May 10, 2009

The Real Architects

They are the ones who are the real architects of this nation. They gave the best years of their lives in their chosen fields to see this country prosper and transform itself into a modern nation without ever compromising its Islamic values. They worked during the most challenging periods of the country’s history. These men and women helped build universities, colleges, schools, hospitals, oil and petrochemical industries, civic institutions, training institutes, airlines and railways.

However, once they retire from government and private sector careers, they are often forgotten. There is no one to honor them or to recognize their valuable contributions. In 2000, distressed by the lack of recognition by both the government and the private sector, a small group of highly motivated Saudis in the Eastern Province formed a loose network of retirees to create awareness in Saudi society of those who had dedicated their lives to this nation.

“The original idea was to form a club of retirees from Saudi Aramco,” said Bidah M. Al-Gahtani, until recently the chairman of the National Retirees Association’s Dammam branch. He retired from Saudi Aramco in 1997 as executive director for Safety and Industrial Security.

“After retirement, we realized there were no recreational facilities for us. We thought of registering ourselves as a club of retirees from Saudi Aramco in 2000, but we were told we couldn’t register as a club. The chamber of commerce that we initially approached for registration instead invited our group to become part of their committees on condition that we involve men and women retirees from both the public and private sectors. We agreed, and it turned out to be a very successful experiment.”

In 2005, at a conference held in Riyadh under the chairmanship of the interior minister, a group of 30 retirees including former Saudi professors, doctors and engineers were asked to present a white paper on the need for launching a Kingdom-wide association of retirees.

“Of course, it was to be modeled on what we already had in the Eastern Province,” said Al-Gahtani. “At the end of the conference, the interior minister asked this 30-member group to solidify the idea, outline its objectives and guidelines and describe its vision and mission statements. The group then took all the documents to the Ministry of Social Affairs, which in turn endorsed the idea. Since all associations have to be approved by the Interior Ministry, it went there, and that is how the National Retirees Association (NRA) came into being.” Headquartered in Riyadh, the association has a full-fledged board of directors and has branches in all provinces of the Kingdom. The association’s basic aim is the well being of retirees. “We want to help them get medical facilities, government facilities, transportation facilities and recreational facilities free of cost. We want to make them an integral part of cultural activities,” said Al-Gahtani. “We always try to get free medical insurance for all retirees and members of their families. We are working very hard to get the minimum pension for retirees upgraded.” According to the General Organization for Social Insurance (GOSI), the minimum monthly pension of a Saudi retiree should not be less than SR1,825. “We want this to be SR3,000. We are working for an annual increase of not less than 5 percent to take care of the rising cost of living,” said Al-Gahtani.

Al-Gahtani said considering the efforts they have put into building this country, the retirees should not be charged for government facilities.

“They should not be asked to pay for a driver’s license or passport renewal fees or getting vehicle ownership papers (istimara). They should be exempted from paying government fees to get visas for house drivers and housemaids. We are asking for a 50 percent discount on all means of transport. We are going around to all hospitals and clinics, asking for discounts for all retirees as an interim solution until such time as the government approves free medication for all retirees. We are asking banks to make provisions for retirees. When you retire, the banks do not recognize you. You don’t exist for them. We want to change this situation.”

There are more than 1,700 registered members at the association’s Dammam branch. “Twenty-five to 30 percent of these are women,” Al-Gahtani added. “They are active members of this association. Like men, they have contributed immensely to the country’s educational and health sectors.”

Columnist Abdullah Al-Khalid, who also is a member of the association, says there needs to an awareness drive about retirees. “These are the people who have contributed the most to the building of Saudi Arabia. But once they retire, they are ignored -- totally ignored. There is no respect and no recognition of their contributions. Naturally this is unacceptable. All people in government and the private sector who are now running the show and who are now in decision-making positions were trained by these retirees,” he said.

The membership of the association has a nominal fee. “There are two kinds of membership,” said NRA Dammam branch President Saeed Al-Ghamdi. “One has an annual fee of SR300, and the other costs SR100. Both kinds of membership have equal rights. The only difference is the ones who pay SR300 annually become eligible for nomination to the association’s various committees.” For those in financial need, the association also helps in getting them placed in various companies and government departments. “We try to utilize their experience, and through our network, we try to get them a decent job, as well,” he said.

Abdullah Al-Alami, an economic researcher and member of the association’s media committee, said retirees are taken good care of in Western societies. “They don’t call them retirees; they call them senior citizens. They are given priority over everybody else. We need to raise awareness in the media about our retirees. We are conducting various programs to tell their stories to everyone,” he said.

The association recently organized a trip to the Saudi Aramco Exhibit where the Kingdom’s development and the company’s contributions are chronicled. They also visited the famous Well No. 7, the Kingdom’s first major oil strike, now popularly known as Bir Al-Khair or the Prosperity Well.

“Around 200 men and women in separate groups were taken to Saudi Aramco. They were delighted. Many of these people worked for various departments, and they had only heard about Saudi Aramco. They had never been there. For them, it was a great experience,” Al-Alami said. “The idea was to bring a smile to their faces, and we did.”

Among those retirees was retired Air Force pilot Faleh Al-Dossary. “I worked for nearly 35 years in the military. My son is a mechanical engineer here in Saudi Aramco,” he told Arab News during the trip. “My daughter is well settled. I want to relax. This association helps me connect with people. I am very happy with what they are doing. Their idea is to make us feel better and to remain productive members of society. We share our stories with other fellow retirees. We don’t feel left out anymore,” said Al-Dossary.

According to him, there is a lot to be done for the retirees. “There should be extra facilities for them. These are the people who have worked hard to build this country. Their contribution needs to be acknowledged. There are many ways to acknowledge their efforts ... by giving them discounts on transportation, helping them get loans from banks, creating health clubs for them and making life easier for them.”

Talking to Arab News later, his son Abdullah Al-Dossary expressed pride at what his father had done for his country. “He sacrificed a lot so I could become a mechanical engineer. Even now he wants to add value to his community and to his country. He wants to share his experience with the younger generation. He wants to instill the values of hard work into the community. Remember, these are the people who gave their blood and sweat to the building of this country. They lived by certain values ... those values are something that the current generation is slowly forgetting about.”

(For more information about the retiree group, visit its website at www.nra.org.sa.)

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