine.” 

Life lessons

Obaid’s experiences taught her much about life. When it comes to family, she had this advice: “For young girls in families, don’t ask for everything and at the same time. Be selective, and have a strategic goal that you want to achieve in your life; focus on that.”

She said: “My most important request was going to university, a goal that’s now taken for granted by the young generation. So I tell girls to have a strategic objective in life. If you work toward it and achieve it, it will change your life.”

She advises daughters not to be inflexible with parents regarding their demands. “When you grow up, you’ll realize the issues weren’t worth it,” she said. “It’s even more obvious when you become a parent yourself.” 

Obaid, who worked hard to realize her dreams, added: “We, as human beings, don’t have unlimited energy, so direct your energy to what will make a difference in your life.” 

As for being Saudi, she said there is no place like home, adding: “I’ve lived 58 years out of my country and returned voluntarily. I’ve never really felt home except in my home, Saudi Arabia, with all its frustrations and complications.” 

It never crossed her mind to get another passport or residency permit, she said. “I learned that one’s dignity lies in their homeland. Wherever you go and however long you stay, you’ll always feel like an outsider. Even if you integrate in the community, you’re still an outsider,” she added. 

When asked what advice she would give youths, she said: “Have faith in Allah, and believe in yourself and that you were created to bring good to the world.”


Startup of the Week: Wayakit, the biotech firm helping travelers beat odors and stains

Updated 10 December 2019

Startup of the Week: Wayakit, the biotech firm helping travelers beat odors and stains

  • Wayakit leaves the clothes clean and fresh again

JEDDAH: Wayakit is a biotechnology start-up incubated by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

KAUST Ph.D students Sandra Medina and Luisa Javier are avid travelers who have come up with a pocket-sized product that deals with both odors and stains on fabrics, leaving the cloths clean and fresh again.

Wayakit is also gentler on fabrics because traditional laundry eventually damages them, said Javier, who first moved to Saudi Arabia from Mexico ten years ago.

Her business partner, Sandra Medina, who came from Colombia to study at KAUST, explained to Arab News how Wayakit works. “You just spray the smelly area twice and you’re good to go. In the case of stains, you spray twice and then pat dry it with a tissue and it will disappear,” she said.

The idea for the product came during a trip for a conference two years ago when the travelers realized their luggage was lost “We had to present with our dirty, seven-hours’ flight clothes,” Javier told Arab News.

“We started looking into the possibility then, because there’s not a proper solution to doing laundry while traveling,” she said.

 

They decided they needed to come up with a product that was not pricey, was easy to carry, and did the job by removing stains and bad odors “on-the-go.”

 

 

The duo began by interviewing more than 100 travelers of 23 different nationalities to find out if this was a common issue that travelers struggled with.

 

“From the Entrepreneurship Center at KAUST, we learned the importance of listening first to the customers before designing any product,” said Medina. From these interviews, Wayakit team got the product requirements and then moved into the lab to start working on the formulation of Wayakit. “The amazing facilities and labs in KAUST helped us to speed up the creation of our first prototype. After this, the same KAUST community was the people who first tried Wayakit and gave us feedback. “In KAUST we do not only have state-of-the-art labs, but also a whole entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Medina added.

Wayakit is different from its competitors in that it contains no toxic chemicals, and covers a broader spectrum in covering stains — it is two products in one. It also contains anti-bacterial properties, acting as a sanitizer that “removes all the stains that occur on a day-to-day basis as well as being an odor remover,” Javier said.

The pair went for a biotechnology-based formula that excluded the usage of oxidizers and focused on more organic compounds. “Even the anti-bacterial properties are not toxic as we incorporated these in an environmentally friendly formulation,” she said.

The Wayakit founders had to rigorously test their product, dealing with different types of sweat and stains to perfect their spray. “We had to give testers to travelers to try it out and had to listen to their feedback, then went back to the lab to improve it, in order to make sure the product was as promised.”

Medina said KAUST’s mentorship had also helped their company to develop. “KAUST for us is a catalyst of entrepreneurship and has given us a lot of room to grow our start-up Wayakit,” she said.

KAUST helped Wayakit by giving the advice and support from the start. From entrepreneurial courses to teaching the concepts of building a brand, KAUST encouraged Wayakit to grow from a scientific outlook and helped the founders to better understand the customer.

“As foreigners, it was difficult for us to understand the logistics and procurement of shipping and importing here in Saudi Arabia. KAUST has helped us to face that hurdle in order to be able to reach all our clients in the MENA region and worldwide,” Medina said. “Beyond helping travellers, our mission is to change the way how laundry is commonly done. We found a way to effectively wash clothes reducing water and energy consumption,” Javier said. 

Wayakit has recently began selling in Jeddah’s Homegrown Market, chosen because it is “a Middle Eastern brand store with unique ambience,” said Medina.