With support from a multiyear grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, BSR has worked to introduce CSR strategies to companies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Through this initiative, we partnered with Nailah Attar, a Saudi Arabian businesswoman and activist, to expand the CSR offerings of her ECO Consulting business, which serves both Saudi and international companies operating in the country.

Attar, who is also an advocate for women’s rights and social issues and helped orchestrate the recent peaceful protests for the women’s right to vote in Saudi Arabia, spoke with us about the difficulty of tackling CSR issues in her country and how she hopes Saudi Arabian business will advance the sustainability agenda.

Tell us about your organization, ECO Consulting.

ECO Consulting is the first woman-owned consulting firm in Jeddah. Once I had my license to operate, I paved the way for other qualified women to start their own businesses, so I like to describe ECO as a pioneering organization for women. It is the first organization conducting research on the women’s economic situation in the KSA, and when we started, it was the only organization that provided training for Saudi women who are interested in starting home-based and commercial businesses.

What inspired you to start working on sustainability issues in Saudi Arabia?

As a volunteer for more than 20 years at a variety of NGOs, I always dreamed of institutionalizing the charitable sector in KSA, since it is so aligned with our Islamic values and culture. When I discovered CSR, I just started learning and paying attention to the sector and wanted to work to improve the quality of CSR offerings among Saudi companies and organizations.

What does it mean to be a responsible business in KSA? What are some of the most important sustainability issues in the region?

For a company to be considered a responsible business in KSA, it must be honest and transparent with its stakeholders, which include its employees, vendors, investors, government partners, and community members. The company must ensure that its business practices and products/services do not violate any human rights issues. To me, the highest-priority CSR issues in the Saudi context include information infrastructure, poverty alleviation, health and safety, civic behavior, environment, employee education and engagement, and women’s rights.

How would you characterize the CSR landscape in Saudi Arabia?

The lack of CSR reporting has underrepresented Saudi sustainability efforts at both a local and global level. There are different models of corporate engagement depending on the choice of strategy and focus of work, but we still have a ways to go. For example, some companies are sponsoring scientific research at universities. Zain KSA, a telecommunications company, is supporting artisan products. SABIC sponsors the Riyadh Economic Forum. The National Commercial Bank also sponsors a variety of CSR programs and has published a report on the CSR landscape in Saudi Arabia.

How have recent events related to the Arab Spring changed the conversation regarding about CSR in KSA, if at all?

Social media was an important driver of the Arab Spring. Social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook came at a time when individuals were becoming more empowered, and they have used these potent new technologies to organize themselves. Most are ordinary people using new tools to force government and companies to listen to what they care about and demand respect. Both customers and employees are starting to use these technologies.

I also think people are changing faster than companies. And their expectations have changed: People want companies and their leaders to show authenticity, fairness, transparency, and good faith. If they don’t, customers and employees may come to distrust them, to potentially disastrous effect.

It is not only the people’s Arab Spring; it is also the companies’ Spring. There is a new wave developing in KSA: Because we can’t change the government, we’re using our power as consumers to demand that companies change. And that is a strong tool, which gives Saudi people a way of freedom of expression and speech.

How would you like to see Saudi Arabia make progress in CSR over the next five or 10 years?

I wish to see and enjoy more sustainable infrastructure, education, human rights, and businesses. This is what the country needs. The government has the money to support it, but what we need is the power of the people to push for the change and create an enabling structure to support these efforts. I hope we find the balance between economic development, social progress, and environmental protection that includes responsibility and respect of fair laws.

What, in particular, would you like to see business do to help KSA realize that future?

I would like to see companies take a more innovative approach to their community-investment programs. Instead of giving to charity, I would like to see companies invite grant applications focused on strategic areas for results-oriented grant-making, which will create pressure on grantees to develop creative solutions and accountability measures.

I would also like to see companies explore the feasibility of government procurement as a way to encourage responsible behavior and sourcing. Companies should raise awareness of sustainability issues through conferences, workshops, and through the media. With increasing foreign direct investments coming into Saudi Arabia, I would encourage investors to apply the best available standards in environment, health, and safety, to make possible the transfer of knowledge and exchange of experiences with Saudi counterparts. I also support the formation of a civil society beyond benevolent and charity organizations to ensure that they are creating lasting change.