The future of Saudi Arabia is female

The future of Saudi Arabia is female

Women are taking charge in one of the world’s most gender-segregated country.

Sarah Al Suhaimi will become the first woman to head Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange Tadawul. Worth $439 billion, it’s the largest bourse of the Arab world. A huge achievement in a male-dominated sector and in an ultra-conservative country where women’s rights are a controversial topic.

Sarah Al Suhaimi is currently the CEO of NCB Capital Co., the investment banking unit of the National Commercial Bank, Saudi Arabia’s largest listed bank. She was the first woman to head a Saudi investment bank when appointed in 2014. While leading the exchange Al Suhaimi is expected to keep her position at NCB Capital Co.

Her appointment last Thursday was followed three days later by the nomination of Rania Mahmoud Nashar as the chief executive of Samba Financial Group, one of the country’s largest national banks. She is the first Saudi woman certified as an anti-money laundering specialist by a respected American association of experts who combat financial crime, Samba said.

And on Tuesday it emerged that Arab National Bank (ANB) has chosen Latifa Al Sabhan to be their Chief Financial Officer.

These appointments mark a historical moment for both the financial industry and the Saudi society.

While other Saudi women have already assumed corporate leadership positions, the rise of Al Suhaimi, Nashar and Al Sabhan comes against some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries for gender equality. Women are not allowed to drive and need permission from a male guardian – usually the husband, father or brother – to study, travel abroad or marry. And female unemployment rate is more than 34%, compared with 5.7% for Saudi males.

But change is happening. And the unprecedented appointments of women at top financial jobs fall in line with Saudi Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s plan to wean the economy off its dependence on oil.


Saudi Vision 2030 is an ambitious economic and social reform programme announced by the government last year.

The plan highlights the importance of Saudi women to the kingdom’s future success. One of its goals is to empower its female population, in continuation with the late King Abdullah’s tentative steps towards gender equality. The Kingdom aims to boost the role and contribution of Saudi women in the economy, and increase their participation in the nation’s workforce from 22% to 30%.

As part of its reforms, Saudi Arabia held its first ever Women’s Day event earlier this month. The three-day event featured speakers who argued for women’s rights to drive, and called for an end to the country’s male guardianship system.

Female members of the Saudi royal family also attended the event. Princess Adila bint Abdullah Al-Saud, a well-known advocate of women’s right to drive, women’s health awareness and their legal rights, was present. As well as Princess Al-Jawhara bint Fahd Al-Saud, who hosted a discussion on women’s roles in education.

The event was the occasion to “celebrate the Saudi woman and her successful role, and remind people of her achievements in education, culture, medicine, literature and other areas,” Mohammed Al-Saif, a spokesman for the centre, told Arab News.

For the last couple of years trailblazing Saudi women have been leading the Kingdom forward.

Bloomberg reported that the number of working women increased by 50% between 2010 and 2015, and more Saudi women enter male-dominated fields such as banking and engineering.

The year 2014 saw the creation of the first female law firm after its founder Bayan Mahmoud Al Zahran and three other female lawyers were granted licenses to practice. Al Zahran became the first Saudi woman lawyer when the Kingdom allowed them to change their status from legal consultants to attorneys, thus lifting the ban imposed on female law graduates to practice.

A year later, women were granted the right to vote and to participate in municipal elections. In the Kingdom’s first-ever elections open to female voters and candidates, more than 900 women competed against nearly 6,000 men for places on 284 councils. 18 women won seats in the municipal polls, whose powers include responsibility for streets, public gardens and rubbish collection.

Saudi athletes have also been making an impact on the patriarch culture of Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom sent four women to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, doubling its female participation after two women competed for the first time at the 2012 London Games. And even if she didn’t qualify, sprinter Kariman Abuljadayel made the headlines for being the first woman from Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympic 100m.

Saudi Arabia’s women are continuously shattering stereotypes and proving that they too can achieve great success in their fields, despite the Kingdom’s still restrictive laws. Educated, ambitious and driven to lead their nation forward, they are redefining what it means to be a modern Saudi woman and changing the face of their nation.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicted earlier this month that, based on its GDP at purchasing power parity, Saudi Arabia will have the 13th most powerful economy in the world by 2030.

And there is no doubt the Kindgom will mostly have Saudi women to thank for it.

Alia Chebbab


Featured image: Saudi Arabia, 2009. Photo: Tribes of the World / CC BY-SA 2.0

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