Three women have been appointed to top jobs in Saudi Arabia’s male-dominated financial sector in the space of just one week, in what marks a historical moment for both the industry and wider society.
Sarah Al-Suhaimi is now the chair of Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange, the Tadawul; Rania Nashar became the CEO of Samba Financial Group; and on Tuesday it emerged that Latifa Al-Sabhan has been appointed chief financial officer of Arab National Bank (ANB).
Al-Suhaimi is now chairing the largest bourse in the Middle East, and replaces Khalid Al-Rabiah, the Tadawul announced on Thursday.
She is expected to keep her position as CEO of the investment-banking unit at National Commercial Bank (NCB) Capital.
Under Al-Suhaimi’s leadership, NCB Capital has over 1 million clients and SR77 billion ($20.5 billion) of assets under management, which made it the largest asset manager in the Kingdom, according to a statement on the official website.
Following the move by the Tadawul, Samba Financial Group on Sunday named Rania Nashar as CEO, in a move that will see her continue her 20 years of experience in banking.
And just yesterday, Al-Sabhan became the chief financial officer of ANB. The moves come in line with a goal outlined in the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan to increase the participation of women in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent.
Suhaila Zain Al-Abideen, a Saudi social activist and senior member of the National Society for Human Rights, said this is a good initiative. “It is the least that can be given to Saudi women because they deserve much better. It is a step toward seeing women leaders in other sectors,” Al-Abideen said.
Hatoon Al-Fassi, a Saudi writer and visiting professor at Qatar University, also praised the appointments and said it is a step forward. “It shows the country (government) is serious in dealing with offering women leading positions and it shows that when the government wants something and gives promises, the change comes to reality immediately,” she told Arab News.
Despite the recent wave of optimism among women in Saudi Arabia, there are still obstacles and challenges facing working women.
“You give these women trust to handle the country’s fortune, while (others are seen as) incompetent. It is somewhat (contradictory),” said Al-Fassi, who was general coordinator of the Baladi Initiative, an advisory body for women candidates and voters in the 2015 municipal elections.
Both Al-Fassi and Al-Abideen believe that working toward better empowerment of women requires a change of many rules.
Al-Fassi said she is also waiting to see rapid changes in rules that affect the daily lives of women. “The main issue when it comes to empowerment is that there are still rules which discriminate against women and make them... incapable of taking important life decisions,” she said.
Al-Abideen told Arab News: “The fact that women have reached these positions but still do not have the freedom to move or travel… these things have to change. Women are fully competent just like men. Guardianship should only be practiced over minors and incapacitated people.”
Other reactions were reflected on micro-blogging service Twitter, which is actively used by 20 percent of the Saudi population.
A few users remarked that women should only stick to lower positions in the workplace, so they do not neglect their homemaking duties — views that provoked a strong reaction from Al-Abideen.
“I was shocked by a wave of criticism that are against the appointment of women in leading positions managing men. Some said this would lead to ruining the women’s morals and hence will negatively affect the society and that these are Westernized ideas. This reaction is sadly coming from academics!” Al-Abideen said.
Saudi Arabia has been appointing more women in decision-making positions in the past few years.
“Saudi women are yet another great asset. With over 50 percent of our university graduates being female, we will continue to develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy,” the Vision 2030 reform plan states.
In 2011, the late King Abdullah announced that women would have the right to join the Shoura Consultative Council and the right to run and vote in the municipal elections. “We refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Shariah,” he said at the time.
Today, the representation of Saudi women on the Shoura Council stands at 20 percent.
By Lulwa Shalhoub
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