Lubna Suliman Olayan is chief executive officer of Olayan Financing Company, a Riyadh-based holding company for the Olayan group’s operations in Saudi Arabia that ranks No. 8 in the list of the Kingdom’s Top 100 companies. In this, the first of a series of exclusive Arab News interviews that will highlight the growing influence of Saudi women as role models, Lubna Olayan speaks to Gihan Ramadan.
According to official statistics, Saudi women comprise only five percent of the local work force. The greatest hindrance they face, according to Lubna Olayan, is not their lack of competence but being unable to work wherever they want and freedom of movement. Olayan does not define herself in gender terms, but rather as a professional person who has a job to do. Being an executive icon in Saudi Arabia, Olayan defined the key elements that contribute to a woman’s success — hard work, determination and organization. “I think a woman has to be triply organized. The thing you are short on is time.”
She acquired a BSc in Agriculture from Cornell University and was awarded an MBA from Indiana University. She joined Morgan Guaranty in New York and in 1983 moved to Olayan Group, Saudi Arabia, a diversified holding company involved in many industries ranging from retail, distribution and manufacturing. Investments span Europe, North America and the Middle East.
The number of women among her own company’s more than 8,000 employees remains miniscule, Olayan admits. “I would like to see more women involved in the group, within the context of our traditions, and technological advancements are allowing us to recruit more.”
Lubna Olayan laughed when asked if she felt that Saudi women are oppressed and abused. “I think that Saudi women are very powerful. And I think that Saudi men are the greatest support to Saudi women. Saudi men have sisters, mothers and wives and in my working experience I have had tremendous support from Saudi men. I really don’t think that Saudi women are oppressed or abused.”
Although world media remains almost obsessively focused on the question of women being forbidden from driving in the Kingdom, Lubna Olayan does not see this as an important concern. “I think that driving is the least important issue. We as women have a lot more things to tackle before we get to the issue of driving, such as the opportunity to work in any field we choose. In this area I have a feeling that things are changing.”
“When foreign media feeds their people garbage and misinformation they are doing a disservice to their people.”
The greatest misconception the foreign media has when it comes to Saudi women, she continued, is the idea that women are not educated and are somehow helpless, to the point of being unhappy and oppressed.
Challenging this stereotype, Lubna Olayan will be attending the Fortune Global Forum on Nov. 11, co-organized by the Arab Thought Foundation. She will be part of a panel that will identify and comment on key issues affecting business in the Arab region today in her capacity as an executive from Saudi Arabia.
“I hope they do not just focus on the issue of women,” she said. “It’s only recently that I’ve started to think of myself as a woman in Saudi Arabia. Before I always thought of myself as a person who has a job to do. I’m going to answer questions as an executive from Saudi Arabia who just happens to be a woman.”
She refuses to take the credit for the success of the Olayan group.
“I never think about it in that sense. We accomplish things and then move on. I never dwell on what I’ve personally achieved. As a group I am very proud of where we are now. It’s our philosophy that the best job should be given to the most competent person. That is something I truly believe in, and my father believed in.”
At the same time, Lubna Olayan obviously takes pride in the way her company has managed to diversify. Arabian Medical Products Manufacturing Company (ENAYAH), a manufacturer of disposable health care products, was established in 1991 as a joint venture of the Olayan Group, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, and the Saudi Pharmaceutical & Medical Appliances Company (SPIMACO).
“This new company has made special effort to employ more women and has done so successfully,” Olayan asserts.
Although Lubna Olayan does not appreciate all the focus on gender issues, she acknowledges that there is room for improvement when it comes to the lot of Saudi women who want to branch out into business.
“We as a group of people have come a long way in the last 20 years, but parallel to our advances our society has imposed stricter rules than those which existed 20 years ago.”
The interview covered a broad range of topics. However, the recurring theme was that women in Saudi Arabia face many of the same challenges as their female counterparts around the world. The differences revolve around a kind of time lag.
Recognizing that the issue of women and leadership may vary throughout the world, discussions with Saudi role models are essential to illustrate the similarities and define the differences. Lubna Olayan strongly stressed that the issue is not a gender issue, but “a corporate issue and an education issue.”
Education is essential to providing girls and young women with skills needed to succeed, she said, and it should foster a culture of equality among men and women so that they may work along side each other productively to make Saudi Arabia more competitive in a world economy.
Olayan stressed the need for trilateral efforts to increase women’s rights in the Kingdom. “Education, government organizations and media can work together to bring about greater opportunities for Saudi women. I am not an expert on education but whatever we can we should improve. Everything should be under continuous reassessment in the name of bringing about development.”
She argued that changing the education curriculum, and in particular moving teaching techniques away from an emphasis on memorization, should be the first step toward proper training for girls.
“Our media also has a moral and social responsibility to inform and educate. The media reflects what is happening in society, you have to weigh the environment you work in, and stay one step ahead — leading the way, but not too far ahead. Be selective in the news coverage, and bring news that is worth the print. Skip the garbage, and be educators. I think media can do a lot to help us out.”
One of the main purposes of this and the other interviews in this series is to encourage young girls to be ambitious. So how would Lubna Olayan encourage her daughters and the young women of Saudi Arabia to fulfill their dreams?
“I am the mother of three girls and to me they are the most important thing in my life. When they were young, I had the guilt feeling and used to ask: ‘Am I giving them enough time?’ Overall it has made the relationship very special with my girls, and the hours we spend together are quality time. Holidays are sacred for us, a very important part of our lives. Being a working woman does have an effect on family life. I always tell young Saudi girls that they have to be sure they want to work. You have to be organized and you have to be able to prioritize. Follow your dreams, believe in yourself. You can do what you want but you have to work hard and you have to be fully prepared. You have to know what you are facing. I think the youth sometimes do not have enough self-assurance. I am impressed with Saudi girls, I think they do have enough confidence but some may lack discipline, organization and determination. If they have that we then have fantastic girls and a fantastic future.”
Asking her about the role of the husband, Lubna Olayan gave a warm smile. “I was very fortunate woman. I had three men, two men now, who played a very important role in my life. My father — may God bless him — played an extremely important role in my life. My husband is the voice of calmness and wisdom when I feel pressured and overwhelmed and he supports me in every way he can. Of course, there is my brother as well who has always been supportive. So as a woman I consider myself very fortunate.”
Being a woman in the corporate world is a challenge in New York, Tokyo and Riyadh. How have men reacted to the fact that Lubna Olayan is a Saudi female and in a powerful position?
“I have received the utmost respect from my Saudi colleagues, both in-house or outside the group. I was treated the way I wanted, without a gender differentiation. If I have had a problem with men, it was probably on two occasions — and both were Europeans. One Spanish man almost canceled the meeting when he realized he was meeting with a woman!”
Since Lubna Olayan entered a family business, some might argue that she does not face the same struggles that other Saudi women have to face. She admits: “Yes, I came to an already-established organization, but in any case Saudi men are very respectful of women.” Moreover, Lubna Olayan maintained that men and women do not need to be segregated in the corporate world. “As long as we work within our traditions and our environment, there is no need for further segregation.”
The best step the Saudi government has taken, according to Lubna Olayan, is one toward Saudization. “We truly believe that this is the right thing for all companies in Saudi Arabia. For some companies of the group it has been very difficult to get up to the required ratio, and in others we have exceeded the 30 percent ratio. At each company level we have training programs and with job replacement we give priority to Saudis.”
The boycott of US goods in the Kingdom in light of America’s perceived bias in favor of Israel in its foreign policy is still an issue for companies that promote American brands, as does the Olayan Group.
“The boycott issue for the American products affected a few companies of the group. I can understand the sentiment and the frustration behind the boycott, but people don’t realize that when products with American brandnames are manufactured in Saudi Arabia they are hurting the Saudi company and the local employees. Ultimately, we are hurting our own economy as well.”
The media has a role in developing a next generation of women leaders. The Saudi female population would benefit from more visible role models such as Lubna Olayan.