Understanding corporate social responsibility (CSR) theory is not the key issue in Saudi Arabia. Rather, as I recently found with fellow BSR team members Faris Natour and Nandini Hampole, it’s all about translating theory into practice.

In May, BSR held three workshops in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in partnership with Eco Consulting (headed by a local woman entrepreneur, Dr. Nailah Attar), and the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce (JCCI). The workshops were intended to introduce Saudi companies to strategic CSR, discuss business and human rights issues with members of Saudi human rights organizations and the business community, and train JCCI employees themselves on how to broach CSR strategy with their members.

Our high-level observations from the three workshops were:

  1. There is clearly a broad understanding of what CSR is and how it can be applied within the Kingdom.
  2. Understanding the potential for strategic CSR to create business and societal value does not hinge on whether one is a representative of a large company or the owner of a small, family-run business.
  3. Those who seemed to more fully embrace the idea of strategic CSR—beyond philanthropy, community engagement, and volunteerism—tended to come from smaller companies looking to enhance their competitiveness, perhaps by using their sustainability bona fides to become a preferred supplier to a larger entity.
  4. There was general recognition that companies in Saudi Arabia cannot delay much longer when it comes to establishing a CSR strategy, especially when you consider the increasing resource constraints.
  5. Greenwashing was a popular topic—particularly, how strategic CSR is not a public relations exercise nor a set of discrete activities, but a fundamental part of doing business.

Overall, we were impressed by the workshop participants’ desire to focus on practical examples and how-to strategies. For example, managers were interested in how to raise the strategic CSR conversation with senior management, how to conduct external assessments of stakeholder concerns, and how to pull togehter a CSR report focused on performance. A constant refrain from participants was that theory (and, specifically, Western theory) is all well and good, but it doesn’t help with what they call “the implementation gap.” We left the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia believing that conversations around strategic CSR and the human rights responsibilities of business are beginning to happen in certain pockets, but are currently not scaling due to clear and present “implementation gaps.” So our work continues.