Revealed: Top 5 most powerful Arabs in Saudi Arabia

Time: 12 April 2021

The highest ranked Arabs originating from Saudi Arabia in Gulf Business’ annual Arab power list


Saudi nationals once again stood out as the second largest group in Gulf Business‘ annual Arab Power list for 2021, with the number of entries tallying 20 this year.

Leading from the front is the chair of the state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco, while its CEO Amin Naseer also sat among the top five most powerful Arabs from the kingdom.

Lubna Suliman Olayan, chairperson of Saudi British Bank and a trailblazer in her own right, made it into the top five ranking.

Those on the list from the kingdom span across industries – from finance and energy to telecom.

1. Yasir Al-Rumayyan
Chairman, Aramco/Governor, PIF

Sector: Diversified
Overall rank: 1
2020 rank: 1

In what has been an incredibly tough year, one person who has been keenly investigating opportunities – backed by a massive pool of resources – is Yasir Al- Rumayyan, the governor and board member of the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF). The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund – among the world’s largest with roughly $400bn in assets – has been frequently making headlines as it snaps up investments in diverse sectors including video games and fintech.

Al-Rumayyan has also pledged that the fund will invest $40bn annually in the kingdom to boost the economy. Also chairman of the world’s biggest oil producer Saudi Aramco, Al-Rumayyan confirmed last month that the company still intends to sell more shares following its historic IPO in 2019, when it sold less than 2 per cent of its shares and raised $29.4bn. A close aide of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Al-Rumayyan also serves on the boards of Soft-Bank Group and Uber and chairs Sanabil Investments.

As Saudi Arabia embarks further on its ambitious Vision 2030 agenda, Al-Rumayyan will play a significant role in making that vision a reality.

2. Amin Nasser
President and CEO, Aramco

Sector: Energy
Overall rank: 7
2020 rank: 10

Calling the pandemic the “biggest crisis in a century” for the oil industry at a recent conference, Amin Nasser, CEO of the world’s biggest oil producer, however stressed that he was optimistic about demand recovering this year. He is also leading Saudi Aramco’s diversification into hydrogen and ammonia – it made the world’s first blue ammonia shipment from Saudi Arabia to Japan for use in power generation in 2020. In April last year, Aramco also achieved the highest single day crude oil production in its history, reaching up to 12.1 million barrels per day.

3. HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Chairman, Kingdom Holding Company

Sector: Finance
Overall rank: 10
2020 rank: 9

While the Saudi businessman’s Kingdom Holding has not been much in the news, the humanitarian organisation he chairs, Alwaleed Philanthropies has taken several initiatives in the past year including the allocation of up to $30m on various projects to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. It has also taken up educational and housing projects in Yemen.

Meanwhile his independent record label, Rotana Music, also announced in February that it had received an undisclosed amount of investment from Warner Music Group (WMG). The deal will see Rotana’s music released outside the region to a global audience.

4. Yousef Abdullah Al Benyan
Vice chairman and CEO, SABIC

Sector: Industry
Overall rank: 1
2020 rank: 1

Serving as the chair of the Business Twenty (B20) Saudi Arabia, Yousef Al Benyan led the two-day talks in the kingdom in October as global business leaders discussed and made policy recommendations to the G20 to reinvigorate the global economy and ensure inclusive growth. Meanwhile he also led petrochemicals heavyweight SABIC to post a profit in 2020, beating analyst expectations of a loss.

SABIC is “cautiously optimistic” for a gradual recovery in the year ahead, he said. Al Benyan also chairs Yansab, Nusaned and the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).

5. Lubna Suliman Olayan
Chairperson, Saudi British Bank

Sector: Finance
Overall rank: 16
2020 rank: 11

Lubna Olayan, one of the region’s most influential businesswomen and the chairperson of Saudi British Bank (SABB) led the bank’s successful integration with Alawwal Bank, following their merger in 2018. Olayan became the first woman to chair a Saudi-listed company when she took on the role in 2018 and was reappointed for a three-year term in January 2020. A strong propagator for women empowerment in the kingdom, Olayan served as CEO of Olayan Financing Company for over 35 years, and presently chairs its executive committee and the Olayan Saudi Holding Company.

She also serves as a board member of Schlumberger.

This article was first published in Gulf Business

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Lubna Olayan joins global trade leaders in Riyadh


Lubna Olayan, SABB chair, gave the keynote speech at the forum.

Riyadh hosted a global conference on Feb. 25 when the Asia House Middle East Trade Dialogue convened in the city. The dialogue looked ahead to the Kingdom’s key priorities for 2020, with sustainability, renewable energies and the role of women in the economy on the agenda. Wider developments and key trends in world trade were also explored by leading business and policy figures.
Lubna Olayan, chair, Saudi British Bank (SABB), gave the keynote speech at the forum, organized by Asia House — a London-based center of expertise on trade and investment in Asia and sponsored by SABB.
Other speakers included Simon Penney, UK trade commissioner to the Middle East; David Dew, managing director, SABB; and Victor Gao, vice president, Center for China and Globalization.
Lord Green, chairman of Asia House and former UK trade minister, said: “The Middle East remains an extremely important region for global trade, especially as the Gulf broadens its relationships with Asian markets. Just last year, more than 1,000 international companies set up new operations in Saudi Arabia, highlighting business interest in the Kingdom.
“With Saudi Arabia hosting the G20 this year, we believe it is an important time to bring our trade dialogue to Riyadh to explore the economic shifts taking place in the region and beyond. We are particularly honored to have Lubna Olayan share her unique insights with our audience of senior business and investment figures.”

Our shared desire to fast-track the digitization of trade through continuous innovation, led to SABB being the first bank in Saudi Arabia to complete a blockchain-based trade transaction, a milestone of which we are especially proud.

Lubna Olayan Chair of SABB

Olayan said: “Trade has historically always been important to the development of the Kingdom, and that is equally true today as the Far East and the Middle East are once again becoming increasingly connected and we begin a year in which Saudi Arabia leads the G20, with deliberations around trade and investment being a major focus of the B20.
“Through our partnership with HSBC, we are well positioned to support the growing trade volumes with Asia, and we see significant opportunities for collaboration with initiatives such as China’s Belt and Road and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. Our shared desire to fast-track the digitization of trade through continuous innovation, led to SABB being the first bank in Saudi Arabia to complete a blockchain-based trade transaction, a milestone of which we are especially proud.”
The conference featured discussions on the key issues shaping both regional and global trade, such as women leaders and sustainability and the rise of clean energy.

This article was first published in Arab News

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SABB & Alawwal merge to create KSA’s third largest bank

Time: June 17, 2019  

Lubna S. Olayan, chair of SABB.

SABB and Alawwal Bank have created Saudi banking history by legally combining their businesses. Following regulatory and shareholder approvals, the banks have now become a single listed company, creating the third largest bank by assets in Saudi Arabia. The two banks will continue to operate a normal service while work continues to fully integrate their products and services.

Lubna S. Olayan, chair of SABB, said: “We have combined two great banks, each with a rich history and legacy of playing key roles in the Kingdom’s development. Now our size, enhanced capabilities and fantastic talent will help us build on that history and legacy to become the bank of choice for a modern Saudi Arabia. We will be the best place to bank and the best place to work in the Kingdom, for a new generation of Saudi men and women and for the new era of development under Vision 2030.”

The combined bank will cement its position as a top-tier Saudi financial institution, with total revenue of SR10.9 billion ($2.9 billion), more than 1 million retail customers and the second largest corporate bank by assets.

Joining the two banks is expected to create a significant retail and wealth management business, with greater resources to innovate and connect a young, tech-savvy population to a digital banking experience.

David Dew, managing director of SABB, said: “The combination of SABB and Alawwal Bank creates huge potential for our customers and staff. The increased scale and capacity will allow us to support the growing needs of our diverse customer base, while also providing unrivaled international connectivity for retail, corporate and institutional clients. Our focus now is on our customers while at the same time completing the integration process and executing our vision of being the leading international bank in the Kingdom.”

The combined bank has SR257 billion in total assets, SR168 billion in customer loans and SR195 billion of customer deposits. It will deliver long-term shareholder value by combining the best of SABB and Alawwal Bank, while capitalizing on its long-term strategic partnership with HSBC Holdings PLC to provide an international banking experience in Saudi Arabia.

A new board and leadership team are in place, overseeing the integration of the two banks, which is expected to take between 18 and 24 months.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Lubna Olayan becomes first chairwoman of a publicly-listed Saudi bank

Time: June 17, 2019

Olayan had been deputy chair of Alawwal Bank since 2014 and was the CEO of Olayan Financing Company (OFC). (File photo: Reuters)

Saudi businesswoman Lubna Olayan became the first chairwoman of a Saudi bank after the Saudi British Bank (SABB) and Alawwal bank confirmed their merger.

Olayan had been deputy chair of Alawwal Bank since 2014 and was the CEO of Olayan Financing Company (OFC). She also worked for Morgan Guaranty New York from 1979 to 1981 when she returned to Saudi Arabia to work with Olayan again.

Olayan received a Bachelor of Agriculture degree from Cornell University in the United States and an MBA from the University of Indiana in business management.

SABB and Alawwal bank have now become the third largest bank by assets in Saudi Arabia. The two banks signed a binding merger agreement last October which was followed by months of regulatory and shareholder approvals.

The two banks will continue to operate a normal service while work continues to fully integrate their products and services, according to a joint statement.

“Now our size, enhanced capabilities, and fantastic talent will help us build on that history and legacy to become the bank of choice for a modern Saudi Arabia. We will be the best place to bank and the best place to work in the Kingdom, for a new generation of Saudi men and women and for the new era of development under Vision 2030,” Olayan said.

SABB also said that Khalid Bin Abdullah al-Mulhem would continue as vice chairman of SABB and David Dew as managing director.

This article was first published in Al Arabiya English  

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Saudi Arabia’s Lubna Olayan: IPO depends on market conditions

Time: 25 April 2018

Saudi Arabian billionaire Lubna Olayan said on Wednesday that the timing for floating parts of her family’s business, one of the kingdom’s largest conglomerates, depends on market conditions and the economic situation.

“We had four quarters of negative GDP growth which impacted many private businesses,” Olayan told a business conference in Riyadh.

Reuters reported last year that the Olayan family was considering listing at least 30 percent of its Saudi business in a sale that could value the company at several billion dollars.

This article was first published Al Arabiya English

Lubna Olayan

SOURCE: Fortune

Time: 13 April, 2018

Deputy Chairperson and CEO, Olayan Financing, 60

The CEO of Saudi-based Olayan Financing Company is a mainstay on our list. She has run her family’s diversified holding company, whose activities span 12 sectors and range from investing and real estate to the manufacture and distribution of foreign beverages (like Coca-Cola), cookies (like Nabisco’s Oreos) and heavy equipment (like Cummins’ engines), since 1986. A rare female business executive in the Middle East, she is a pioneering figure in her native Saudi Arabia. She is also prominent on the world stage as a Davos regular and a member of many corporate and philanthropic boards. —Erika Fry


3 Arabs among the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women

Time: April 01, 2018

Three Arab women made the rest of us very proud when they made it to the Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women for the year 2017. The list released by the business magazine describes the women as this year’s ” Icons, game-changers and gate crashers.”

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi (UAE) came at number 36. She was the first woman to become a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates in 2004 when she became the Minister of Economy. Now the Minister of Tolerance, she is working hard to reinforce a prosperous, diverse atmosphere not just in the UAE, but also the international community.

Ranking her at number 36 on the list, Forbes established Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi ahead of many global influential figures such as author J.K. Rowling, who came at #88, singer Taylor Swift who came at #85, politician Hilary Clinton who came at #65, and even the woman who first asked “who runs the world?”, the question which every woman in the world replied to with “Girls”, singer Beyoncé Knowles who came at #50.

1- Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, Minister of State for Tolerance, United Arab Emirates, July 2017 – Chatham House/Flicker

Lubna S. Olayan (Saudi Arabia) came at number 59. She is CEO of Olayan Financing which holds stocks in a wide variety of franchises in the Middle East. She co-chaired the Saudi-U. S. CEO Forum and shows great support and encouragement to Saudi women, motivating them to work. Her company has 540 female employees, according to Forbes.

2- Lubna S. Olayan, Deputy Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer, Olayan Financing Company, Saudi Arabia 2013 – World Economic Forum/Wikimedia commons

Raja Easa Al Gurg (UAE) came in at number 90. She is the Managing Director of Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, which is a giant consisting of 27 companies handling various types of business from metal to construction. It also partners with more than 370 brands. Additionally, Al Gurg is the president of Dubai’s Business Women Council.

3- Her Excellency Dr Raja Easa Al Gurg at Women In STEM 2015 – Women in STEM/YouTube thumbnail

This article was first published in Egypt Today

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This CEO is helping Saudi women break a gender barrier

SOURCE: Fortune

Time: September 14, 2015


In 1983, Lubna Olayan became the first woman to work for her father’s business—Olayan Financing Co. (OFC), a sprawling multinational conglomerate based in Saudi Arabia.

It would be 18 years before she got her first female colleague.

By then Olayan was running the company, and she’d had time to consider her singularity. “I was privileged to be a woman CEO of a large family business,” she says. “I recognized there is something wrong with this—I can’t be the only woman.”

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With her family’s support, Olayan began a quiet, measured effort to expand the ranks—consulting colleagues and embarking on at least one stealth persuasion campaign to win over an especially resistant OFC partner. After months of careful planning, woman No. 2 was finally brought onboard.

That the arrival took so long reflects the difficulty of making changes in a profoundly conservative country where tradition had long kept women out of the workforce almost entirely. But the fact that OFC now employs some 400 Saudi women—including 56 who bustle alongside Olayan and their male colleagues in the Riyadh head office—shows how far the company and Saudi society have come since then in bringing women greater economic power.

Gradual though it is—those 400 women account for just a bit over 3% of Olayan’s 12,000 Saudi-based employees—OFC’s integration is a testament to the persistence and tactical savvy that have earned Olayan respect as a business leader in the Middle East and beyond. A Davos regular, she’s a corporate board fixture and perennial member of Fortune’international Most Powerful Women list. She has steered her 30-company conglomerate through a period of significant expansion; headcount has almost quadrupled since 2001. (Outside estimates put Olayan Group’s annual revenue at upwards of $7 billion; the company declined to discuss its finances.) And while Olayan takes no credit for it, her drive for diversity has put OFC at the leading edge of a historic shift that has brought hundreds of thousands of Saudi women into private-sector jobs over the past five years. OFC’s share of that total is modest, but the example Olayan sets as a rare female business leader in the region has had a profound influence.

Olayan, a matter-of-fact 60-year-old who shuns publicity, would be the last to label herself a pioneer. Her efforts are grounded in pragmatic beliefs: that meritocracies are better for business and that letting talented women find employment is better for the economy. “I’m all for diversity—but diversity for deserving people,” she says. Even as she helps guide Saudi women into roles they’ve never held before, from factory work to sales and management, she’s careful to respect Saudi Arabia’s deeply religious culture and traditions. Tom Linebarger, CEO of Cummins (cmi, +1.84%), one of OFC’s longest-standing international partners, has worked with Olayan to hire Saudi women into engineering jobs. “She makes a constant push toward modernization and empowerment of women—from inside the system,” he says. “She is one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met.”

Saudi women “are very productive, very conscientious, and very much on time. I think it has been a very successful endeavor. We’re looking for more.”
Asadullah Sherazee, General Manager, Coca Cola Bottling Co. of Saudi Arabia

When Olayan first sought to integrate OFC in 2001, there was no playbook for a company like hers to hire women—and plenty of obstacles to doing so, since labor law and social customs left a lot of room for interpretation and confusion. In deeply conservative Saudi Arabia, women are expected to be covered in an abaya (a long robe) and a head scarf in public, and they don’t traditionally mix with men they aren’t related to. Cultural norms like these had largely limited female employment to the few industries that were clearly open to women: health care, education, and banking, all industries in which they theoretically would interact only with one another.

OFC’s activities didn’t fall into such neat buckets. It’s a sprawling holding company, whose activities run the gamut from investing and real estate to the manufacture and distribution of foreign-brand cola, cookies, computers, and heavy equipment. (It includes wholly owned businesses and joint ventures: Nabisco, Xerox (xrx, -0.05%), Colgate Palmolive (cl, -0.64%), and Burger King (bkw, +0.00%) are among OFC’s Western partners.) None of its companies was equipped to provide the required degree of segregation: Women would need their own restrooms, canteens, prayer rooms, and workspaces, not to mention transport to and from the job, since Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive.

With so many factors to weigh, the hire Olayan truly needed was a woman who could hire more women. Ultimately she chose Hana AlSyead, a computer scientist and systems engineer who trained in Boston and rose through the ranks in the (relatively coed) Saudi subsidiary of Citibank (c, +3.39%). AlSyead embraced the challenge, and within a year OFC had 21 female employees. Most of them were disadvantaged women whom OFC hired to sew surgical gowns at Enayah (its joint venture with Kimberly-Clark (kmb, -1.51%) and another Saudi firm). These seamstresses made history: They were Saudi Arabia’s first female factory workers.

Since then a transformation has swept through the kingdom: In shops, offices, kitchens, and manufacturing plants, women in Saudi Arabia have flooded into private-sector work, their numbers rising from 23,000 in 2004 to 48,000 in 2009 to over 400,000 in 2014, according to Saudi government statistics. The growth has been driven by mass education (women dominate the kingdom’s ranks of university graduates), economic necessity, and gentle nudges from the government.

Still, overall only 19% of Saudi women work, according to the World Economic Forum. Many of the jobs recently opened to women are ones that bafflingly didn’t belong to them to begin with—like tending the kingdom’s lingerie shops. Numerous professional roles, including a majority of those at OFC, remain largely unavailable to women (or “ladies,” as managers at OFC often call them) because the jobs demand driving, heavy lifting, or frequent public interactions with males. According to the WEF’s most recent Global Gender Gap report on economic opportunity for women, Saudi Arabia ranks 137th of 142 countries—despite all that recent progress.

To understand how Olayan rose to power in such an environment, it helps to know the story of her father and mentor, Suliman. Born in a small Saudi trading town, Suliman learned English, which proved indispensable when Western firms arrived to tap the region’s oil riches. He spent some successful years at oil giant Aramco before realizing he could do even better business by providing such firms with equipment and provisions. In 1947 he founded the company that became the Olayan Group, which gained a reputation as a favored “local partner”—a requirement at the time for all foreign companies.

Lubna grew up in cosmopolitan Beirut, the youngest of four siblings, three of them girls. Suliman was a stern but invested father who closely tracked his daughters’ academic performance and imparted lessons of financial management. Lubna spent nine years in the U.S., a period to which she credits her freethinking ways. She studied at Cornell University and then at Indiana University, where, alongside her sister Hutham, she earned an MBA. (Hutham is now CEO and president of Olayan Group’s U.S.-based investment arm.)

Lubna went on to work for J.P. Morgan (jpm, +2.77%) and met her husband, John Xefos, a lawyer, before moving to Riyadh in 1983 to continue her banking career. Suliman was living there by then as well, and he happened to need an executive assistant. The two worked closely together for almost two decades; in 1986 she was named CEO of OFC, which was then Olayan Group’s industrial holding company; her responsibilities expanded in 1999 when the company merged with the group’s Middle East consumer arm. (Suliman died in 2002.)

Olayan speaking during this year’s Egypt Economic Development Conference. Her arguments for encouraging women to work are based in pragmatism: letting talented women find employment is better for the economy. “I’m all for diversity—but diversity for deserving people.”

Olayan speaking during this year’s Egypt Economic Development Conference. Her arguments for encouraging women to work are based in pragmatism: letting talented women find employment is better for the economy. “I’m all for diversity—but diversity for deserving people.”Photograph by Amr Dalsh—Reuters

As an executive, Olayan has made her gender almost a second thought among her peers. “Even my most chauvinist of Saudi friends and clients have great admiration for the way that she manages her companies,” says Bernd van Linder, CEO of Saudi Hollandi Bank, the first Saudi-listed company to include a woman on its board. (That woman is Olayan.) “She is respected as a person rather than as the first Saudi woman to do this or that.”

Olayan dislikes being the center of attention. It’s telling that in OFC’s 150-page networking directory, in which a page with a photo and biography is devoted to each manager, Olayan’s entry falls in the middle of the book, per alphabetical order, on page 80.

It was also telling that when I traveled to Saudi Arabia in late July to interview her, Olayan was not there. (She had traveled abroad to attend the birth of her first grandchild, a hitch in planning that she apologized for repeatedly.) We ultimately connected via videoconference—a screen and thousands of miles between us. That we were having a meeting at all, she joked, was my good fortune for having contacted her while her longtime colleague Serene (“She says no to everything”) was on vacation.

When Olayan discusses gender issues in her own career, she focuses on the light and superficial. Hardship? There were the visits to the company’s factories, which had no women’s bathrooms. Not being allowed to drive or mix in public with men? That may have been a blessing, especially for a working mother with three daughters: “Everyone had to come to me. Time was my most important asset.”

Asked whether she felt respected as a female leader, she seems taken aback. “Respected? In Saudi society, women are extremely respected. I never had an issue with that at all.” She really didn’t think in gendered terms, she says; she was “more concerned about being the daughter of the founder and therefore needing to perform better than others so as not to give the impression of nepotism.”

Still, Olayan has a complicated relationship with her home country. In 2004 she became the first woman to give the keynote address at the Jeddah Economic Forum, a high-profile Saudi conference that drew luminaries like former President Bill Clinton and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that year. To a gender-segregated audience, Olayan delivered “A Saudi Vision for Growth”—a 15-minute speech calling for a prosperous, diversified economy that included “more jobs and career opportunities for women.” Yet her message was quickly overshadowed: Her head scarf had slipped slightly during her speech—a cultural affront, however inadvertent, that riled the country’s conservative elements and -dominated national headlines for days. Olayan looks back on the event with disgust and a sense of loss. “I was so proud of that speech,” she says, noting that it still holds up.

Today Olayan lives in that world—but also apart from it—in Al-Bustan Village, a gated compound on the outskirts of Riyadh that OFC built to be a premier oasis for Western expats. (Such compounds are common in the kingdom.) Here, women can swim outdoors, exercise in coed workout facilities, and walk around the sprawling campus without an abaya. Olayan, who is waiting for her home in Riyadh to be refurbished, temporarily resides in one of the community’s 608 villas and is often seen biking around its campus. As we drove up, my OFC host explained, “Beyond this gate, it’s like you’re in another country.”

Thirty-five minutes away in central Riyadh is OFC’s headquarters, a discreet multistory structure with minimal signage. Today it teems with more than 300 head-office employees whose diversity is staggering by any standard, a mix of men, women, Saudis, and foreign nationals representing 23 different countries. Men and women participate in meetings together; some women work in their abayas and head scarves, others in conservative Western dress. English is the working language, and employees of all ranks are addressed by their initials, a time-saving practice that dates back to the firm’s early days. Olayan is known as LSO.

By all accounts Olayan is a caring but demanding boss. She wakes early, travels often, and likes to sleep on decisions, which she makes by consulting as many people as possible—she talks with some of her managers several times a day. That she is encyclopedic in her knowledge of OFC’s manifold holdings and extremely detail-oriented is both dazzling and wearying to employees. (She even had a hand in choosing the pool furniture at Al-Bustan.)

Those qualities also show up in her considerable board and philanthropic work. Rafael Reif, the president of MIT, sits on the Schlumberger (slb, +0.01%) board with Olayan and marvels at her mastery of individuals and personalities alongside the big geopolitical picture. That mental nimbleness is “an asset and a gift that few people have,” says Reif. “Lubna reminds me of nobody.”

Even my most chauvinist of Saudi friends and clients have great admiration for the way that she manages her companies. She is respected as a person rather than as the first Saudi woman to do this or that.”
Bernd Van Linder, CEO, Saudi Hollandi Bank

Reif also remarks on Olayan’s ability to lead quietly—to direct and drive the conversation not by dominating it, but by chiming in with important ideas. That distinction seems particularly important to Olayan. When asked about her relationship with power, she says the term has a negative connotation for her—she prefers “influence,” which she describes as more important than power and as a sort of currency earned. “The more challenges you face in life, the more of life you experience—this lived experience gives one the ‘influence’ to impact others’ lives,” she says.

Plenty of challenges loom for OFC. Foreign companies can now operate independently in the kingdom without a Saudi partner. And a booming economy—between 2010 and 2014, Saudi Arabia’s non-oil sectors grew at an average annual rate of 7.2%—with a rich and relatively young population has made the country a magnet for Western firms facing slow growth at home. All this means the environment has grown far more competitive for OFC.

The company also faces workforce changes that go beyond gender diversity. For years, Saudi firms like OFC imported most of their talent; roughly 85% of the kingdom’s private workforce is foreign, while many Saudis remain unemployed. The government wants to reverse the situation through “Saudization,” which requires companies to meet quotas in local hiring. Though OFC exceeds its quota, managers at the firm consider it to be their greatest challenge: For many jobs, hiring Saudis—who often require training and who by law are paid considerably more than expats—is expensive.

By 2011, OFC had introduced female workers into its consumer-goods businesses, food service, packaging and distribution, even construction. Still, total female headcount hovered around just 1% of OFC’s workforce. Eager to make faster progress, Olayan launched the Olayan Women Network, an internal group designed to “keep an eye on all issues females were facing” and help nurture their careers. She eventually set a new target: Olayan wanted 1,000 women employees by 2016, in all 30 of OFC’s companies, at all levels of the organization.

This was not universally welcome news. Asadullah Sherazee, the general manager of OFC’s Coca-Cola Bottling Co. (coke, -1.06%) of Saudi Arabia, recalls that when Olayan approached him about hiring female employees—“Coke says the workforce should be 40% women. You’re at zero,” she told him—he had all the typical concerns: the cost of women-only spaces, fears about legality, how they’d fit in.

But orders were orders. Sherazee, a Canadian of Pakistani origin, worked with his staff to set up the accommodations that have been installed across other OFC companies—the female prayer room, and the partitions in offices and on factory floors to give women privacy in line with labor regulations. Three years later his business has 30 female employees, including 18 who work on an all-female bottling line, many in burkas. He’s tickled with the results, which he tells me about over mid-morning Cokes with his female HR manager, Ghadah AlSous. He now sees a strong business case for hiring women: “They are very productive, very conscientious, and very much on time … We’re looking for more.”

Genuine delight and surprise about what Saudi female employees could do was a reaction I encountered more than once at OFC. “We’re living a social experiment,” says Khalid Alkhudair, CEO of Glowork, a female recruiting company in the kingdom that has helped place 26,000 Saudi women in jobs since 2011. AlSyead says that issues arise only occasionally: Once, for example, a male job applicant walked the other way when he encountered one of OFC’s female HR recruiters. She also says that Saudi managers are often more comfortable dealing with female talent than are expats, who tend to fear violating cultural norms.

There are now women at all but two of the conglomerate’s companies. Though AlSyead says reaching Olayan’s 1,000-woman goal in 2016 is statistically impossible, she touts the company’s milestones: It has hired the first-ever female worker in the Saudi city of Yanbu, for example. And she’s especially proud of having placed a Saudi woman in a sales role for a distributor of Scania—a company that makes long-haul trucks. She’s now focused on keeping OFC’s female talent—many firms try to poach, she says—and helping them develop their skills.

Olayan too remains very involved, regularly asking about her female employees’ concerns and challenges and inviting candid feedback. AlSyead tells a story about a time when Olayan got input of a less amenable kind, when a handful of ladies requested more vacation and reduced working hours. When Olayan asked them about their goals, they assured her they were ambitious: They wanted to be managers and executives. Olayan was bemused, but also a bit exasperated, and finally asked her colleagues, “Well, with all those vacation days, how do you expect to get there?