From a young age, Dr. Thoraya Obaid took adversity in stride. In 1951 she was sent to the American College for Girls in Cairo, as education in the Kingdom, at that time, was limited for girls. But that didn’t stop her excelling in studies, and being noticed in her home country.
She became the first Saudi woman to receive a government scholarship to continue her studies in the US in 1963, earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Mills College, Oakland in 1966, and her master’s from Wayne State University, Detroit in 1968. From there she completed her education with a doctorate in 1974.
In 1975, Obaid started working for the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). She served as head of social affairs at ESCWA until 1993, when she became the deputy executive secretary.
She also served as a member of the League of Arab States in 1984, serving for a year formulating its social development strategy.
With 25 years of experience at the UN, she was well-respected at all levels of the UN, and her influence and success in pushing for female empowerment pushed former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to make her head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2001, where she worked until 2010.