Monday, Apr. 18, 2005

Lubna Olayan

At the Jidda Economic Forum last year, Lubna Olayan's veil slipped off during her speech, and she continued on without covering up. Local religious figures condemned her, as did newspapers. I called to congratulate her. As one of the top business leaders in Saudi Arabia, Olayan, 49, has long displayed a quiet courage. Her words that day—about how to get the Saudi economy moving—showed just how valuable it is to incorporate women into the life of the country.

Olayan is CEO of Olayan Financing Co., responsible for 40-odd companies throughout the Middle East. Her position as a major private investor gives her substantial influence in the kingdom. Despite constraints on women in the workplace—traditionally their offices are segregated from their male colleagues', for example—she continues to break down barriers. When the Saudi Hollandi Bank elected her to its board in 2004, she became the first woman to fill such a position in a Saudi public company. She co-chaired the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Olayan tends to downplay her positive impact on perceptions of Arab women's roles. But wherever she goes, especially since the Jidda speech, she is a star. She reminds everyone that Saudi women are capable of running not only the house but also major companies. It is in no small measure thanks to her that the advancement of women in Saudi Arabia is finally reaching a point of no return.

From the Archive
Inside the Kingdom: Two years after 9/11, the Saudis are finally cracking down on terrorists at home. But many Americans remain skeptical that the Saudi brand of Islam is compatible with the war against terror