How Princess Reema Is Opening Doors For Women In Saudi Arabia


Time: 08 October, 2015

“She comes from a country where women can’t drive, can’t go outside, can’t go to restaurants, can’t socialize, can’t, can’t, can’t . . .”

This is how Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud—entrepreneur, social activist, former CEO, single mother, and a member of the Saudi royal family—recalls being introduced by the moderator at a recent business conference in Los Angeles, where she was speaking about her efforts to better integrate women into her country’s workforce.

“And she turns to me,” remembers Princess Reema, “and goes, ‘How does that feel?’ And I said, ‘Well, first of all, I need to correct you. Everything you said about life in Saudi Arabia was wrong except for one thing: We can’t drive. We hang out, I go to work, I have employees. We are a very dynamic community. Would our lives be more enriched if we were mobile? One hundred percent, but so would our economy.’ That’s not what she wanted to hear.” So the princess took it upon herself to begin the conversation anew, gracefully but firmly sidelining the moderator and turning her attention to the room. “Let me tell you about us . . .” she began.

Princess Reema, 40, lives in Riyadh, the conservative capital of Saudi Arabia. By Western standards, the limitations placed on women there are indeed severe. Aside from having to dress modestly in public (in full-length abayas and head scarves), adult Saudi women need permission from their fathers or male guardians to marry, study, and travel. Women comprise 60% of college students, but make up just 13% of the workforce (the majority are employed by female-only schools or hospitals). In 2013, the World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 127th out of 136 countries in its Global Gender Gap Report. And yet during my four-day visit to the country, I witnessed the richness of experience that Princess Reema had tried to share in California. I was struck not by the vulnerability of the women I met but by their shrewdness, hers in particular. The princess, who hosted me at the crew quarters on her family’s sprawling property, had encouraged me to visit during Saudi ­Design Week, so that in the evenings I could attend events with her and meet her circle of female artist, designer, gallery owner, and magazine editor friends. During the days, I sat in on her feverish planning sessions with female doctors, lawyers, marketing entrepreneurs, and university students, who were all rallying around 10KSA, ­Princess Reema’s potentially groundbreaking breast cancer awareness campaign that aims to bring 10,000 women together at a Saudi women’s college on December 12.

10KSA, a female-only initiative generated, organized, and hosted by women, is a profoundly feminist undertaking, particularly in a country where breast is still considered a taboo word. But, just as when she pioneered the hiring of women at Riyadh’s Harvey Nichols department store in 2011 (as CEO of her family’s luxury retail company, which owned the store), much of Princess Reema’s job involves gracefully downplaying the political righteousness of the event. Because it’s not just the religious police she’s up against. A structural engineering student I met during a 10KSA planning meeting, a smart and persuasive young woman from a wealthy family, firmly believes that women should not be allowed to drive. “There are rules in life,” she said. “[The rules] are not about being inhumane. They’re for our own good. Women here can think they’re being mistreated, but they’re not. They just want to be pitied.”

“That’s what I’m dealing with,” Princess Reema—who’d listened diplomatically to the young woman and offered a pragmatic counterargument from an employer’s point of view—told me after the girl left the room. “Here, the words feministradicalactivistliberalempowerment are not useful to my goals. I’ll lose half my audience.” To effect any enduring change in a culture that largely prides itself on resisting it, Princess Reema says she must simultaneously invigorate and soothe, while being careful not to alienate conservative thinkers by wielding her ambition too aggressively. In some ways, she’s walking the same line as female professionals everywhere.

But here the stakes are higher. Many educated women she meets, for example, don’t even know how to work. “They don’t know how to get themselves to an airport and through an airport,” she says, “or book a hotel room. It’s only in the past few years that women could open bank accounts without their fathers,” she continues. “But not every woman knows she can.” Princess Reema believes that achieving these small milestones is vital. She believes that having women engaged in society leads to a better society. And she’s determined to give them a hand.

The fact that Saudi women cannot drive, she says, “is not the only story here! What about the women who go so far outside the box of their limitations to make those issues irrelevant to their success?”

Reema bint Bandar Al Saud is one of those women.

Princess Reema lives in a vast gated compound, her small but elegantly decorated apartment tucked neatly into a two-story cream-colored stone building. Golf carts and bicycles (driven by men and women) periodically whiz by, stopping near a fountain in the roofed courtyard. Princess Reema’s parents—her father, Bandar bin Sultan, was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005—live on the property, as do her seven brothers and sisters. The princess says it comforted her to huddle up close with her now teenage children after her divorce four years ago. One of her sisters lives in the apartment above her. Two hundred feet away from her kitchen windows, a construction crew is busy building her new five-bedroom house.

We meet one morning in the compound’s recreation room, a nook for gathering that’s kitty-corner to Princess Reema’s apartment. The room is crowded with comfortable sofas, a Ms. Pac Man arcade game, and a large television in a soccer-ball-patterned frame. There are two whiteboards, one scrawled with the planning agenda for 10KSA and the other with her children’s tutoring and extracurricular schedules.

The princess, wearing a comfortable T-shirt dress and flip-flops, her formal abaya tucked away in a closet until it’s time to go out in public, is sipping rose tea at the table when her 16-year-old daughter, Princess Sarah, emerges from their apartment on her way to a dentist’s appointment with her nanny. Their driver awaits them out front. “Can I look at your shoes?” Princess Reema calls after her daughter. “Are those mine?”

“No, I got them in L.A. on Robertson Boulevard,” Sarah says with the miffy tone of teenagers worldwide. (The family regularly visits Los Angeles, where Sarah will learn to drive this summer.)

“You can’t go out tonight like that,” says Princess Reema, looking at her daughter’s shredded overalls beneath her unfastened abaya. “Your father would kill me. Put on leggings underneath.”

“I’m not wearing leggings under this. That’s too ’80s.”

“Channel Debbie Gibson!” Princess Reema calls to her ­daughter’s retreating back. “All my references are ’80s, by the way,” she says. At various points during my visit she will reference Footloose, 9 to 5, The Princess Bride, and Top Gun (e.g., “I don’t want to be seen as a maverick; Maverick gets Goose killed”). She keeps the entire oeuvre of George Michael in her chauffeured Mercedes.

The ’80s touchstones are a holdover from Princess Reema’s formative years in Washington, D.C. Her father’s job took the family there when she was 7 years old, and she didn’t return to Saudi Arabia full-time until 2006. In America, she earned a degree in museum studies from George Washington University, but never envisioned a career. “My mom was a great mom, and that’s all I wanted to be,” she says. “I wanted the husband and the picket fence.”

It’s a fluke, really, that she found herself at the helm of ­Riyadh’s Harvey Nichols. By the time she returned to Saudi Arabia, the department store had become less the luxury shopping destination it billed itself as than an inhospitable bazaar selling second-rate designers. In 2010, she took a tour with board members of Alfa Intl., the store’s parent company, which her family owned, and couldn’t resist sharing her concerns. “If the store is meant to be high-end, why are you selling middle- to low-end product?” Princess Reema remembers saying. “ ’That’s false advertising. Your brand mix is wrong. Your store lighting is crap. It smells bad. Your store people have no clue what product is on the shelf.’ And they said, ‘Great, how would you fix it?’ ” Three days later, her cousin, Alfa’s then-CEO, talked her into taking over. She became the country’s first female CEO of a retail company.

During the princess’s first few months on the job, King Abdullah (who died in January and was succeeded by his half-brother King Salman, Princess Reema’s great-uncle) issued a decree that women would replace male workers in lingerie shops. The move was largely in response to a campaign led by Reem Asaad, a female Saudi lecturer in finance whose humiliation at the hands of a male clerk led her to launch an online-driven boycott of lingerie shops. The king’s decree then prompted the Ministry of Labor to require that women’s department stores start a “feminization” process of hiring. Companies that did not comply would be fined or shut down.

Princess Reema was quick to recognize the cultural and business opportunity of the decree and seized it, setting a new standard among employers by going out and recruiting women to work at the store. She built private makeup rooms for newly hired cosmetic artists and created the position of female dressing-room attendants. She granted transportation stipends to female employees to ease the burden of their commute if their fathers or husbands couldn’t drive them, and installed on-site child care—the first department store in Saudi Arabia to offer an employee nursery—to head off guilt trips from home. She kept men on in select roles, obeying the rules of keeping genders separated by partitions or distance, and trusted her employees to practice self-control.

“And we were crucified,” she says. Within six months, store profits had tanked by 42%. Her new staff was composed of untrained women and disgruntled men (most foreign-born, as Saudi men typically consider service positions beneath them). The “religious ­police”—the Saudi government group responsible for enforcing Sharia codes of moral conduct—hovered constantly. Crowds picketed outside. “As a nation that is moral and virtuous we cannot promote that kind of behavior,” Princess Reema says, paraphrasing their outrage. “My point was, ‘Why are you looking at it so suspiciously?’ But I had to step out of my ego and my experience and realize that the people that I’m employing don’t mix, their families don’t mix, so this is actually shocking to the employee as much as it’s shocking to the investigator, and to the client walking in.” So the princess pivoted. Female employees remain separated from all males by glass partitions and government-mandated space requirements, and male employees now work in the restaurant and children’s sections only.

It took two years, but the mood—and ­profits—at Harvey Nichols have fully recovered, the princess says. One weekday afternoon, I am taken on a tour of the store by one of Princess Reema’s protégées, Raghda Amin, a 30-year-old aspiring fashion designer who grew up wearing the exclusive brands sold here. Business is slow, she explains, because the store has just reopened its doors after the mid­afternoon prayer time. To my Western eyes, the black-cloaked shoppers seem incongruous against the opulent backdrop of colorful, showy high fashion. What’s a Saudi woman to do with five-inch Alexander McQueen stilettos or a body-conscious Carolina Herrera evening gown? Amin, whose iPhone buds drape over her abaya, explains that Saudi women care deeply about fashion; they show off their extensive wardrobes at all-female house parties or when traveling abroad.

Two years ago, Amin almost quit her job at Harvey Nichols. “My mom died of a heart attack,” she tells me. “Everything was black in my mind.” Her family doesn’t depend on her salary, so there was no reason for her not to sink into grief. “Princess Reema came up to me and said, ‘Take as much time as you need. If you want to work from home, do that. Just don’t leave the company.’ Now I try to pay her back by working hard to show her that she will see the result of her support through my success.”

Today Amin, who has risen to become the head of the visual merchandising department, shows off her plans for the “urban department.” It’s a sleek section targeting teenagers that she plans to decorate like a funky garage with famous ­fashion-designer quotes scrawled like graffiti. “We’re not allowed to play music in the store, but maybe we’ll try a little Maroon 5 in the fitting rooms,” she whispers to me. “If people complain, worst-case scenario is we turn it off.”

One floor below, women greet each other in the private employee break room. Their smiles are shy and sweet, their eyelashes thickly mascaraed. These are not girls who benefited from private-school educations, like Amin or Princess Reema. “Within 50 paychecks they could maybe buy a wallet at Harvey—and probably shouldn’t,” says the princess. About half of the women wear niqabs, which cover their entire faces except for their eyes, out of modesty, or shame because their families are uncomfortable with their daughters working in a service position.

On the bulletin board outside the break room, an uninspiring all-staff HR memo written in both Arabic and English bemoans shoddy employee attendance. Workers at the store have a tendency to show up late and leave early, a result of being dependent on a father or brother for a ride. In fact, within the first couple of months of women being employed at the store, the staff suffered an 80% attrition rate. Female employees would shrink or flee when approached by male customers. If work was overwhelming or just not worth the headache of family members nagging at home, they stopped showing up.

Princess Reema was struck by her failure to predict how harsh a culture shock a professional environment could be to her more sheltered countrywomen. “We were expecting them to run before they could walk,” she says. So last January, she stepped down as CEO (she still remains on Alfa’s executive board committee) and launched the social enterprise Alf Khair, which translates to “one thousand blessings.” “I wanted to effect more change than I could within the four walls of the store,” she says.

Through Alf Khair she founded Alf Darb, a training academy for women who want to enter the workforce. Alf Darb will accept its first class of students early next year, following a pilot program with staff from Harvey Nichols. The socioeconomically diverse mix of students, attracted through trusted employers and high schools, will train at the academy three days a week and intern at hand-selected jobs the other two. Mentors, provided by Alf Darb, will be encouraged to stay in touch with the young women throughout their professional careers.

The logo of Alf Khair looks like a geometric butterfly, meant to symbolize Princess Reema’s desire to create change. “Think how one butterfly alone might change a wind pattern but many, many butterflies fluttering their wings together will cause a change in the atmosphere,” Princess Reema says. Imagine the power of 10,000 butterflies.

In 2001, Princess Reema received one of the worst phone calls of her life: A close friend shocked her with the news that she was suffering from late-stage breast cancer. The friend had gone through her diagnostic and chemotherapy regimen alone, unsure of how to find support, and unlikely to have accepted it anyway.

“Our community is very, very private,” says the princess. “We don’t talk. Certain diseases or personal conflicts are considered shameful to address, because it means you’re ungrateful or you’ll be seen as ‘less than.’ So if you have a problem you keep it right in until it’s a disaster. Nobody knew she was sick until she was in the hospital and she’s dying.”

Rocked by the subsequent loss of her friend, and devastated by the fact that nearly 60% of the breast cancer cases in Saudi Arabia are diagnosed at late stages (as compared to 30%, on average, in the U.S.), the princess turned her attention, connections, and resources toward improving women’s health. She helped a doctor named Suad bin Amer found the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, naming the organization after bin Amer’s mother, who had died of the disease. Immediately, the Ministry of Social Affairs, an influential wing of the government, argued against the word breast being a part of the official title. “We’re not going to call it the General Chest Area Association,” Princess Reema remembers insisting. “It’s called breast cancer, the same way prostate cancer is not called ‘the cancer down there.’ ”

Women in Saudi Arabia are especially vulnerable to late-stage diagnoses because of cultural taboos against self-examination and an unwillingness to address the warning signs. In regions where polygamy is still practiced, for example, a woman with a lump in her breast fears being cast off in favor of a healthier wife. Princess Reema knew that education would be key to saving lives. Zahra representatives started traveling to malls with transportable “pink houses”: four walls and a roof that provided timid women with a shield of privacy, in which early-detection specialists would offer counsel. Then, eager to take awareness to the next level, she partnered with Modia Batterjee, a Saudi physician and breast health and lactation specialist, to attempt to break a Guinness World Record by having almost 4,000 women line up in the form of a pink ribbon in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“But do you want to know the truth?” Princess Reema tells members of her 10KSA team during a rec-room strategy meeting the next day. “We broke a record and all of our fliers just ended up on the floor. It was madness. Nobody ended up going to our education booths.”

“But I think of it as a watershed event,” says Seema Khan, the founder of a tech seed-investment company and 10KSA board member. “Beforehand, I never heard breast cancer in the public discourse in any circle. Whereas after, it felt like everybody was talking about it.”

“Okay, it was the event that brought [breast cancer] into the public discourse,” allows the princess, now looking ahead. “I’m not worried about 10,000 people coming to 10KSA. I’m worried about what they’re going to get out of it.”

For December’s massive gathering, Princess Reema is working with a $675,000 budget that’s fully covered by corporate sponsors, including the Alwaleed Philanthropies, GE, and Uber. (The princess’s team has already put in a request for 2,000 Uber cars to be on call that day; the company has been a game changer for Saudi women since it launched in Riyadh in 2014.) As the event’s media sponsor, the Middle East Broadcasting Center has committed airtime to PSAs in the month of December. It will also invite team members onto its morning shows and write breast cancer into the story lines of some of its dramas. During the event itself, 10KSA, in conjunction with the National Health Care Screening Program, will offer free, on-site mammograms, as well as screenings for other diseases. GE plans to host both educational and job-fair booths.

One day, Princess Reema’s friend Yasmin Al Twaijwri, a high-level epidemiology researcher at Riyadh’s King Faisal Hospital, joins us for a meeting after lunch. She’s leading a pioneering national survey of mental health, the Saudi Health and Stress Survey. (“Mental health is a taboo subject” in the country, explains the princess.) Al Twaijwri will be bringing a 15-person team to 10KSA to ask women, in a private tent, about their interior lives. “We want to know what their needs are and how we can help them in the future,” says Al Twaijwri. “Because they need advocates to go and talk to policy makers.” The event will provide her with up to 10,000 research subjects who can respond to a simple survey about possible symptoms of depression, a conversation the average woman in Saudi Arabia is loath to initiate.

Princess Reema had predicted a firestorm of angry backlash to her ribbon-formation campaign in Jeddah, but, with the exception of some hateful phone calls, the event went off undisturbed. Still, she knows she must continue to toe the line. The Ministry of Education granted 10KSA free use of the King ­Fahad Sports Stadium. “When we took a tour, the man kept saying, ‘You’re the first women to ever set foot in here!’ ” she says. “And I knew the tone of the event would turn into a women’s empowerment event of breaking barriers versus breast cancer awareness and health education. I don’t want to knock a wall down. We just want to widen the doorway.” So she chose a new venue, Princess Noura University, an all-women’s college where participants will have access to the 10,000-plus-capacity stadium, as well as to tennis courts, soccer fields, and three basketball courts.

“Ten thousand women from varied socioeconomic backgrounds,” marvels Princess Reema. “They’re excited, they’ve left their homes, they’re ready to engage, they’re saying, ‘Talk to me, I’m here, tell me something.’ ” Her goal is to blueprint the entire planning and execution process so that it can be reused over and over. “We can’t be the sole beneficiaries of this,” she says. “I want to see someone copy us. Beat us, do it better, go have fun.”

Speaking of fun, 10KSA is not just about education. Princess Reema is planning a festive atmosphere (“Picture the carnival at the end of Grease,” she says). There will be Zumba classes on the stadium field. A fun run inspired by the Hindu festival of Holi. Shopping and food stalls run by female entrepreneurs. A popular male DJ will spin records for a dance party, though, of course, he’ll be sequestered in a private booth.

The opening-night party for Saudi Design Week is held at a posh new resort hotel about a 45-­minute drive from downtown Riyadh. The chic lobby, all cool granite and groovy lounge music, is elegant and packed, every corner crowded with exhibition stalls of high-end wares from Saudi-born artists and designers. Men and women—some with heads covered, some not—mingle effortlessly while lounge music plays over the speakers and waiters dressed in formal wear and bandoliers pass Arabic coffee, dates, and trays of mini ­ice-cream cones. Everyone swears that such a scene—a mixed party in public in a country where women still dine in sequestered “family” sections in restaurants—would have been ­unheard of just five years prior. With 50% of Saudi Arabia’s population under the age of 35, and the country boasting the highest number of Twitter users in the Arab region (“it’s unrestricted communication,” explains Princess Reema of social media’s allure), gatherings like this signify that change is possible.

Design Week is the brainchild of Noura Bouzo, 29, the creative director and cofounder of Saudi Arabia’s first arts-and-culture magazine, Oasis, who launched the event last year with the help of her sisters and others—and the backing of the princess. “Princess Reema is a role model to a lot of us,” Bouzo tells me. “She’s female, and she’s done all these things on her own. You can’t imagine what that means for us all to see.”

The princess has two stands at Saudi Design Week, one exhibiting her Baraboux luxury bag line (she’s the founder and creative director) and another inviting local artists to enter a competition to design the bottom of the 10,000 head scarves that will be worn at 10KSA—per Guinness regulations, the head-covering portion must be uniform—as the women line up to form the ­largest-ever human-awareness ribbon. She gracefully moves through the lobby, introducing people she thinks could benefit from knowing each other and recruiting designers for her scarf competition.

On the ride home, stalled in a sea of male drivers staring idly at their mobile phones as the downtown is torn up to make way for a fully modern underground public-transportation system, Princess Reema is contemplative in the back seat of her chauffeured car. She tells me about her hero, her grandmother Queen Effat Al-Thunayan. She was an advocate for women’s education, and with the backing of the king she opened the country’s first private school for girls, in Jeddah, called Dar ­Al-Hanan, or “Home of Compassion.” Due to community protest, it was initially branded as an orphanage. The queen enrolled her own children there, so society ladies started sending their daughters there as well. The school still exists today, a feeder for Saudi Arabia’s first private women’s college, Effat University, which opened in 1999.

Work the system until it rights itself: It’s in Princess Reema’s blood. In 2000, she cofounded a women’s-only day spa and gym in Riyadh, called Yibreen. Female gyms are still illegal in Saudi Arabia, so she and her partners opened it under a seamstress shop’s license. They hired a seamstress, provided her with a machine, and set up an office for her. “So if religious police come in, they say ‘Okay, you have the machine and she has a good work space,’ ” says the princess. “And we’re like, ‘Yeah, and those treadmills over there mean nothing.’ ” Fifteen years later, there’s still a seamstress working there, allowing Yibreen’s female guests entrance into an otherwise forbidden world.


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?



The Brand Builder: HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud

SOURCE: Entrepreneur

Time: March 24, 2015

“If I’m going to put my name to something, I really feel that it has to be something that delivers on the proposition.”

HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud has extensive executive experience in the realm of luxury large-scale retail, and having founded her own brand some years ago, she can claim luxury startup experience as well. Formerly the CEO of Alfa International, the company that operates Harvey Nichols Riyadh, Princess Reema is now focusing on the brand proliferation of Baraboux, a better leathers line of ergonomic luxury bags that runs the gamut from clutches to shoulder bags, which now boasts of a multinational presence. She currently also serves as a part of the executive committee and on the board of directors of Alfa.

In the realm of luxury, Al Saud’s tactics revolutionized the high-end retailer’s approach to human capital development- Harvey Nichols Riyadh proved that educating and empowering staff members could and would stimulate profits. During Al Saud’s tenure, the staff were taught to internalize luxury product stories and identities (meant for lifestyles remote from their own) thereby bettering their understandingof how to present(and sell) to the niche client. She approached the prestige cosmetic companies that had a presence at the retailer, and requested Arabic-language trainings to bridge barriers and enhance staff product knowledge, and she says the cosmetics companies were proactive in actioning the localization measure. Al Saud also incorporated Western-style retail incentive schemas not only to encourage stronger sales procedures, but also to foster team sensibility and workplace fairness for a group success model. These are only a few methodologies that Al Saud put into place for staff servicing the department store’s niche clients, and it’s fair to say that great luxury sales are often generated by hyper service-oriented environments.

HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud

The Princess points outthat there were two different agendas put into place at Harvey Nichols Riyadh under her leadership, noting that “there was as a difference with what we did before the law was passed and after the law was passed,” in the contextof the evolving nature of the KSA workforce. Cross-selling across departments was taught and rewarded, and both store and individual transaction targets were all restructured and realigned so that staff now looked to the overall healthof the store’s sales instead of just their own areas or product lines. Al Saud has similar innovative ideas when it came down to launching her own brand. To begin with, shedid what the world’s biggest luxury brands do best: define the perfect target market.

“The original client was myself. I say that because at the time thatI thought of the collection, I was travelling a lot and literally in between a move back home from living in the States. I had two children, I was just starting work, and for the way I wanted and need to travel and move, I couldn’t find the bag that fit the lifestyle I had. So I ended up either carrying too much or little, so I ended up sketching and designing the first bag with myself in mind.” Cleverly designed and striking, Baraboux is sported by both MENA region influencers and Western household names (Elizabeth Hurley has been photographed carrying the eponymous Reema Clutch on a night out).


Baraboux campaign image of the special edition collaborative croc Reema Clutch for Harrods

Most recently, a collaborative effort with highbrow Harrods cements Baraboux,a homegrown brand, as a certified international player. Developed in Italy, Al Saud describes Baraboux as “more of an entry level luxury on the edge of contemporary” and says her ideal client isn’t afraid to mix Dior with high street pieces and a cool pair of Adidas sneakers. They are “knowledgeable consumers” who have access to digital media and worldwide trends, and not just because they’re well-traveled (and well-heeled). These days, fashion‘s biggest names are doing just that, and Baraboux is along for the ride. “We’re a small brand, and we’re a niche brand,” she says, but that “small” brand includes some of the most relevant faces in the Middle East, Europe and farther abroad.

Her background in Museum Studies has been applied in her capacity as Creative Director with staging, message crafting and delivery. The bestseller is the Reema Clutch, followed by the No. 6, an autonomous bag that also pairs with the line’s larger totes. One of the Princess’ personal favorites after the Reema Clutch is the Mr. T: “I can roll my abaya up and put it right in there. I’m the girl that travels with socks and scarves and I put it all in the Mr. T -it’s got two detachable pouches- everything we create has a dual functionality to it.” The Baraboux Noush is another top seller- besides being attractive and well-made, the bag is good for both shoulder and crossbody wear and has multiple pockets inside that help brand fans “compartmentalize their lives.”


Baraboux Lucy bag in Charcoal Blue

Does Italian production eat into the brand’s profit margin? Besides prioritizing “good quality and artisanal workmanship”, Al Saud has ‘a-stitch-in-time-saves-nine’ philosophyon this, basically pointingout that Italian production of Baraboux products makes a lot more fiscal sense than products developed cheaply in China. “We look at our market and who we want to sell to when choosing our leathers andour materials. We’re not only choosing the best ones for the market we’re looking to sell to but also the ones that are the most durable.”

Yes, production costs in Italy are higher, but a slew of other areas of the Baraboux business are saving time, money, and preventing logistical issues from occurring. Italy’s proximity to her Saudi Arabian home base makes it easier to travel there four to five times per year, Italian production demonstrates much lower error margins and shorter execution times due to their extreme level of experience with fine goods, and also, Italy being a synergistic hub for better goods means thatall the different production points are situated next to one another and therefore liaise much easier than they would with far-flung locales. “We can literally manage the full cycle in one trip, and it’s more time and cost effective than if I had suppliers in six different countries.”


The Baraboux Noush bag in Sand

In the news, HRH is mostly mentioned for her fashion-based endeavors, despite the fact that she is also a social entrepreneur, founding Alf Khair [Arabic for one thousand opportunities] and as a part of Alf Khair, Alf Dharb. Originally conceived as a retail academy, Alf Dharb as an educational institution is focused on a “readiness for work, core-competency” type of agenda with attendees primarily from two streams of society. The nature of her past and current work in the luxury sector has given the Princess a lot of press focus, and she does leverage that to shed light on her social entrepreneurial endeavors. “When I look back at my career, what really interests me is providing opportunities for other people. And particularly back home, the retailindustry provides a lot of job opportunities, so the more that I dive into that, the more retail ventures that I dive into, I end up being able to create more jobs and that interests me and fascinates me which is where the social enterprise Alf Khair came about. The vehicle seems to be fashion and retail, and I find that intriguing.”


Saudi Princess Reema launches breast cancer awareness

SOURCE: Campaign

Time: March 16, 2015


AUSTIN — Saudi Arabia’s Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud launched a breast cancer awareness campaign at SXSW Interactive on Saturday.

Princess Reema’s goal is to bring together 10,000 Saudi women in Riyadh this October to educate them about breast cancer and other health issues.  If successful, the event would be the largest-ever gathering of women in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking in a keynote at the festival, Princess Reema asked SXSW attendees to take their photo in front of a set of neon pink wings in the Austin Convention Center, and then share it on social media with the hashtag #10KSA.  She said she hopes the social media activity will raise awareness of her cause and bring more visibility to the event.

By gathering together Saudi women, 10KSA will aim to form the world’s largest pink humanitarian ribbon on record. That would beat the record that the Zahra Breast Cancer Association previously set in 2010 at a similar event with nearly 4,000 women.

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for Saudi women ages 20 to 59, but the topic is taboo in Saudi Arabian culture, Princess Reema explained.

“I want to kick [breast cancer] up to be a mainstream conversation,” she said.

The event in October will feature genetic testing, health education, fitness classes such as spinning and Zumba, and food and retail entrepreneurs.

Princess Reema is a founding member of Zahra Breast Cancer Association and CEO of luxury retailer Alfa International, which operates the Harvey Nichols department store in Riyadh. She is known for leading a movement to bring more Saudi women into the workforce. Last year, Fast Company ranked her No. 1 on its Most Creative People list for her efforts, which included ousting several dozen Harvey Nichols salesmen to hire female clerks.

Badreya al-Bishr

SOURCE:Arab Women Writers

28 February 2015


Badreya al-Bishr
 (بدرية البشر)  is a Saudi writer and novelist born in Riyadh. Has a Master of Arts in Sociology from King Saud University and a Ph.D. degree from the American University in Beirut. She currently is a lecturer at King Saud University, Department of Social Studies and obtained.

From 1991 to 1993, she had a weekly column under the title (Half Noise) in AlYoum news paper in Dammam. Later she wrote for al Riyadh newspaper and then for the Middle East newspaper. Currently, she writes for the daily Al Hayat..

She is married to renowned Saudi artist Nasser al-Kassabi. She has two sons.

A first for conservative Saudi Arabia: a female newspaper editor


Time: February 18, 2014

Like other Saudi women, she’s not allowed to drive or move around freely. But Somayya Jabarti will soon be setting the news agenda for thousands of readers in the Middle Eastern kingdom.
In what appears to be a first for male-dominated Saudi Arabia, Jabarti has been appointed editor of a major newspaper, the English-language Saudi Gazette.
She will take over as editor-in-chief from her longtime mentor, Khaled Al Maeena, the outgoing editor said in an article published Sunday on the newspaper’s website.
“I’ve had the goal almost as long of wanting to see a Saudi woman enter the male-dominated bastion of editors-in chief,” Al Maeena wrote. “It was not a question of gender but of merit that decided and earned her this opportunity.”
Jabarti’s appointment has generated praise on social media. But it remains to be seen how it will be received by the larger public in the conservative kingdom, where religious interpretations impose a de facto ban on females driving, among other restrictions involving women.
Women detained for defying ban on driving

“This is a totally new step for Saudi Arabia,” Saudi journalist Essam Al Ghalib told CNN. “She is very qualified and it’s about time. But how will people react, we’ll have to wait and see.”
“The biggest challenge she may face is being accepted by the male-dominated circle of journalists,” he said.
Jabarti told CNN that she is unfazed.
“It is a male-dominated field, like many media in the world,” she said. “There will be challenges, but there is ground to be broken. This is just the starting point.”
Jabarti began her career in journalism in 2003 as a reporter and translator for the Arab News, then headed by Al Maeena. She eventually rose to deputy editor-in-chief at the newspaper in 2011 before joining the Saudi Gazette with Al Maeena.
The Saudi Gazette has a circulation of about 47,000, Al Maeena told Al Arabiya News in September.
Jabarti will take over the newspaper amid significant challenges to press freedom in Saudi Arabia.
Reporters Without Borders recently said Saudi Arabia ranks near the bottom of countries around the world in press freedom.
The organization cited the arrests and punishment of journalists who wrote about sensitive issues in Saudi Arabia, including religion and the ban on women driving.
On Sunday, the Saudi Gazette also carried a story citing a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Information threatening to shut down online news sites that “publish offensive material about Islam, the country, or traditions.

Saudi Arabian female researcher Hayat Sindi to be appointed UNESCO advocate


1 October 2012

The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, today nominated Saudi Arabian researcher Hayat Sindi as a Goodwill Ambassador to support science education, especially among girls.

Ms. Sindi’s nomination comes “in recognition of her work to create an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and social innovation for scientists, technologists and engineers in the Middle East and beyond, her efforts to bring the youth closer to innovators and her dedication to the ideals and aims of the organization,” the Paris-based UNESCO said in a news release.

Born in 1967 in Mecca, Ms. Sindi has made major contributions to point-of-care diagnostics, medical testing at or near the site of patient care, specifically designed for the vast number of people who do not have access to hospitals and medical facilities.

She made this contribution through the invention of a biochemical sensor with thermo-elastic probes and her development of the Magnetic Acoustic Resonance Sensor (MARS), UNESCO said.

In her capacity as a Goodwill Ambassador, Ms. Sindi will support science education, especially inspiring more girls to enrol in science subjects, and the visibility of UNESCO’s natural sciences programmes, particularly those pertaining to life science education.

As a member of UNESCO’s impressive roster of renowned personalities who spread its messages and ideals, Ms. Sindi will also help mobilize funds through her professional network to support the agency’s priority activities.

Among UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassadors are Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela of South Africa, United States jazz musician Herbie Hancock, Cuban ballerina and choreographer Alicia Alonso, and Dubai-based philanthropist, educator and entrepreneur Sunny Varkey.