Q&A: Saudi nonprofit MiSK paves the way for youth

Shaima Hamidaddin, executive manager at MiSK. Photo by: Twitter

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia saw little of the civic unrest that marked the Arab Spring movement that began across the Middle East in 2011, often driven by young people frustrated by a lack of economic and political opportunity. Still, the country’s youth took to social media in record-shattering numbers, asking hard questions of the government and demanding jobs and education. Often, when they complained few were listening.

That same year, a little known prince named Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud opened a foundation. A millennial himself, he wanted to provide a platform for youth opportunity. Few nonprofits existed in the kingdom, and none officially. And he was “just a prince among many, many princes” at the time, recalls Shaima Hamidaddin, executive manager at the foundation, known in English as MiSK.

Just six years later, both MiSK and its chairman find themselves in the driver’s seat of a country undergoing rapid change. Prince Mohammed bin Salman is now the country’s deputy crown prince, and the architect of a massive economic overhaul program known as Vision 2030. Youth are at the center of the country’s plans to transition away from dependence on oil; their training, education and employment will form the crux of any long-term economic change.

With a similar vision of building a youth-driven, knowledge economy, MiSK is now well known — and among Saudis under 30, a household name. The foundation has a reputation for hiring smart young Saudi technocrats, some of whom have gone on to ministerial positions. Its programs and strategies draw on expertise from and partnerships with blue chip companies and universities, such as INSEAD and the Boston Consulting Group.

“Our ambition is to build a knowledge-based economy through discovering, developing and empowering young talent.”

— Shaima Hamidaddin, executive manager for MiSK

If MiSK is little known outside Saudi Arabia, that may be about to change. Aware that many of the challenges that youth face inside the Kingdom are shared, particularly in the Middle East, the foundation now has an outward gaze. Devex spoke with Executive Manager Shaima Hamidaddin, manager of the foundation’s annual MiSK Global Forum, at the UNESCO NGO Forum in Riyadh about what’s next. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How and why did MiSK choose to focus on youth? What are the particular challenges you aim to tackle?

Globally, we face a youth explosion. In Saudi Arabia, over 70 percent of our population is under the age of 35. At the time when MiSK was founded, there were no foundations or organizations focused on the youth — or that could see what problems or opportunities were arising with the youth. Our chairman, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, being a youthful person himself, said, “I want my countrymen, people my age, to [be given] a platform to talk about things that are relevant for them.”

The four things that MiSK focuses on are education, media, culture and technology. Our ambition is to build a knowledge-based economy through discovering, developing and empowering young talent, and we do that in various different activities, from giving them opportunities to attend events such as this one, where they can build relations and networks and exposure, to giving them scholarship and internship opportunities. Ultimately, we are trying to seek the talented youth, and we really try hard to go nation-wide. We know that there are a lot of talented people in rural areas who might not have the opportunity to develop, and we want to make sure they are equipped with the right skills for the economy that they are inheriting.

Where is the intersection between the work the government is doing in many of these areas and your organization’s work?

It’s very much complimentary. We try to always include government, because they can take it one step forward, and they can regulate it in a way that we wouldn’t be able to.

We have some programs that we do in the media sector, for example. Last year we took some kids to the New York Film Academy to be equipped with some technical skills. We reached out to the media authority and said, “We need to know what you’re doing, what skills are missing.” They are in the midst of building a new media city. We want to know where that industry is at, so that when we go back and look at our programs, we make sure that we are doing something that is complimentary, and delivering something that is needed today and for the future.

It’s been a very long journey with MiSK. When we started in 2011, there was no such thing as a nonprofit entity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We had charities. Nonprofits — what does a nonprofit do? And Prince Mohammed was just a prince among many many princes in Saudi Arabia. He was not the deputy crown prince. But we see the need for someone to take ownership of the youth and their issues. And now I think the support that we get from government is because they have seen that there is an opportunity, and the impact that we can make.

Where do you go to look for ideas and inspiration? How connected are you to the global philanthropic community in terms of sharing ideas and partnering?

Ideas really come from anywhere, and we leave it very open to our team. Some ideas come from the chairman of the board, some ideas come from volunteers. Some ideas come from within the team. If someone sees a gap, we are more than happy to consider the opportunity to fill that gap.

For the first four years, we’ve very much been operating locally. The past year, with the MiSK Global Forum, we’re moving toward reaching out to connect our youth globally. We had representation from over 65 countries, and we’re trying to take it one step further and have a global platform. The world is getting more connected and we wanted to make sure that our activities and vision are reflecting that as well.

What do you look for in partners and how you think about partnership?

We really try to look at establishments that are leading in their own right and own field. We have collaborations with the MIT Media Lab because of all the innovation happening [there]. The MIT Media Lab have a group trying to find challenges and problems, and then solving them. We are connecting them with the Ministry of Hajj, [responsible for managing the pilgrimage to Mecca], ensuring they have all the data they need, and thinking about how we can improve that. Millions of people go every year, and there is so much we can improve. We really look at who is the pioneer in their field, and how they can add value to the youth of the region and work toward that.

What do you wish that organizations, NGOs and partners in the West understood better about the work you do — and the ways you could work together?

“I wish they knew that we are so much more alike than we are different. Youth face the same problems and the same opportunities [as in the West].”

I wish they knew that we are so much more alike than we are different. Youth face the same problems and the same opportunities, and we’re getting to a point where there’s so much connectivity that there’s not really many barriers.

There’s a lot of talent in Saudi Arabia, and in the region, that’s kind of hidden. There’s a lot of potential here. We wouldn’t be surprised if the next Mark Zuckerberg came out of the region, because there are a lot of smart people, but they haven’t had the right ecosystem or the right support to foster that talent.

Saudi Arabia sits a little bit in the middle [of the world]; we are connecting different continents. We have a strategic location. We have the youngest population in the region. We really try to see what is missing locally and globally, and we try to fill that gap. We do see what Global Citizen is doing. We do see what the Prince’s Trust is doing. We want to see what’s missing that people aren’t focusing on locally or globally, and go for that.

Tell us more about your priorities here in Saudi Arabia. What are the key focus areas?

First, education — our whole idea is to build a knowledge-based economy. It doesn’t matter where you come from, and how privileged or not you are: Everyone needs the right education and skills. That’s the base and foundation of anything you do in life.

We know that there is a shortage and gap in the skills that are needed for the jobs [in the economy]. Sixty-five percent of kids in elementary school will be working in jobs that don’t even exist today, so we need to develop and modify our curriculum to make sure that people are up-to-date with what’s needed for tomorrow. That’s what we try to focus on, whether it’s our non-degree or full degree programs. In non-degree, for example, we give programs that are related to data analysis and cybersecurity because we know that there is a shortage of the skills there.

Second, the media — you cannot even think about not being in media if you’re talking to youth. Social media, particularly, is huge in Saudi, and that’s how we can connect with the youth and how we can keep them interested and engaged.

And culture — you can’t look toward the future if you forget your heritage, your roots, your traditions and where you come from. We’re trying to preserve that as we’re moving forward toward the future.

With technology — there’s the fourth industrial revolution. Maybe it’s increasing profit, but people worry: “Are we going to have jobs tomorrow?” It’s how we can adapt innovation and technology to have a positive impact on the community.

What is your approach to designing your interventions? Do you work on a project basis or are some areas longer term investments?

It’s a very big foundation and very ambitious. We have the MiSK initiative center, which focuses on the journey of the youth, from giving them exposure and allowing them to attend forums, giving them training and scholarship opportunities, and then perhaps moving onto entrepreneurs, to being incubated in the MiSK booster, which is a venture captial fund and accelerator.

Then we have longer term projects, such as the MiSK Science and Natural Museum. We need more cultural and entertainment centers. Museums were actually on the top of the list when we did a study of what [Saudis do] when they go abroad. Museums make sense [to have here], and science and natural history is something that is targeted at kids, students and families. We’re also partners with the Mohammed bin Salman College for Business and Entrepreneurship, so we have a huge stake in this. It’s also in partnership with Babson College.

How has the nonprofit sector evolved here in Saudi Arabia? Are there any ongoing challenges in terms of the regulatory framework?

That has definitely evolved, because when we were founded in 2011, you could not even register a nonprofit organization because it did not exist. Fast forward five years, we really paved the way for many more nonprofits to have an official existence in Saudi Arabia.

There are challenges, globally, with NGOs. In Saudi Arabia, it’s about continuing to work with the government to a just legal framework, breaking down barriers. That’s an ongoing challenge that any NGO globally would face. But we’re really hopeful, and things are moving in the right direction. Things are progressing. Government is really open.

Speaking to many young Saudis, it’s striking to see here how many say they want to work in nonprofits and social enterprise. What is the potential of the sector absorb job seekers as well as do good?

The potential is limitless. Government can’t do it all so they rely on NGOs to find these young people, develop and empower them, to later assume roles in the economy or the government. It’s very much needed. One of the attendees here was saying to me, “well foundations don’t really last.” But we’re here and the youth are here — how can that not last? As long as we maintain the vision that we want, and always be relevant to the youth, we’re here.

Women seem to be at the front of this sector. How have recent government reforms related to their empowerment impacted or invigorated your work?

“Not only do we want to employ women, we want to support them and make sure that they can balance social responsibilities with work.”

Growing up I don’t think I saw [female role models.] Women in positions of power is a global issue that we all face. In Saudi Arabia, there are so many more role models now that I can look up to, that maybe weren’t there 10 or 15 years ago. There’s so much more support now, and a lot of the roads are really being paved.

I was the first female at the foundation, and the first to assume an executive position at the foundation. They’re very supportive. We’re building things such as day care. Not only do we want to employ women, we want to support them and make sure that they can balance social responsibilities with work. There’s so much potential and a lot of support.

What is your own story at the foundation?

I was living in the United Arab Emirates for a very long time with my family, since the 1990s. I got married and moved here, and I met the current secretary general. He said, “we are starting this new foundation for youth, are you interested in joining us?” I said that sounds interesting — let’s try it out.

The first thing we started on was social media, because social media was booming at that time in Saudi Arabia. We had an event called Tweeps — and that was just unheard of. People were going crazy — we had 3,000 people coming to attend and we had space for about 1,000. That gave us so much insight. We gave them a platform to talk about social media, to talk about free speech, to talk about what are the opportunities and challenges.

It was addictive at that point for me. I would never wake up and think, “I don’t want to go to work today.” And I’ve been in those jobs. Now, it’s that feeling of just wanting to do more — and you see so much impact. MiSK has been pioneering in the region. I really feel like we’re making history.

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.