Step by Step, Saudi Women are Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Credit: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Back in March of this year, on the heels of the Saudi Stock Exchange’s appointment of Sarah Al Suhaimi as its first female chair, Arabia Now reported the growing trend of women making history in Saudi Arabia. While Women’s History Month now seems far away, the issue of women’s progress has remained a priority for Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has accelerated this trend across society, and Al-Suhaimi’s rise serves as an example for the next generation of ambitious Saudi women at the helm of moving the Kingdom forward.

Sarah Al Suhaimi’s election as chair of the $439 billion Tadawul exchange in February 2017 elevated her as the first and only woman to lead an exchange in the Middle East … the region’s largest one at that. The 37-year-old female powerhouse has made a habit of shattering glass ceilings in her career, initially as the first female head of asset management at Jadwa Investment, and then the first female bank CEO at NCB Capital.

As Tadawul chair, Suhaimi has concentrated efforts on revamping the stock exchange to attract more investment by foreigners, in line with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify the country’s economy away from oil and introduce sweeping reforms. Her efforts to convince ratings agencies and brokerages to reclassify Tadawul in emerging market indexes could translate to billions in overseas investment.

She is approaching this new responsibility with the same confidence that earned her this prominent position. As a junior and mid-level professional, Suhaimi ignored the social and logistical barriers she faced as a woman, and focused on the task at hand. “When I was in those situations where I had to figure it out, I learned a lot… It gives you … confidence because you know the details. And when you know the details, that gives you a lot of power.”

Unsurprisingly, she has become a beacon for other young Saudi women. As a graduate of King Saud University she is part of a new generation to stay inside the Kingdom for their studies. And because her success is rooted in Saudi Arabia, she truly sets an example for what other women can accomplish in a new modern Saudi Arabia.

A Banner Year for Saudi Women

Suhaimi’s inspirational appointment comes at a time where Saudi Arabia is undergoing a historic shift. From financial sector reforms to women’s rights, the government has made it a priority to improve the general position of women across society.

Saudi women are joining the workforce in droves after the lifting of decades-old limitations on which professions they could hold. In just the past four years, the country’s private sector has recorded a 130 percent increase in female employees. According to the Saudi government’s latest labor market report, women are a “wealth of untapped potential.”

Under Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, we are watching Saudi women define a new nation. There was breaking news in September when Saudi Arabia announced that, starting next June, women would be permitted to drive. In October, the General Sports Authority announced the opening of Saudi’s biggest stadiums for women to attend sporting events. Along with progressive government action, Saudi women are also empowering themselves in science, art and sports. Perhaps there is no better symbolism for 2017 than Raha Moharrak, who made history when she became the first Saudi woman to conquer Mount Everest. Indeed, this year has seen Saudi women make extraordinary strides across all pillars of the Kingdom’s society, and we look forward to what 2018 has in store.

Read more at Pulitzer Center.