DUBAI: The critical challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak will require huge economic and financial resources, but it will also test Saudi Arabia’s professional and administrative skills to the limit.
In this unique situation, the talents of dedicated professional women such as Samar Alamro are at a premium.
She has developed a career in medical administration and digital communications that will serve in good stead in the difficult months ahead as the Kingdom, and the rest of the world, tackle the unprecedented challenges the virus presents.
Alamro, a 48-year-old mother of three from Riyadh, spent 14 years as an operations executive at King Abdul Aziz Medical City, the facility in the capital that provides medical services to the National Guard.
She has since moved to the private sector, and is now director of strategic operations at the international consultancy Accenture — the first Saudi woman on the firm’s executive council.
Accenture’s health care specialists are working hard on the issues thrown up by coronavirus, and Alamro has an expert take on what will be required as Saudi Arabia grapples with it.
“I can’t praise the government enough for the measures they’ve taken so far. We’ve been ahead of many other places, in the Middle East and the world,” she told Arab News.
“Of course we’re part of the world which has been affected by the virus, and we can’t avoid it. But we have excellent facilities here and we’re taking it very seriously,” she said.
“The measures to contain it have been taken very early and are very strict. Closing the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah was a very big move, but it was necessary,” she added.
“Now malls, shops, other public places and entertainments have been closed too. It will create frustrations, but that’s inevitable if we’re to get through.”
Born: Riyadh, 1972
- Institute of Public Administration, Saudi Arabia
- Bachelor of Business Administration, Arab Open University
- Operations director, Ministry of National Guard Health Affairs
- Senior specialist in digital government relations for MENA
Associate director, Middle East and Turkey, Accenture
Alamro was speaking after a week when the government had closed some public sector operations altogether to limit the risk of infection, telling people to work from home instead, and put restrictions on the private sector to ensure only essential skeleton operations in industry and manufacturing continue.
Saudi Arabia also banned air travel with the rest of the world, and stopped all mass land travel in the Kingdom — trains, buses and taxis. It is not officially a curfew — yet — but physical movement has become severely restricted.
These measures have resulted in a comparatively low level of infection as testing has been ramped up and medical facilities expanded throughout the country. But how will people as gregarious and family-oriented as Saudis take to the new regime?
“We’re still gathering in small family groups — that’s our culture. There are some worries: How seriously are other people taking it? Are they really following the government’s instructions to limit contact between people? But as far as I can see, there’s a good spirit among us,” Alamro said.
Responding to the challenges will also require close cooperation between the public and private sectors in the Kingdom at a time of great change to its economic structure.
Under Vision 2030, the plan to diversify the economy away from oil dependency, the strategy is to strengthen and extend the private sector economy, which has hitherto been dependent to a large degree on government spending. Alamro’s career spans both sectors seamlessly. Her father worked for Saudi Aramco, often regarded as the most modern and progressive corporation in the country, and she credits his influence as a big factor in her professional life.
“He was open-minded and visionary. When I graduated in the 1990s, the opportunities on offer for women were limited. It was only public sector, and basically limited to health care, education and banks. But it was still tough to be in a mixed-gender environment,” she said.
She widened her worldview with a spell in the US while her husband studied there, before returning to Saudi Arabia for higher education and her own career.
“My father had thought I should be a lawyer, but that option wasn’t really available at that time. I didn’t feel I’d be a good teacher — that’s not really my personality,” Alamro said.
“But the medical field was attractive, and I was lucky enough to get a job with the National Guard hospital, in public and government relations, later moving on to operations and logistics. It’s a very progressive organization, and at that time they were investing a lot in the expansion of medical facilities.”
In 2010, she moved to the private sector as an executive with responsibility for government relations and health care with SAP, the global software business.
It was a bold move for a woman in a workforce largely made up of well-paid and secure government jobs.
“I’ve always been excited about taking on new challenges, and I wanted to grow my career and advance my prospects,” she said.
“I was one of the founders of the SAP business in the Kingdom, and it was a good learning experience. When I left in 2018, it was a well-established team, and I felt like the mother of the office.”
She had worked with Accenture as a business partner while at SAP, and had little hesitation joining the organization when it approached her.
“I was the first Saudi female to join the executive team in the Kingdom, which was a big challenge,” Alamro said.
“But Accenture is a very progressive organization on gender issues, and it likes to empower women. It’s a complex and complicated company, but after two years I feel as though I’m getting on top of it.”
Increasing the proportion of women in the Saudi workforce is one of the main aims of Vision 2030, an ambition that coincides with Accenture’s own corporate vision.
Currently, some 47 percent of its workforce is female, very close to the goal of global gender equality.
Although the proportion is lower in Saudi Arabia, Accenture is still higher than the national average, and the company is pushing toward the equality goal.
It is a knowledge partner in the W20, the women’s pillar of the G20 organization that will hold its summit in Saudi Arabia later this year and is planning a “virtual” summit of leaders next week.
Accenture has won awards for its work on gender equality and as an employer of talented women.
Its chief executive is a high-flying American woman, Julie Sweet, named by the New York Times as “one of the most powerful women in corporate America.”
Alamro believes that women still face challenges in the workplace and in society. “When I started in my career, women were already empowered to some extent in the workforce. There were more social and cultural restrictions, but in the workforce I always felt respected,” she said.
“As a woman, if you know how to use your positive attributes you’ll do well. I’ve always felt myself to be the equal of any man — I can do it as well as they can, in fact I can do it better than most.”
Does she think young Saudis entering the workforce will look to the private sector rather than less demanding jobs in government positions?
“Yes, in fact it’s already happening. Accenture already has a large number of Saudis in the workforce, and it’s growing all the time. We want to have more Saudis,” she said.
“Sometimes you have to work harder and longer in the private sector, but I’m a workaholic and it has never been a problem to motivate myself.”
As a wife and mother with a demanding fulltime job, she understands the challenge of striking a balance between work and other aspects of everyday life, such as family and leisure time.
“My husband has always encouraged my career, and I’ve been lucky to have the support of an extended family,” Alamro said.
“I felt no guilt about working fulltime, and never felt the need to leave the children with a nanny all the time. But I’m dedicated to them, and when I stop work, I make sure I devote time to them and the rest of the family.”
Her skills as a professional strategist, and as a mother, will be in full demand in the months ahead, but she is convinced that Saudi Arabia will get through the coronavirus crisis. “As an Islamic society, we always have faith in God, and He won’t let us down,” she said.