Alwaleed Philanthropies' Secretary General, Princess Lamia bint Majid AlSaud, says now is the time for Saudi Arabia's women to grab opportunities, adding that old traditions can no longer be used as excuses to remain "lazy" or dependent
Princess Lamia bint Majid AlSaud is frustrated.
“What are they? Who are they? Where are the businesswomen, the start-up owners, the entrepreneurs, the doctors?”
For someone whose job is all about diplomacy, AlSaud is not afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to the divisive issue of social media influencers, or, as she calls them, “Snapchat fashionistas”.
“Those are the stars now? I don’t mean anything bad; I know a lot of them who are amazing, but if you want people to have another perspective of success, then create... I don’t mind anyone who is succeeding, but [social media] isn’t the only segment where you can be a star and [make] money.”
As the Secretary General and member of the Board of Trustees at Alwaleed Philanthropies, she has made that very clear.
You won’t find this princess spending too much time scrolling through Instagram feeds, she is too busy eradicating measles and rubella around the world. In December 2017, the foundation announced a $50m partnership with UNICEF to prevent measles-related child fatalities and rubella-triggered disabilities through vaccinations.
Founded in the 1980s, Alwaleed Philanthropies was set up by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, chairman of Tadawul-listed Kingdom Holding, which boasts interests in every field from technology and tourism to financial services, hospitality, media, entertainment, petrochemicals, aviation and more.
Today, the foundation operates at a global level, with initiatives in over 90 countries where it focuses on cultural understanding, community development, women and youth empowerment and crisis relief.
In Saudi Arabia, it supported the launch of the Wa’iyah Initiative for Women’s Legal Rights to raise awareness and prevent and protect victims of violence. In 2017, together with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, it held the ‘Saudi Women Can’ conference to highlight the achievements and challenges faced by women such as Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest, as well as women’s rights campaigner Cherie Blair.
It is no wonder scrolling through social media is not on the top of the princess’ to-do list.
“You can create and be much more of an influencer and generate more money if you understand what you do and if there is a mentor or idol you follow to help you out.
“I appreciate anyone who [wants to become] a role model. Fashionistas are good, but young women who have great ideas and want to [start] a project, want to build themselves as businesswomen, but don’t know what to do, who will they go to?
“We need a role model for each and every sector because you’re no longer in the same Saudi Arabia from two years ago or two months ago. Every day, you have a new Saudi Arabia. [We need role] models who will adapt to that and also show how they succeeded in the old days with all the obstacles. I’m talking about businesswomen in their late 30s – come out and talk about your experience.”
Does she consider herself to be a role model?
“I don’t want to sound like a show off, but I knew I would be a role model one day,” she says, giggling.
Her achievements, however, are no laughing matter.
AlSaud had built a name for herself long before her career in the foundation. The daughter of Prince Majid bin Saud, the son of King Saud bin Abdulaziz AlSaud, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 2001 from Misr International University, Cairo, majoring in Public Relations & Marketing Advertising with a minor in Journalism.
She quickly rose through the ranks in 2002 to become editor-in-chief of Mada magazine. A year later, she took the leap and founded publishing company Sada Al Arab, with operations in Cairo, Beirut and Dubai. She did all the above while juggling an editor-in-chief position for Rotana magazine until 2006. She didn’t stop there, going on to co-found two more companies, Media Codes Ltd in Egypt and Fortune Media Group in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Today, she is also a champion of UNICEF-hosted global initiative Generation Unlimited which partners with governments and organisations to empower students through employment.
In April this year, AlSaud invested $2.5m to support a partnership between Alwaleed Philanthropies, United Nations Women, the National Observatory for Women at King Saud University, and the General Authority for Statistics of Saudi Arabia (GASTAT) to conduct the first-ever nationwide study of its kind to assess women’s participation and development across 56 variables under five pillars: economic, health, educational, legislation and social.
The results were announced at a major conference in April titled The Role of Women in Development: Towards a Vibrant Society. AlSaud at the time said the partnership would be replicated across the GCC to support women beyond the kingdom.
It gathered data from 15,000 households around Saudi Arabia and found an overall score of .62 (with 1 being the highest and 0 being the lowest) for women’s participation in development. It found narrow gender gaps in the field of health (.98) and education (.92), but lower numbers in social engagement (.65), economic participation (.42) and legislation and regulation (.13).
The princess paid attention.
“I would like to see changes in the higher ranking positions in organisations… We already have our first ambassador, but we need to [expand] the percentage of women in the Shura [Council]. We need to do that and we need to [encourage] the municipal council ladies, [increase] the responsibilities and [develop] the rules.
“[The government is] empowering [women] a lot but I would love to see a consultant in the [Islamic governing body] Diwan, a woman consultant for the king or the crown prince. I would like to see a woman minister. There are a lot of positions that would be amazing to see women in,” she says.
Despite having one of the world’s most conservative regimes, Saudi Arabia has seen a wave of landmark reforms under its young and ambitious leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, including the historic lifting of its ban on female drivers in June last year.
While the move garnered positive reactions from governments and organisations around the globe, there were several reported incidents of harassment, with one woman’s car set on fire near Makkah in protest to the lifting of the ban.
The princess says there may still be a fear of driving in the kingdom but it will not last for long.
“Of course there is a fear of driving [in Saudi]. In any country, to do something for the first time, of course you will have fear. There are a lot of women in rural areas, maybe they’re still afraid of the feedback, the reactions – it’s still very new. We’re adapting to it as a community but eventually everyone will come [around].”
Is there much resistance to women driving, we ask?
“No, there is no resistance [to women driving], but I think there is a shortage in knowledge,” she says.
“We still have sectors such as tourism which are very new to us. So I think us women have a lot to do in terms of learning but [has there been] resistance? No, we didn’t notice anything that reflects resistance.
“I think there is acceptance. At the end of the day, women are working with their Abayas, they’re reflecting their country, culture and heritage, so I don’t think there is a problem.”
In August, Saudi Arabia began implementing historic changes to its restrictive guardianship system, which obliges women to obtain permission from a male guardian to travel alone, marry, be released from prison, work and receive healthcare.
But it now allows women over the age of 21 to receive passports and travel abroad without permission from their male guardians. AlSaud says the change is long overdue.
“I really appreciate my brothers, my relatives, whatever they do for me, I really appreciate it. But yes, I’ll be very honest with you, there are a lot of women who suffered from [the guardianship system] and there are a lot of women who really lived a miserable life because of that. But we’re going toward [change],” she says.
Earlier in August, Saudi Arabia also granted women the right to officially register childbirth, marriage or divorce and to be recognised as guardians to their children, a right previously limited to men.
The changes were widely celebrated in the kingdom but drew backlash from conservatives, some of whom denounced the reform as “un-Islamic”.
AlSaud says official studies, surveys and figures are instrumental in changing the country’s mindset by offering a different perspective.
“We’re opening the country, we’re creating a completely different perspective, a different mindset. We’re changing the country’s [entire] mindset, let’s be very honest. What makes you adopt this and relate the most? Figures. You need to have reachable figures.
“A lot of the [panellists] and [attendees at the conference] didn’t believe that we could produce something like this and that transparent indicators would come out of Saudi Arabia. Ahmad Al Hindawi, UN Secretary-General Envoy [for Youth in Jordan] said something very interesting: he said it’s the first time he has ever heard an indicator coming out of Saudi about Saudi women. That is huge,” she says.
The conference, which saw thousands of men and women attend and interact, received little to no coverage from international news outlets.
“Of course it wasn’t very interesting for international media because I feel, for some reason, they want us in this frame… I always tried – not to prove – but to show people that this is us [Saudi women]. What you heard about us is not true; we’re working, we’re productive.
“All they’re interested in are negative stories about Saudi women. They have another perspective. It was my challenge for a huge amount of time, but [not anymore]. I decided that if I want to show the real us, then we have to have numbers that reflect us and what we’re doing - let the numbers do the talking… My dream is that we gain this confidence in ourselves that one day we will not be needing the blessing of anyone but ourselves.”
The princess, however, recognises a need for rules to protect women – and men - from harassment.
“This country was a strict religious country, and when you start introducing a lot of freedom – you’re giving rights for women to drive, to go out there, to be responsible, to be independent – you need laws to protect her and keep her safe, too.
“It’s true, we have a lot of [harassment] examples happening lately, and of course you’ve read about it. In Ash Sharqiya, in Al-Qassim, they harassed women… [But] the girl who went on stage and hugged [Iraqi singer] Majid Al Muhandis - that is harassment. It [applies] to women and men. You need to put strict rules. This is what we’ve been asking for our whole lives: we want clear, strict rules that ensure our rights and ensure living safely within the community,” she says.
But AlSaud will not accept harassment or torched cars as excuses for “lazy, dependent” women.
“[I want] to provide opportunities for people who deserve them… Some people are used to being lazy and dependant on everyone. A lot of ladies here [in Saudi] who talked about rights and driving rights, are not driving… If you don’t [recognise] your chances and work to be better for yourself and the people around you then you don’t deserve to be given chances. I don’t lose my breath or time on people who don’t have the will to work. There are individuals who need support and want to learn.”
“No [woman] is afraid to apply for a job. If you’re afraid to apply for a job then shame on you... When we used to be afraid and not achieve, we used to say, [it’s because of] the traditions, community, laws; that nobody helps us. Now, if you want to succeed and have a career, the path is open. It’s all [possible]. We’re done with maybes and nos.”
Judging by our conversation, it seems like the princess isn’t the type of woman to take no for an answer.