The Challenger: Dr Lama Al Sulaiman on why Saudi Arabia is resisting change

Exclusive - Lama Al Sulaiman made history in 2015 when she became one of the first female politicians in Saudi Arabia. But, in an exclusive interview, she explains why she quit, and why implementing the kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan will not be easy.
Al Sulaiman was told she had beaten breast cancer just weeks before she won an historic municipal election in 2015.
By Sarah Townsend
Sat 15 Jul 2017 12:17 PM

In December 2015, Dr Lama Al Sulaiman was among the first women to be elected as a councillor in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections. It was the first time Saudi women had been allowed to vote, let alone stand as candidates, and the mood was jubilant.

The elections were hailed as a turning point in the history of the conservative kingdom, whose political system has been ruled by a male elite and whose female citizens still lack certain rights, including to drive or compete in national sporting events.

Just three months later, trained biochemist Al Sulaiman, who is also vice-chairwoman of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) and a board member and business developer at conglomerate Rolaco Holdings, was making history for a different reason. She became the first female elected member to stand down. She resigned from Jeddah Municipal Council, quietly renouncing the powers the election had granted her.

At the time, she declined to publically explain her withdrawal, but her frustration with male counterparts’ behaviour was well documented in Saudi media. Al Sulaiman and her female colleague Rasha Hefzi reportedly received death threats on their mobile phones because they insisted on sitting at the same table as men at council meetings.

Al Sulaiman’s resignation – shortly before the government published its groundbreaking Vision 2030 economic diversification plan – cast a shadow over the optimism that had gripped much of the kingdom months earlier. In particular, it sparked doubt as to whether the kingdom was ready to treat women as equal citizens and prospective political leaders.

More than a year later, Al Sulaiman agreed to an exclusive interview with Arabian Business.

In a wide-ranging conversation via telephone from Jeddah, she explains her reasons for leaving the council and discusses the remaining barriers to gender equality and socio-economic development in Saudi Arabia.

“When I joined the election for the municipal council, I had a clear sense that men and women in leadership positions were going to be sitting in the same room, at the same time, and therefore we would all be able to have an impact on society,” she says.

“But when I walked in it seemed the rules had changed and they did not suit me. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and having lived here all my life [apart from completing a PhD at King’s College London], I know my limitations and understand there are rules one conforms to.

“I don’t mind if there are dedicated seats for women in council meetings. But if we’re being segregated off into a whole other room…Basically I was not there. And if you’re not there, you’re not going to have an impact and there’s no point your being in the role at all.”

The mother-of-four, who holds non-executive roles at the Khadijah Bint Khuwailed Lobbying Center for Women, Coutts Advisory Board, Foras Investment and Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Entertainment, provides a down-to-earth account of the challenges facing Saudi women.

Only 130,000 women registered to vote in the first Saudi election to include female voters in December 2015. 

Yet she is at pains to stress that the kingdom is undergoing unprecedented change to which resistance is both inevitable and understandable. Vision 2030 and the accompanying National Transformation Program (NTP) set out an ambitious roadmap for diversifying Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil revenues.

There are plans to grow the private sector, for example through privatisations of state-run assets and regulatory reform to attract foreign investment. The government also wants to entice more Saudi nationals, including women, into the workplace.

Implicit in the plans is the need for a cultural shift away from hardline conservatism, towards a modern kingdom that embraces international standards and offers greater personal and professional choice.

The kingdom even plans to lift some restrictions on women, including permitting them to travel and study overseas and benefit from government services such as education and healthcare, without the consent of a male guardian.

“I am very optimistic about the transformations taking place. But at the same time I can feel there is a course of resistance,” Al Sulaiman says.

“Some people in society are fearing the change and reacting to it. There is a concern that it may cause a loss of identity and culture, so you find people more protective of the way they were.

“For the future of my kids, the change is excellent. But for others living through the transition, it’s hard.”

Al Sulaiman has fought plenty of her own battles, including with breast cancer. But, surprisingly for a middle-aged Saudi woman with progressive views on gender equality, she insists she is “not a fighter”, and handled her departure from the council as diplomatically as she could.

“I’m not a bulldozer, I’m not a fighter. I love what I do – I’m not going in just to fight with those that believe this and that, I don’t see that as effective. And I don’t believe it is my job to change the culture. I am in favour of opening up opportunities for women who would like to participate.”

Al Sulaiman says 35 percent of JCCI’s employees are women – a huge achievement when compared to many other institutions in the kingdom. Only around 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s workforce is female, according to 2016 data from the World Bank, although Vision 2030 aims to double that by 2030.

However, she says an important part of facilitating change is accommodating individual women’s preferences. In a recent poll of JCCI’s female staff, 48 percent said they were happy to work alongside male colleagues, but 52 percent said they preferred to have segregated offices.

“This didn’t mean they wouldn’t sit at the same table for meetings, but that they felt more comfortable doing their day-to-day jobs in a separate room,” Al Sulaiman says.

Crown Prince Mohammad has led Saudi Arabia’s transformation programme.

“This is why I always say segregation should be a woman’s choice. I understand a lot of my colleagues do not want to work in a mixed environment, and I know how amazing and capable they are, so they should be able to have the environment in which they feel most comfortable.”

She adds: “Most organisations have both very liberal and very conservative people, and sometimes neither is tolerant to the other.”

Saudi Arabia has been taking baby steps towards modernisation over the past decade. The number of women in the workforce increased by 48 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to the country’s Central Department of Statistics and Information – albeit from a low base – and Al Sulaiman claims the professional opportunities for women are far greater than they were.

“That’s why I jumped out of one plate [the council] and rushed to see what other opportunities there were. If you move jobs and circulate and it does not suit you, the beauty of Saudi Arabia – which did not happen 10 years ago – is that women can say, ok, I don’t like this environment, I don’t like this work, I’ll look for something else.”

She cites the February appointment of Sarah Al Suhaimi as the first female CEO of the Tadawul stock exchange as evidence of progress made. “It’s unbelievable,” she exclaims. “That’s a male-dominated job wherever you are in the world.”

At the same time, she is damning about the quality of jobs on offer for male Saudis, and warns the demographic split between expat and national workers in the kingdom is “unhealthy”. A strengthened private sector could create more exciting prospects for Saudi youth, and help stave off criticism that Saudi workers are unproductive.

“There are few countries in the world that compare with the GCC, where more jobs have been created for expats than for nationals,” Al Sulaiman notes. She says she understands foreign companies’ “agony” in attaining quotas for hiring Saudi nationals, and concedes the kingdom’s low productivity growth of around 0.8 percent has had a detrimental impact on private sector recruitment.

However, she adds: “I am a strong disbeliever in the rumours that Saudis are dependent [on the state], lazy, don’t work hard, and so on. The reality is that these jobs are not decent jobs. They are not jobs of quality. They are heavy-duty, boring jobs, and a young 21st century millennial kid…there’s no way he’s going to take these jobs.

Her involvement with the General Authority of Entertainment is part of this. “If we create the right ecosystem for the entertainment industry to grow, it will create some of the jobs young people will be eager to go into, like technology, gaming and audiovisual.”

Al Sulaiman has three sons aged 28, 23 and 18, and a 21-year-old daughter. All are studying at universities abroad. Are education standards in the kingdom not high enough to ensure quality employment among Saudis? Al Sulaimain stops short of criticising Saudi schools and universities. She says: “There is a big debate around the world about [the pros and cons of] globalisation. But whether we accept it or not, we are living in a small world and we need to be globalised.

Women are still restricted from attending national sporting events.

“Saudi Arabia is a big believer in ‘glocalisation’, so yes, I want my kids to go abroad. They need to be exposed, I want them to see different countries, meet and talk to different people so they understand what direction they would like their country to grow in.”

The 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population aged under 30 is expected to be a key driver of future economic growth, as young people adopt the more progressive approach to commerce proposed by Vision 2030. But Al Sulaiman is frank about the challenges facing businesses and government in the meantime, and claims this is contributing to economic slowdown. Saudi Arabia’s GDP growth was projected to slow to 1.2 percent in 2016, and 2.5 percent in 2017, according to Capital Economics.

“It’s good to have a vision. We’ve had visions in the past, but this seems to be clear and simple and has got people on board,” Al Suliman says. “However, to have transformation, we have to change our habits. The private sector previously worked on [state-run] supply and demand. The government had a list of demands and the private sector would supply.

“Everybody knew where the money came from, they knew where to go, there was a system that was not written down on paper, but everyone knew how it worked.

“Of course, in the long run, and for my kid’s sake, this was not sustainable. The new system coming in is much better. Governments and institutions are trying to improve their services, and regulations are on websites for everyone to see. It’s no longer word of mouth, it’s knowledge based, and the individual needs to do things on his own.

“But that is not easy. People are suffering because people are scared of losing their position. Not everybody has the capacity to know what it means to have a new kind of management and be more competitive, efficient and productive. That’s why this year and last there was a slowdown. People are restructuring themselves for the new regime, rather than marketing their products and looking for new customers; It’s a transition.”

The transition is being played out against a complex set of global political dynamics. Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May was a chance for the kingdom to prove it is opening up to foreign investors and increasing transparency. A few weeks later it broke ties with Qatar over the latter’s alleged support for terrorism. Arabian Business interviewed Al Sulaiman before the GCC dispute broke out, but even then she was dismayed by persistent islamaphobia and adamant that the Arab world works to improve its reputation.

“The media has not been correct at interpreting what is happening around the world,” she says, referring to the spate of terror attacks in the West.

“It has woken us up to the fact that we are all part of the change.”

Al Sulaiman may say she is not a fighter, but her powerful vision and articulate views are certain to effect positive change.

Saudi Arabia says it plans to provide women with more education choices.

On Vision 2030:

“We are moving in the right direction, but people are afraid. They need reassurance that the ride won’t be as bumpy as they fear.”

On societal change:

“It’s like a rehabilitation. It’s painful. I know that if I walk more the pain will be less, but as I’m walking it’s painful.”

On Saudi youth:

“We produce young people motivated and inspired, who want to embrace the world, and then tell them, this is it: eight hours, punch in and punch out, sit behind a desk, and that’s it. As a mother … I do not like what I see and I’ve fought a lot over this.”

On globalisation:

“Globalisation is not just about free trade. It’s about interaction of cultures. We talk about this, but in reality we’re not doing it; we still don’t know how to have multicultural people living together.”

On Donald Trump:

“Trump has opened a Pandora’s box of opinions and this is good. This is what we were lacking. We need to dialogue more.”

On Islamaphobia:

“As a Muslim woman, I realise I have a responsibility to converse about Islam when I travel, so people can understand who we are and not brand us like a few illegals with corrupt mentalities and ideologies who are going to infect the rest of the Muslim world with their thoughts.”

Saudi Arabia’s election to the UN Human Rights committee in 2015 was met with international criticism but Vision 2030 provides for greater equality.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.