06/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Promoting a culture of volunteerism in Saudi Arabia

Following Sept. 11, reports of hate crime rose exponentially across the United States. But, living deep in the heart of Texas, Dr. Salam Al-Dini says he had no problems.

The reason, says the former-Texas A&M student, was because he served as a volunteer in the community.

In his years studying and working in the Lone Star state, the Saudi Arabian immersed himself by volunteering with local NGOs and fundraising campaigns. He became known around the Southern community for always wearing his country's traditional long, white cotton thobe and ghutra scarf above a long beard.

It was there he watched news reports of three Texas mosques being vandalized following Sept. 11. When it emerged that 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, he said he became concerned he too would experience backlash.

His friends though quickly began standing up to naysayers while his community echoed the praise. Never once, says Al-Dini, did anyone second-guess his motives.

"I had shown the community that I cared," he said. "I thought, if I could maintain this perception, maybe I could bring it back home and make it part of my culture."

Volunteerism has its personal and societal benefits. It brings people together for a common good and strengthens a community. But, as Al-Dini discovered, it can also break through prejudice. Today, as Saudi Arabia continues to battle a tarnished reputation, it's through philanthropy and volunteerism rather than wealth and power that the country could change global perspective.

Saudi Arabia has long been shrouded in secrecy. You can't simply travel to the kingdom. Our visit last month needed to be sponsored by someone in-country and our itinerary approved by the Embassy. The strict media and information controls mean few Westerns see the true culture.

Most Americans know the country through the news - the oil wealth, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and the strict and often oppressive laws enforced by religious police.

But, these reports don't necessarily align with the views of the Saudi Arabian people. A recent Gallup survey found nearly three-quarters of photographs of Muslim women in the American press depict them in "passive capacities." It's definitely true that the government severely restricts their lives. But, the same Gallup survey found 86 per cent of Saudi women and 84 per cent of Saudi men are in favour of equal rights.

When Al-Dini returned to Saudi Arabia with his message of volunteerism, he hoped to use it to highlight this more positive aspect of his culture and gain some respect for his nationality.

As a new professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Al-Dini was met with trepidation. Zakat, or alms-giving, is already deeply rooted as one of the five pillars of Islam. This requires a person give a small percentage of their income to charity. Rarely are people encouraged to give through service.

At the same time, the oil-rich nation relies heavily on foreign labour to fill low-paying jobs. The volunteer positions Al-Dini had lined up - washing cars, handing out flyers or preparing food - would normally be performed by migrant workers. A students studying for highly-skilled positions at a top university wouldn't normally step foot in the kitchen.

With these barriers to overcome, Al-Dini began telling the story of his acceptance in the Texas town. Through it, he garnered support from those looking to improve their country's reputation on a global scale. About 1,500 turned out to Al-Dini's first volunteer fair. Earlier this month, his second grew to 2,000.

But while these students campaign against smoking, produce bracelets for safer driving and mentor underprivileged kids through soccer, their acts are continually overshadowed. Instead, it's the largesse and strategic position in oil that captures attention.

Al-Dini's small faction of service-minded students may not easily turn heads. By assisting in spreading their message, the Saudi government could help the world look at their country in a different light.