Aug. 14, 2008 -- From her smartly appointed office in Riyadh, Samira Al Kuwaiz, 44, helps manage Osool Capital, an independent investment firm in Saudi Arabia that holds 2.2 percent of the country's traded shares. Al Kuwaiz is from one of Saudi Arabia's tribal families, the equivalent of blue blood in that society. After earning a master's degree in accounting and teaching at King Saud University, she became the first female chief financial officer in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia the lowest out of 128 countries on women's participation in the workforce. Women make up roughly 6 percent of the workforce in Saudi Arabia, according to the Labor Ministry -- among the lowest in the world, but a jump up from nearly nothing a generation ago. Al Kuwaiz is part of an emerging set of women executives in the Kingdom.
Lara Setrakian: How did you get your start at Osool Capital?
Samira Al Kuwaiz: Initially, I was heading the marketing team for ladies, because the shareholders saw the prospect of women's funds in Saudi Arabia. People who own that money now in Saudi Arabia are the second generation of the people that initially made it, so we see a lot of women who have inherited money. Women own up to $60 billion in deposits, term deposits, which are not being utilized in the market. And the partners wanted to tap into this market. So I headed the finance department from the beginning. We started it form zero. I built up a team and now I'm heading the marketing for ladies and the finance department. I'm CFO of the company.
LS: You are the first, and it was driven by serving the women's sector.
SAK: In the beginning they saw me as a prospect towards women. Now they see me as a person who is capable to take on this task.
LS: Is it hard sometimes, in terms of male mentalities? Are there still stigmas that you have to bring down?
SAK: Dealing with my partners, no. Initially, from the beginning they wanted me as a board member, and that says a lot. That says a lot that they have that confidence in me -- in my capabilities as a person more than anything else.
Changing that stigma, changing that stereotyping of women -- that's another story. But we see that change day to day. In the beginning some men have questions in their eyes. They have curiosity. But later on, they see the professionalism, they see your capabilities and little by little, that, let's say, the way they view Saudi women changes.
We have lots of people coming in from Europe, from the states, from Great Britain who bring different marketing material to the company. And in the beginning they are not used to seeing women in meetings here. In the beginning they don't even look at you, as a Saudi woman because they don't know how to deal with it. But later on, throughout the meeting, you see how it evolves, you see how they look at you, the look at you evolves. So you become a capable person more than you are a women or a man.
LS: And that drives more acceptance of women in the workplace?
SAK: It is changing, day-to-day, and I always say that we see the change in Saudi Arabia. I see it every day, I see it every month, every week, every year. That change, you smell it in the air. People coming in from outside, maybe, for the first time they don't see it. But people living in Saudi Arabia, we see it. We see the change.
LS: What does it look like? What does the change look like for Saudi women in business?
SAK: Being able to be a board member is a change. Being able to be a CFO is a change. Being able to go to meetings where it was only male in the past, now it's just male-dominated is a change. Maybe somebody coming in from the outside won't see that. They see that women's place is very minimal, but we see it as a change from zero participation to 7, 8, 9 percent participation.
We have the lowest participation of women in the workplace in the world, that's right, but that participation is increasing year by year. My mother, the people of my mother's age, none of them worked. I was teaching in the university and I see all of my students now have an inclination to work. They want to participate in the workforce.
LS: How much more opportunity do they have now?
SAK: When I do the interviews [with young women] I see that each of them has had more than one offer to work. So, more and more companies are tapping into that resource. Women have capability to work in any company, and even the government now, they are putting more and more women's branches. So, they see that as a large workforce, that is a resource, that should be used, should be utilized in the workforce.
LS: Is there a backlash, a resistance to change?
SAK: There's always a part of society that doesn't want that change, that is afraid of that change. What we're doing, as women in the workforce, we are trying to ask for that change but we don't push for that change, because pushing for that change will end it for all of us. So what we are doing, we are in our own stride, in our own steady stride, we are pushing but very slowly.
LS: What's driving part of that change? Clearly some of it is the motivation of women in the workplace, but what of things like globalization and economic need?
SAK: Any development initially comes from the financial need. So, we see more and more families asking for double income, which encourages women to join the workforce.
Also, we have the globalization. Internet, television … that drives towards change. And, of course, we have the support of the government and that support of the government has helped us to step another step forward. The government is making more and more reforms that have made it easier for us to participate in the workforce. We are asked to come into companies, the government has asked women to participate in the governmental sectors, so this has pulled women into the workforce.
The women themselves want the change from inside. If you clearly want that change, you want to make a better future for your children, for your daughters, then you won't push for that change.
LS: Now there have been specific decisions such as the newfound ability of women to stay in hotels without a guardian [under a January 2008 ruling]. What impact does a decision like that have?
SAK: Maybe somebody coming from outside would see that decision as very trivial. Women not being allowed to stay in a hotel without a guardian, that's very trivial for somebody from the outside. But we see it as a very big milestone because that means that women have been given a kind of independence and that independence comes little by little. So being able to stay in a hotel without a guardian will lead to women being able to travel without a guardian.
All of the steps that are coming will come at their own stride. When it was permitted for women to stay in hotels without a guardian it came because in order for them to participate in the workforce, they saw the need to liberate women from some of the obstacles.
LS: But what are some of those obstacles you have to get around? Can you go to court and file your own deals?
SAK: When you have a company you don't have to do these things yourself. Any filing, any court papers, you don't deal with them yourself. You have somebody else who deals with them, so I don't see them as obstacles.
I work along with all of the men as a partner, equal partner. I do my work, I travel inside and outside, I don't see anything as an obstacle, because any obstacle you see you have a way of working around it. That's what we've done throughout these years, we have worked around the obstacles.
Of course, what happens is when you're dealing with some parties who are not as accepting towards women, you have a way of working around that. You deal with our own work, your operations and that's what I'm dealing with.
LS: Do your daughters know what they want to do when they grow up?
SAK: Not yet, but when I see my daughters now, we always talk about this. Of course, being a working mother has its pros and it has its cons. You can't have everything. You can't be a complete working mother and put 100 percent in your work and you can't be a mother at home and a wife, and give all to your home. But what happens is, this equilibrium that I'm trying to reach, has given my daughters a kind of confidence in women. They see their mother capable of interacting, capable or reaching a certain level, and they see that as somebody that they would like to be. Of course, I would like them to surpass me, to do better than I did and I always see myself as paving the way for my daughters, paving the way for my students, for them to have a better tomorrow, for them to have a better future, for them to participate more and more.
What's really amazing to me is we see companies now springing out in Saudi Arabia, opting for women. More and more companies want women to head different sectors of the company. So they see women as a large potential, which hasn't been utilized, and I think in the future more and more women will participate. We see them more maybe in middle-management level, but I think the future will hold that more and more Saudi women will hold larger positions, higher positions, in companies and I see that as the future for us.
LS: I think you're paving the way for a lot of people.
SAK: I hope so.