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Toward a Theory of Professionalization of the Saudi Nonprofit Sector

Sabith Khan


In considering the study of one of the most understudied countries in the world, one is tempted to ask, as the birthplace of Islam, that is informed by its own particular notions of social contract, welfare, and authority, is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) an “exceptional” country, a country that sees itself as the center of the Muslim world—both geographically and spiritually? How does one make sense of the social norms of the country that define ideas of valor, bravery, leadership, and morality? Are these particular to the extent that they are not universal or, on the other hand, are the Saudi claims to leadership of the Muslim world universal and, by extension, its model of leadership in the social sphere something one must take seriously? Can one apply parameters of leadership and followership to Saudi Arabia as has been done in other Western countries and is the normative understanding of civil society as a sphere outside of the state valid in this context? This paper answers some of these questions. A related finding from this paper is the importance of religion in shaping the norms of leadership in the nonprofit sector and religion’s relationship with the norms of philanthropy and giving. Given that many scholars have called for examining the “expressive” dimension of philanthropy, rather than just the “instrumental” purposes, this finding reinforces the expressive dimension. This paper is based on 15 key-informant interviews with the leaders of the top foundations and nonprofits in the KSA. Key informants are people who know a lot about what is going on in a community and are able to speak to the key issues facing the community. This list includes chief executive officers, chief operating officers, and finance directors of the most important and influential private foundations and nongovernmental organizations in the country and represents a very influential, although small, window into how nonprofit leaders think of leadership and what they think their needs are. This paper derived its theoretical insights from a grounded theory approach, specifically a constructivist grounded theory approach, as advocated by Charmaz.

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Leadership; Nonprofits; Saudi Arabia; professionalization

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