Saadya El Wafy is promoting development in squatter areas of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) that are often ignored. She is convening stakeholders in a framework of civil district councils, and empowering communities to alleviate poverty.

Saadya has developed a comprehensive and sustainable model for poverty alleviation in Saudi Arabia, which empowers the poor and has a special focus on women.

Using a multi-fold strategy, Saadya works directly with the community; gains their trust and assesses their needs in order to advocate on their behalf. She trains local facilitators and leaders to implement and follow up on various projects and at the same time, she is mobilizes local officials and other stakeholders to participate in civil district councils; a structure she developed. The civil district council ensures comprehensive sustainable development in squatter areas, rather than the charitable donations and unsustainable development interventions currently received.

Representing the perspective of the people, community leaders are the most important members on the council. They set the development priorities, express cultural distinctions and relay how social contexts differ among communities. Donors (sheikhs and agencies) are invited to join and provide the resources for development interventions, while government officials’ facilitate the implementation of projects and act as indirect advocates; allowing civil society activities to expand in KSA. Volunteers are also members of the civil district council and are often play a key role in completing the projects.

Since citizen organization (COs) are not permitted to work, with the exception of charitable organizations, this level of community mobilization has never existed in the KSA.

For many years the money from Saudi Arabia’s oil revenues were used by the wealthy elite to hide visible poverty by distributing it as charity to the poor. However, such one-offs fail to provide the infrastructure or resources for sustainable poverty alleviation and development. The situation changed with the first gulf war and was exacerbated after September 11, 2001. Wealthy Saudis began to make structural investments, but became more cautious about charitable giving. With this decrease, poverty and crime in marginalized areas became more visible, but, the government, the ruling elite, and the media refused to acknowledge the problems.


The poverty in the slums of southern Riyadh or Jeddah are shocking, but is not confined to urban areas—rural poverty is also a problem. Saadya discovered many shanty towns were poorly managed and lacked infrastructure; such as unpaved streets and houses too small to accommodate families (with 10 people in a room); lacked services, such as electricity, water and plumbing; schools and social services. Most of the population is unskilled and unemployed. Among those working, some are involved in petty crime, selling drugs and male/female prostitution.



There is no a legal framework for COs to flourish in Saudi Arabia, which accounts for a nearly complete absence of social organizations. In other countries, COs often speak out and work on behalf of the marginalized. KSA has only forty registered charitable organizations which are often limited to providing the unemployed with monthly payments and food—efforts that can create a cycle of dependency. Businessmen channel zakat to training programs for the unemployed, but these efforts are similarly uncoordinated.


Political and economic discrimination denies squatters opportunities to participate in public life and the labor market. This alienation may lead to increased crime rates, violence, drug addiction and prostitution. When squatter areas become too dangerous for outsiders to work, the result is further isolation. Government facilities and services, such as health and education are rarely provided in these communities, and are often inadequate to meet their needs.

After spending several years with different corporate social responsibility programs, Saadya believes that to alleviate poverty in marginalized communities comprehensive and complementary programs need to be done in a participatory manner. Therefore, the squatters are the principal players to suggest, implement and evaluate development interventions. Previous interventions were not successful because they treated citizens as mere recipients, adding to their alienation and marginalization. Citizen particpation nurtures a sense of ownership, ensuring commitment, support and sustainability.


As a woman, Saadya found it very difficult to enter the districts where she wanted to work. However,, she used her gender to her advantage by first engaging with the women of a house and then reaching out to the entire family. As she built relationships within the squatter districts and defined her idea, she faced several obstacles: the lack of reliable information, a refusal by policymakers and officials to recognize poverty as a problem, and rejection and intimidation by criminal syndicates, the intelligence services, and others. However, Saadya continued to rely on the community, eventually gaining their trust and respect.


With a lack of reliable information on squatter areas, Saadya conducted a field survey covering the 12 areas in Jeddah, a central city in Saudi Arabia. Her research facilitated building relationships; conducting focus group discussions with women in particular, and listening to their struggles. With a bond of mutual trust they accepted development projects which required their willingness and participation. Saadya concluded that although living conditions in the 12 squatter districts are similar, development priorities differ based on each district’s distinctive features. She found that Golail District had the highest crime rate compared to the other 11 districts, in addition to very poor living conditions and a general lack of facilities. Saadya selected Golail to launch her model of comprehensive sustainable development through community mobilization. Saadya established the first civil district council, including community leaders, donors, governmental officials and volunteers. She linked the council members with each other and oriented them with regard to their mission, establishing how they would work together. Those invited on the council were to help empower the people and move them toward cooperation. The mayor’s duties were transformed from routine to real engagement with the poverty and development issues in his district—even bringing the police chief face-to-face with community leaders to develop a trusting relationship.


As the council addresses the needs of the community, priorities are set, donors select their areas of interest,, civil society volunteers’ work on implementation, and governmental officials provide any necessary support. Where donations do not cover the diversified needs of the district, a search for a potential donor is everyone’s responsibility. No matter who approaches a donor, the council credits the entire initiative. To ensure transparency and efficiency, the council meets periodically to review implementation, achievements, and obstacles.


The financial resources for a civil district council are currently managed by Saadya’s CO, Al Bidaya (the Beginning), the first Saudi CO founded by a woman. It trains people and provides employment services, microcredit, and emergency assistance to squatter communities. Al Bidaya provides support, coordination and motivation to the Golail district council and others at their inception. Since the Golail councils establishment, she encourages them to meet directly with the community and to be responsible for addressing the communities’ concerns. While Saadya has been a trusted advocate and conduit, she will remove herself from the process to ensure its sustainability and locally-ownership. With the success of the Golail civil district council as a model, Saadya will launch her second council within six months.


Inhabitants of the squatter districts had their doubts about participating in development interventions, especially those leery of “outsiders”. Saadya conquered their fear by maintaining an open and close relationship with the families, providing services in income generation, health, training, employment, and in-kind contributions.


Potential donors were afraid of community resistance, especially in the more dangerous districts. Yet Saadya’s intensive advocacy and integrity enabled her to pursuade prestigious donors and volunteers. For advocacy purposes, Saadya produced a short documentary showing the circumstances of the communities. She filmed the documentary using a hand-held camera since a professional crew could not safely enter the districts or receive permission from the families or the authorities.


Though government officials were initially hostile to her work, she spent a week visiting with the Ministry of the Interior, explaining the connection between poverty, violence and terrorism, until they were convinced to give her five licenses to allow her to operate in the areas of her choice. Saadya is the first Saudi woman to obtain a permit to conduct reconstruction in a district; the Ministry no longer restricts her work.


Saadya made her case to the Police Chief in Jeddah and brought the Chief of Saudi National Intelligence and the Secretary General of Jeddah Municipality to visit the communities and soon expects the Crown Prince. She is considered an authority for information and statistics in these areas and an honest broker between the communities and “the outside.” Her credibility has never been compromised.


Saadya also seeks the help of experts to collaborate and network with COs. On a mission to Egypt, Saadya visited the Association of the Development and Empowerment of Women and they worked on two projects, “Arab Women Speak Out” and “Girls’ Dream” in Golail.


Saadya plans to spread her model to eight squatter areas in Jeddah in three years, reaching at least 40 percent of the citizens. She has already secured their trust. Saadya has developed training for trainers program for volunteers from different districts to learn her model of participatory, sustainable development through civil district councils. Trainees spread the model to their districts, while Saadya provides technical assistance and personal connections. Saadya has twelve young women from the districts working with her and aims to empower local women coordinators in each area of KSA. In the long-term, Saadya will create a civil district council in every squatter district in the KSA—connecting councils in a network to exchange expertise, volunteers, and funding.

Saadya was brought up in an upper middle class family in the KSA, where she learned patience from her mother and persistence from her father. Her family of seven sisters and brothers was conservative, yet tolerant. As a student, Saadya was a hard worker, intelligent, and participated in almost all extra curricular activities in school. She led the school broadcast team and took part in all school contests.


In high school, Saadya constantly came up with new ideas and presented them to teachers. She established a trust fund to anonymously help poor students, by convincing wealthier students and teachers to contribute. Saadya tutored other students outside of courses and organized trips for her classmates with the school’s supervision. Classmates confided in her and sought her advice on personal matters.


When she was young she dreamed of being a doctor, but family traditions kept her from committing to the long years of study required because it may have limited her chances at marriage. That deprivation was an impetus to her—she wanted to find way to improve conditions so that others would not be deprived of their dreams.


After graduation, Saadya worked as an officer in the social department in Abdul Latif Gameel Company, a large Saudi corporation. Focusing on women’s empowerment, Saadya was among the first Saudi women to go into the field. She loved visiting the women’s homes, talking with them about the importance of their role in the family and contribution to society. Saadya was continually promoted due to her creativity and problem-solving skills and soon became head of the department.


A turning point for Saadya was witnessing a woman sell her three children to ensure they would be well kept and fed, and not doomed to a miserable life like her own. Deeply moved by their plight, Saadya’s mission became to help improve the lives of the poor. She was frustrated that the government seemed to ignore their plight, and only sometimes consulting Western experts on poverty alleviation. Saadya wanted Saudis to be the experts in alleviating their poverty.


Saadya defied taboos on Saudi women’s behavior. Most women in the KSA, if allowed by their families to work, take jobs in nursing, teaching, or fields deemed suitable for women. Saudi women do not work in the public arena or in development. Saudi men often ignore the latter, due to the inadequate legal framework for development and COs.


Saadya’s work in Golail and establishment of the first civil district council also placed her in many dangerous situations. Governmental authorities detained Saadya for questioning on the nature of her activities, and El Amr Bil Maarouf Wi El Nahy Ann El Monkar (“Order the Right and Forbid the Wrong”) ordered a siege her activities in Golail, claiming that women should not be unaccompanied in the KSA. Working in the field, Saadya and her brother were beaten by gangsters living in Golail who banned her from visiting. Her car was also sabotaged, and in another incident, gangsters tried to intimidate her by locking her in a house of prostitution for six hours.


Saadya’s choice has affected her personal life dramatically. She has decided to stay single; sure no Saudi husband will approve of her work. Breaking rules and traditions (dealing with men, coming back late, traveling away from home for training and networking), her family members gave her two options: be a normal Saudi girl or leave the family. Saadya chose the latter, living with her grandmother until she died two years ago. Gradually, her family’s attitudes begin to change. After her father was interrogated about her activities, she invited him to meetings in the district—poor families told him how much they appreciated her and people began to visit her family’s home with gifts. Her father came to understand her work, expressed his fears for her and the family’s safety, but did not restrict her work. Saadya’s family used to live in a luxurious villa, but in their support to her, are moving to a home very close to one of the slums. Saadya has taken her younger sister as an apprentice; she wants to follow in Saadya’s footsteps.