Journey to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – I fly out late tonight, Sydney time.

Heigh ho, Heigh ho, it’s off to Jeddah I go.

In December 2006, a major Middle East broadcaster had a writing competition. They invited young Arab women to write in and say why they mattered. As in “why do Arab women matter”. The prize was an internship at the company, working with their Arab Women’s channel and other media properties. Over 2000 women responded. HRH Princess Abta Al Saud attended the ceremony and 17,000 women signed up for an as yet unformed online community to support Arab women

In May last year (2007), the broadcaster contacted me through dear ol’ fang to see if I would be interested in helping launch an Arab Women’s network. Would I? You bet! But I think there is part of me that thought this day would never come. I mean, an Aussie woman heading into the Kingdom, without a male escort (normally one travels with husband or brother) and no major company or industry organisation backing her, seemed unlikely to say the least. I’m not fussed about the ‘no women drivers’ rule or having to cover up in an abaya. But I am intrigued that it is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that is the chosen site for a launch to give Arab women a voice online.

Am I nervous? Yes. Surprisingly so. I lived for a year in Jakarta during the time of upheaval (I left in 1998, during the riots) and sat in a taxi while there were police/army shooting at students running down my street. I wasn’t this nervous. I sat outside a restaurant in Siem Reap in Cambodia when ‘bombs’ went off in the street (actually firecrackers in the deep gutters for their New Year called ‘Tet’). Well I didn’t know they were firecrackers so I just sat under the table and ate the best Indian food in the world. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like loud bangs come between me and my dinner! I studied Arabic in Fes, Morocco for a year, and got used to everything locking down when something in the system changed (it was 1999, the year King Hassan II passed away). I don’t know why I wasn’t nervous in those cases. Maybe because I was a visitor, a traveller, an observer sitting on the outside and it didn’t have anything to do with me. I just figured that as long as I treated people’s culture with respect, observed what I could of their laws, they wouldn’t get mad with me. It worked. Just like figuring out and following the rules used to work with my parents and teachers. Mostly I don’t seek to change society – I’m inherently lazy – I just figure out the minimum I have to do co-exist within it.

But Saudi is different. Why? Because. Well just because. I’m not an observer anymore am I?

No matter how naive I may be in some things, no waaaaaay can I pretend this community is just another oh, dating site, or tv show, social network. It’s a game changer, a rule breaker. Newsflash: social media is disruptive! And you know that as well as I do.

This online community – the host has 50 million subscribers to their TV channels – reaches from one side of the Middle East to another. They had an overwhelming response to anything they do with women being asked to show development, self-actualisation and passion for communication. And, you gotta love ’em for it, they are going to bring social media to as many women as possible. A media company and a Royal family empowering the new Arab woman to believe in herself, to write, communicate with her online community, and upload photos and other content. Blogs, forums, photo galleries, the lot.

We often talk about ‘surfing’ and ‘waves’ analogies. This one is the tsunami. And I’m not on the beach – I’m in the water. Heh. Incidentally, I found some blogs of Saudi women but they were locked down, inside a gated community/walled garden, with only friends and family having access. If you know of any open ones, let me know? Although after Sunday that will be a moot point.

I haven’t actually had a lot to do with how the site was set up, strangely enough. But I’ll be doing the keynote on the opening press day, at a women’s college in Jeddah and then running 3 workshops a day on how to use the site for the rest of the week. Hopefully bringing my passion for online communities and social media and vision to at least some of those who attend.

I really want to name the company and link to the site – which is live and join-able – but I’m not going to. For two reasons: one, the proper launch is on Sunday (Saudi work week starts then) and it’s a bit like peeking at Christmas presents before the Big Day. And two, I don’t want to bring a tonne of men joining the network before the press conference. If we go from a base of 20 women members to heaps of guys, it’s going to, well, you know. I would ask for you to hold off on linking and promoting the site (even though everything I have said is in the public domain, on the ‘net and live and discoverable) until after Sunday 16th March. But as always with social media, you are free to write what you want.

Yes, you are free to write what you want. A tsunami. And I’m boarding a plane tonight to fly into it. Hopefully with your good wishes to help me keep focussed on bright and positive changes. Leave me a comment?

PS Not sure what access I will have there – can’t be worse than Australian broadband right? – but if it’s only mobile, I might not update this blog until I get back. So check on @SilkCharm on Twitter and my Flickr photo account, as I assume my trusty Nokia 95 won’t let me down.