WASHINGTON: Saudi Arabia is working to address deeper issues on the path to women’s rights after allowing them to drive and attend soccer matches, one of the Kingdom’s top female officials has said.
“These are things that are quick wins, we know we can do them, women in stadium, women driving, that’s great, but women driving is not the end all, be all of women’s rights,” Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud told the Atlantic Council in Washington.
As part of a wide-ranging social and economic reform initiative in the face of falling oil revenue, King Salman announced in September that Saudi women would be allowed to drive from June this year.
Saudi Arabia then tackled the male bastion of soccer, letting women into stadiums to watch matches for the first time in January.
Princess Reema, a vice president at the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia, said deeper issues are still being worked on including “a woman feeling safe in her home” and having any career path open to her in a traditionally male-dominated society.
“Those are things that will be more dynamic in moving the conversation for women’s rights than just getting her driving,” said the princess, who in 2016 became the first woman named to a senior post in the authority, which is the equivalent of a ministry.
“Domestic violence is so critical. I promise you we really are working on it.” The Sports Authority is trying to get more Saudis exercising as part of efforts to build a healthier population.
Saudi women traditionally cover themselves from head-to-toe in black robes, known as abayas, but Princess Reema said the attire will be no hindrance to women’s exercise.
She said she knows of three companies making abayas for running and two more that have robes designed for cycling.
“Innovation will come. It has to come,” she said. “Guess what, I’m wearing trousers today,” added the princess, also dressed in sparkling silver shoes, purple, black and grey flowing sleeves, and with a blue scarf around her head.
The Kingdom sent four women as “wild cards” to the 2016 Olympics, but Princess Reema told AFP on the sidelines of the Atlantic Council event that she will be happy when one gets to a future Olympics “on her own merit … however long it takes.”
She returned to Saudi Arabia in 2005, where she later assumed the role of CEO at Al Hama LLC, a luxury retail corporation that managed brands including DNKY and Donna Karan in the middle east. She served for several years as the CEO of Alfa International, a leading luxury retail corporation that, among other pursuits, operates the Harvey Nichols store in Riyadh. Princess Reema is an active entrepreneur; her professional roles include founder and creative director of Baraboux, a luxury handbag brand that she launched in 2013. She is also the founder of the private equity fund Reemiyah, based in Saudi Arabia, as well as the co-founder of Yibreen, a women’s day spa.
Leadership in Business Innovation and Inclusive Employment Advocacy
Princess Reema has gained attention on the international stage as a leader in business innovation, specifically as a champion for women in the workplace. She was recognized as the Most Creative Person of the year in 2014 by Fast Company for “Inviting Women into the Workforce,” and was featured on the Forbes lists of the 200 Most Powerful Arab Women and Most Powerful Arab Women in Saudi Arabia lists for 2014. She was also recognized by Foreign PolicyMagazine as a Leading Global Thinker of 2014 in their “Moguls” category for her work helping women to “integrate their personal and professional lives” by creating hospitable opportunities for women to participate in the economy.
She has noted publicly that engaging women as active participants in the working economy is “evolution, not Westernization,” and empowering a woman with financial responsibility will encourage her to “explore more of the world for herself and become less dependent.” She has also stated that Saudi Arabia “cannot have half of [the] population not working.”
At Harvey Nichols Riyadh, she was responsible for hiring more women and introducing services such as childcare available to employees with young children, providing an opportunity for mothers to continue working and also provide for their children during the workday. She also began a program at Harvey Nichols that provides transportation stipends to women because the Kingdom’s restrictions do not allow women to drive. These efforts, coupled with economic policies lowering the barriers for women to enter the workforce, have led to the store employing dozens of women today (as opposed to 2011, when only men worked there).
Princess Reema is a founding member of the Zahra Breast Cancer Awareness Association, based in Riyadh. The mission of the organization is to “increase and spread awareness among women across the country for early detection, prevention and treatment of the disease, and cooperate with women diagnosed with breast cancer on a step-by-step basis for treatment and ultimate recovery.”
Her work with Zahra also includes organizing the world’s largest human pink ribbon in 2010. This effort was recognized as the winner of the Holmes Report Golden Sabre Award for the Best Publicity Stunt Category and the Platinum Sabre Award for Best PR Programme.
In May 2012, in conjunction with the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, she led a group of Saudi women to the Base Camp of Mount Everest, in a bid to raise breast cancerawareness. The cancer awareness campaign has been entitled ‘A Woman’s Journey: Destination Mount Everest.’ The 11 climbers began their trek to Base Camp located 5,364 meters above sea level on 7 May, completing their trek in 12 days.
In 2017, Princess Reema was appointed President of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports in the change for Community Olympics. In November 2017, she supported Shoot For A Cause organized by Doodle For A Cause. It was the first female basketball game to take place in the Al Jawhara Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Princess Reema also founded Alf Khair, a corporate social responsibility initiative, which is building an active and vocal community of creative talent in Saudi Arabia and promoting their work internationally. Alf Khair is also currently developing a retail academy, which will provide training for Saudi women who want to join the workforce. Her work in this realm also includes her role as an Advisory Board Member of the Saudi National Creative Initiative.
Vision 2030 is an ambitious long term plan, but one that is already bringing positive change to Saudi Arabia, found a panel discussing the Kingdom’s future economy at Davos.
A year on from its implementation, the aims and progress of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programme of social and economic reforms were discussed in a wide-ranging talk. The conversation looked at topics including the impact on jobs, women and the reduction in corruption and government bureaucracy.
A roundtable discussion included Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud, Vice-President for Development and Planning at Saudi Arabian General Sports Authority, Mohammed Al-Jadaan, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Finance, Majid Al-Kasabi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Commerce and Investment, Stephen Schwarzman, Chief Executive and Co-founder of Blackstone and Mohammad Al Tuwaijri, Minister of Economy and Planning of Saudi Arabia.
Mr Al-Jadaan reiterated that Vision 2030 will reform and diversify the economy to liberate the country from its dependence on government spending and instead gain income from areas such as entertainment and tourism. It also is reforming socially, legally and culturally.
He stressed that the project had brought more alignment within the government: “We have one target and we know where we are going”.
Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud said improvements around sports, culture and entertainment have a positive impact on the quality of people’s lives as well as economically.
“Those three creative industries [will] thrive, add economic impact, job creation, training, so much value that’s not just for women,” she said.
Majid Al-Kasabi explained how Saudi Arabia was creating a better “investment ecosystem”, including creating laws around bankruptcy, mortgage pledges and franchising. Moves to make doing business easier by cutting down on government bureaucracy have been made and 2018’s budget is the highest ever, with a weighty allocation set aside for the private sector.
Creating a level playing field and fighting corruption is also a key part of Vision 2030, with Mr Al-Kasabi saying: “It’s true we could make mistakes here and mistakes there. Saudi Arabia is not a perfect country. Saudi Arabia is like any other country but the road to success is always under construction”. He went on to say that 70 percent of Saudis believe the country is going in the right direction, but that it was a learning process and there may be adjustments in the implementation.
As part of an anti corruption purge, a number of prominent figures in Saudi Arabia were detained in the Ritz Carlton Riyadh, a move which caused some alarm in the West.
People should “absolutely not” be worried about what could happen to them if they travel and invest in Saudi Arabia, Mr Al-Jadaan clarified. “We are creating a level playing field, encouraging investors to come and telling them it will be your quality and your price that will determine whether you are successful or not, and nothing else”.
Mohammad Al Tuwaijri acknowledged that Vision 2030 was an ambitious plan and that the Kingdom was aware the eyes of the world are on them during this process. He said that the plan was “a top down choice, but designed bottom up” to ensure it works for the people of Saudi Arabia.
In response to a question from Sultan Al Mansouri, the UAE Minister of Economy about how the UAE and Saudi Arabia could coordinate together further to grow their economies, Mr Al-Jadaan confirmed that the Kingdom is working closely with the UAE and other Gulf states to ensure the developments were “a win for all” and that the creation of new markets would insure countries would not compete against each other.
Some of the early reforms have seen the role of women become more prominent in the Kingdom, with social and economic benefits.
Acknowledging that aside from the chair, Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud was the only woman on the stage, said: “what I represent is the change in this community that is the integration of the man and the woman, the husband, the father and the daughter. The social impact that we are actually changing is that the family is now actively engaging collectively in their lifestyle, in the way they behave and that translates to how they spend their money, how they socialise with each other and that’s what I’m here to represent, not just the woman’s voice even though I’m quite honoured to be a woman from Saudi Arabia here today”.
Some quick wins have been sought by those pushing Vision 2030, such as making women’s gyms legal. This required changes to the law, the creation of a digital infrastructure, the creation and the acceptance of new employment frameworks such as the ability to work freelance. This led to a further push for women to be able to drive in order to access these gyms.
Stephen Schwarzman remarked that the change in Saudi Arabia was “extraordinary”, saying “From operating almost everywhere in the world, you see that economic growth and other good things happen when you have intelligent, informed reform-oriented governments. As an outsider this is like a case study and it’s happening so fast and it’s so bold”.
Saudi Arabia‘s modernizing reforms show human capital is the new currency for the Arab kingdom, a member of the royal family said Thursday.
During a panel at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, Reema bint Bandar Al Saud said: “Please just don’t look at us as oil… Human capital is the new currency and I really would encourage you to look at us that way.”
The role of women in Saudi’s economic transformation beyond a predominantly oil-based economy was critical to its success, Al Saud said.
“What is now happening is a woman has the choice to breathe, a woman has the choice to dream and she can (take) action.”
Al Saud said reforms aimed at improving the integration of both men and women in society would also translate into how people spent their money. Ultimately, while the shifting social dynamics would be “necessary” to improve the economy, it was also the “right thing to do.”
While Saudi Arabia has long been seen as one of the world’s most restrictive places for women, the government’s modernizing reforms have seen some issues improve in recent years.
A combination of social custom, religion and government regulation dictates what Saudi women wear. It had also banned women from driving, traveling as they wish and holding a range of jobs.
In recent months, the kingdom’s attempts to loosen some gender restrictions has meant women in the country are now able to drive, go to the cinema and attend sporting events.
Al Saud said the royal decree allowing Saudi women to drive was a “monumental change by a leader listening to the community.”
On Tuesday, Fahd al Rasheed, managing director and chief executive of King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), the world’s first publicly listed city, told CNBC: “The message is that we are entering a post-oil era in which we are diversifying the economy.
“We had a hard 2016 to 2017 in terms of economic growth, but I think 2018, with the highest ever government budget announced in the kingdom’s history, (it should improve).”
JEDDAH: Princess Reema Bint Bandar Bin Sultan, president of the Community Sports Union, has opened the newest Studio 5 gym in Jeddah, which is based on electronic registration and scheduling sport sessions.
The princess seeks to encourage women to exercise in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Studio 5 is the latest women’s gym in Jeddah. It is based on choosing the time of classes through electronic registration. The gym offers its subscribers a special electronic account for each participant in which they can monitor the number of classes they participate in and determine the appropriate dates and times.
On October 13, Turki Al-Sheikh, president of the Saudi Olympic Committee, issued a decree appointing Princess Reema Bint Bandar as president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports, as the first woman to head a sports federation in Saudi Arabia.
RIYADH: A princess has been named to head a Saudi multi-sports federation, in the latest of a string of such appointments in the Kingdom.
An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan has become “the first woman to lead a federation” covering sporting activities for men and women.
In August 2016, the princess scored another first for women in Saudi Arabia when she was named by the Cabinet to a senior post in the Kingdom’s equivalent of a sports ministry.
A daughter of a former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Princess Reema is a graduate in museology from an American university.
Several women have this year been appointed to top jobs in Saudi Arabia, which is undergoing a huge program of reforms which includes moves to encourage more women into work.
In February three women were appointed to top jobs in Saudi Arabia’s male-dominated financial sector in the space of just one week.
Sarah Al-Suhaimi was named chair of Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange, the Tadawul; Rania Nashar became the CEO of Samba Financial Group; while Latifa Al-Sabhan was appointed chief financial officer of Arab National Bank (ANB).
Other changes introduced this year include the announcement that physical education classes for girls would be introduced in schools, and a review of the guardianship system.
The Kingdom announced last month that it will lift a ban on women drivers from next June.
A poll by Arab News and YouGov found that half of Saudi women who said they want to drive plan to use a car to get to work more easily.
RIYADH: Saudi women have proved capable to enter the labor market alongside men and the country is keen to take all measures to empower them, said Princess Reema bint Bandar.
The deputy president of Saudi Arabia’s Women’s Sports Authority was speaking at a news conference on the role of Saudi women under the Vision 2030 reform plans.
“There has been a transformation regarding the role Saudi women can play in the labor force,” said Princess Reema, who is also vice president of the Saudi General Authority for Sports Planning and Development.
“It is important to understand that the slogan of sports for all, envisioned by Vision 2030, ensures opportunities for all in a manner that achieves balance and impartiality between the sexes, especially in the field of sports,” the princess added.
Referring to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan, the princess said it does not only focus on progress in doing business.
It also envisages a national roadmap for Saudi Arabia showing where it wants to be in the future in regard to cultural, social, economic and political aspects, among others.
“We do not change our laws and regulation to appease the outside world. We take necessary steps as per our own interests,” she said.
She added that change is not an option, but a “commitment to our future generations. It is a matter of where we want to be in the future. And we want to be in a better (place) than the one we are standing in right now.”
Ivanka Trump, the daughter of US President Donald Trump, on Sunday praised Saudi women’s leadership and achievements.
She is part of the US delegation that accompanied the US president on his visit to Saudi Arabia.
“I met with Saudi Arabian women leaders and learned directly of their accomplishments, challenges & vision for the future,” Ivanka Trump tweeted on Sunday.
RIO DE JANEIRO: A US-raised Saudi princess freshly appointed to increase female participation in sports plans to help license gyms and modify outdoor spaces for women in the Kingdom, she said in an interview on Monday.
Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud was last week tapped for the job at the General Sports Authority in a country where women are barred from driving and subject to a restrictive male guardianship system.
But as part of a sweeping economic reform and amid high obesity rates, Riyadh is also planning to make it easier for women to work out.
In her first interview with English-language media since her appointment, Princess Reema said there was “no turning back” on the plans, but warned the pace of reform may not be fast enough for a Western audience.
“We will not go and break societal norms and we will not go and create cultural clashes, what we will do is create opportunities,” said Princess Reema, 41, speaking in Rio where she has been supporting the four female Saudi athletes competing in the 2016 Olympic Games.
“Our biggest mandate right now is mass participation,” she said, adding she would have more details once she officially takes up her role next month.
Women in Saudi Arabia face significant hurdles to practice sports. They must wear head-to-toe garments in public, observe strict rules on gender segregation and obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, study or marry.
Women’s gyms are not eligible for licenses, so they are scarce or operate on the sly.
While US-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said in a report earlier this month there had been some progress in women’s rights to participate in sports, it called on Saudi Arabia to remove the “serious barriers” that remain.
“I’m glad that people are recognizing we’re moving,” said Princess Reema, who grew up in the D.C. area because her father was the long-time ambassador to Washington and has gone on to work in business.
“I understand that from an international point of view they might not think we’re moving fast enough. But one thing they need to absolutely understand in the Middle East is that it’s an elastic community. If we pull too fast, you break that elastic.”
As part of nurturing women’s participation in sports, she said her agenda would include pushing for female coaches, women’s bathrooms in public spaces, and Shariah-compliant workout clothes.
The female Saudi athletes at the Olympics — only the second group ever, in Rio with male guardians — are already inspiring their counterparts back home to put their sneakers on, Princess Reema said.
“The overwhelming majority, especially of young women, has essentially said: ‘if they can do it means I can’,” said Princess Reema, a basketball fan and skier.
RABIGH: Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, founder and chief executive officer of Alf Khair, has expressed optimism about the future of entrepreneurship in the Kingdom and Arab world.
She made the comments during an interview with Arab News at the MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF) Arab Startup Competition at King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) at Rabigh, where she was one of the judges and speakers.
The daughter of former Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Princess Reema is the granddaughter of the late King Faisal. Raised and educated in Washington, D.C., the princess earned a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: What are your impressions of this MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF) event?
A: I am so thrilled and proud that this event is happening in Saudi Arabia and honoring all young Middle Eastern entrepreneurs. I am also very proud of the quality of talent that has been exhibited today. As some of our speakers at the conference were saying, we keep looking out far, far away when we should be looking right around the corner. Sometimes these programs are not just around the corner, they are right in front of us. This excites me. The caliber and quality that I am seeing is equal to what I have seen outside.
Q: The young and bright Saudis that you see here engaged in innovation is an exciting development as well, isn’t it?
A: What I am seeing is not just innovation from a digital point of view because that would be shortsighted. The digital innovation must happen but there must be social innovation as well. If we do not innovate minds and grow with our capabilities it does not matter how many digital apps or programs we have, we are not going to be able to maximize the opportunity that they will provide us to innovate further. So, it is A plus B plus C equals something fantastic. But if we don’t have all of the elements and if we forget human capacity, honestly, no amount of digital platforms will make any difference.
Q: What about the young women entrepreneurs at the MITEF conference?
A: What I am really intrigued about is that people are finally seeing that a man can innovate for a woman and that a woman can innovate for a man and you do not have to innovate exclusively only for your gender. That makes me very happy.
Q: This MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF) Arab Startup Competition event is supported by two corporate giants, Abdul Latif Jameel and Zain. What message would you want to convey to others out there in the corporate world?
A: To the corporate sector, I would say you have got two amazing examples of generosity of time, generosity of efforts, spirit and money. What Abdul Latif Jameel and Zain have shown us today is that big business does care and when business cares it is good for their business.
Q: We have seen here students, researchers and top academics from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Effat University and Dar Al-Hekma University. What is the takeaway for Saudi institutes of learning and government institutions from such top-notch conferences, events and competitions?
A: Our universities, government institutions and the private sector should offer more resources, more time and more efforts to promote entrepreneurship. Efforts should be made to ease regulations. It is these regulations that slow down entrepreneurial capabilities. I am talking of administrative regulations, bureaucratic regulations. In order for innovators to innovate, they need freedom of space. Regulations that were created for businesses 10 years ago might not be applicable today. I would like universities that are incubating this kind of talent to be advocates for individuals engaged in innovation.
Q: The Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, always had talent. Is it only now that we are seeing them come upfront?
A: It was a different kind of talent in the past. I think each time curates its own talent for the needs it has. The capabilities that young people have today are more technologically advanced than before. This does not mean that the innovation that was created before was less valid. It was profoundly valid. Each innovation lives on top of the previous innovation. It is the key that opens the next door. If we want the future doors to open, we have to realize we need to be lighter, leaner, more progressive and more proactive in the regulations that are made.
Q: Many of the speakers here spoke about how people, even closest relatives, laughed at their ideas when they first floated them and they spoke about how they persisted and persevered and ultimately succeeded. What is your message to the budding entrepreneurs out there?
A: I would tell them to look at the negative criticism as information and data. Find out what is driving that negative criticism and then reframe it into positive information. All feedback, positive or negative, is data. Take it, use it and reframe it. If you are going to disregard it, then you are disregarding somebody who is saying, ‘You have a problem, I don’t believe in your product.’ You didn’t connect with them. So was it a messaging issue then? You need to address that. Or is it a marketing issue? A product issue? Try to place it in the right bucket because that content will inform the next decision that you will make.
“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 feminist, radical, activist, liberal, empowerment 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.
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