Saudi Women in Business: A Conversation with Samra Al-Kuwaiz

February 29, 2012

EXCLUSIVE

Editor’s Note:

The US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum in Atlanta, organized under the guidance of the Saudi Ministry of Commerce and Industry by the Committee for International Trade, the Saudi-US Trade Group and the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council, brought together well over a thousand people to explore the commercial expansion in Saudi Arabia and what it means for investment and partnerships for American business people. The Saudi delegation of government officials, business people and media who participated shared their insights on the commercial landscape and provided perspective on other developments in Saudi Arabia. Among them were a group of Saudi businesswomen who shared their experiences at forum panels and at the community outreach programs that expanded networking and fostered bridge building among new friends.

These contributions were noted by Ms. Samar Fatany who wrote in Arab News, “The participation by highly competent and professional Saudi women certainly contributed to the success of the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum,” adding, “Not many people outside our borders are aware of the existence of exceptional women in Saudi Arabia so the presence of such qualified women was a great surprise to a lot of attendees at the forum.” One such exceptional woman delegate was Ms. Samra Al-Kuwaiz, Partner and Member of the Board of Directors of Osool Capital, regarded as among the most influential women in the Middle East financial industry.

SUSRIS had an opportunity to talk with Ms. Al-Kuwaiz about her perspective on women in business in Saudi Arabia, how she became involved in the business sector, changes and empowerment for women in the Kingdom and her experiences in Atlanta at the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum. SUSRIS is pleased to share that conversation with you today. We previously shared her presentation to the Forum as the keynote speaker at a Forum luncheon, which included her perspectives on the Saudi women of today:

“The women of today – we’re seeing a different kind of woman – the Saudi women of today are armed with proper education. They’re taking their financial destinies in their own hands.. ..We see the future in a very optimistic way. We have a new breed of Saudi women.. ..the number of educated women in Saudi Arabia surpasses the number of educated men. Let’s not forget that this new breed has been brought up in a less restricted society than their mothers. They will ask for further reform in the system.. ..There is change coming, but this change has to be balanced with these traditions and cultures. We cannot change that, and we should not change that. We should not disturb the balance that is there. But change will come.”

You can find more about the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum in the SUSRIS Special Sections.

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Saudi Women in Business: A Conversation with Samra Al-Kuwaiz

Samra Al-Kuwaiz

Samra Al-Kuwaiz

[SUSRIS] Thank you for taking time to talk with us about the expanding role of women in Saudi Arabia’s business sector. Also congratulations on your role as the luncheon keynote speaker at such a prestigious event.

[Ms. Samra Al-Kuwaiz] Thank you. It is my pleasure.

[SUSRIS] Can we start by talking about your entry into the business world in Saudi Arabia?

[Kuwaiz] Certainly. My initial involvement in business was when several partners and I opened up the first independent brokerage  firm in Saudi Arabia. Up to then all brokerage services were conducted through banks. We acquired the first license to open up an official brokerage firm.

That was 2006. We were considered pioneers in the field. It was an unknown field at that time and the process was long and we spent many hours applying our know-how and expertise. I was the Chief Financial Officer and Managing Partner at the time.

[SUSRIS] What education and training did you have to prepare you?

[Kuwaiz] I have a Masters degree in accounting, which prepared me as the CFO. I was teaching in the University lecturing in the field of accounting and at that time I was getting a lot of enquiries about the stock market due to the sudden rise in the market value of Saudi stock. At that time everybody was investing in the stock market blindly. They were blinded by the glimmering lights of quick and easy returns.  I was invited by many banks to give lectures to female investors about the market and how to be careful to avoid getting caught in the bubble.

[SUSRIS] I recall the reports about the enthusiasm to get into the market and the artificial rise in the market, the “irrational exuberance.”

[Kuwaiz] Yes, the markets were overheated. It was a bubble and everybody who understood the stock market knew that. But my experience studying and lecturing on the newly emerging stock market led some of the partners to bring me on board to bring in the women’s funds. As you know women’s untapped funds, the sleeping funds, are estimated to be about $15 billion. That’s a tremendous amount of money and they brought me in to tap into these funds. After I joined the partners decided to use my expertise in accounting and I took on the role of CFO for the company. I worked there for about three years but I remain a partner and I’m still a board member.

[SUSRIS] Can we back up a little further in your education and upbringing?

[Kuwaiz] I was brought up here in the United States and English was my first language. My father, Dr. Abdullah Kuwaiz, has a PhD in Economics and we were in Tennessee, Washington state and Missouri for about nine years. I loved my time in St. Louis. My high school years were spent in the UAE before settling in Saudi Arabia. I went to King Saud University in Riyadh for my Masters in Accounting degree.

[SUSRIS] Was there any culture shock for you after all those years out of the country?

[Kuwaiz] It was difficult in the beginning but you know my mother and father are both Saudis so integrating back into  society wasn’t that difficult. Also, I think, having a large extended family helped us tremendously. I later married and i now have five wonderful and successful children. After graduate school I taught at King Saud University for about 15 years before starting to lecture on investing as I mentioned. Now I have gone back to teaching.

[SUSRIS] How would you describe to people who don’t know how things are done in Saudi Arabia, what have been the changes and what is the environment now for women getting into business.

[Kuwaiz] I can tell you how much it has changed over the years. As you know education for women started in the 1960s but didn’t actually take off until later.  At that time it was considered a disgrace for you to enroll your daughter into schools, even my mother wasn’t allowed proper schooling at the time. Now female university graduates surpass the number for males.

[SUSRIS] That’s always a surprising fact to learn for most people who don’t follow developments in Saudi Arabia. The question, though, is how is the value of the education for that segment of the population going to be realized in the workforce?

[Kuwaiz] There is increasing employment of Saudi women. We do have the problem of segregation but participation of women in the workforce is up to 18%. Now if you look at that figure, 18%, it’s quite low but when you look at it in comparison to the trend over time it is significant. The number of women in the workplace has tripled over the past 15 years and that trend along with progress in women’s empowerment suggests that the number of women in business will only increase.

When someone gains an education, that increases his or her desire to enter into the workforce. I see my students looking forward more and more to that opportunity. They’re asking all the time, do you have any job offers, we want job offers, and we want jobs?

So when there is a younger generation pushing for progress in this area, wanting to see reform, armed with a great education, things will change. I think reform will come at the hands of this younger generation. We started it, but believe me they are going to push for it. Change will not be linear; it will be exponential.

[SUSRIS] Where are most of the jobs for women? I understand there are efforts to expand the fields for women in the workforce?

[Kuwaiz] I believe it is opening up. There have been traditional limits, restrictions have kept it to a few sectors. But now it’s opened up to many more fields. We see women in fields which were not available in the past such as engineering, advertising and IT.

[SUSRIS] Are most of these jobs in the private sector or the public sector?

[Kuwaiz] Around 80% are in the public sector, usually teaching in schools. The rest are in the private sector. But you must remember that a very high percentage of all Saudi workers are in the public sector.

There has been a very significant increase in the banking sector. Because the public sector is saturated, more and more people who want to enter the workforce have to go to the private sector and a lot of them are turning to banks.

[SUSRIS] Lately there has been a lot of encouragement in the area of small and medium enterprises, SME’s, and entrepreneurship. Are SMEs an area where women will look to the future?

[Kuwaiz] Women usually enter the workforce through small, more than medium-sized enterprises. Usually the companies are privately owned with one or two people, typically a small retail shop with commercial registration. We don’t have too many medium-sized businesses because the biggest problem is financing. Women usually do not use financing for their companies. They are more likely to use their own money or a relative’s money. They don’t know how to tap into financing options that are available. I think they need guidance more than anything else. They need to be taught how to make deals. Most of them don’t even do a feasibility studies.

[SUSRIS] There has been a lot of discussion about capitalization and support for SMEs, not just for women getting into business but in general. Have you seen any progress there?

[Kuwaiz] There are still problems with funding. And sometimes the funding is there but not enough women know how to tap into it. That’s a problem. So they are limited in where they can reach.

When you look at business funding you see the bulk of women’s wealth is coming from inheritances. It is not coming from the small business owners, it’s coming from the inheritance, the father giving it to the daughter. The money that she has is either laying idle or it’s in the family business which she may have with her male siblings. If it’s in the family business she might participate in managing it. The problem is she doesn’t have the training or the skills in managing and decision making. Her male siblings may have learned from their father, but she probably didn’t have that chance.

[SUSRIS] You mentioned you were invited into business to attract the women’s investment prospects. Is that becoming more common? Is there a structure evolving to assist women in business and investment?

[Kuwaiz] All of the banks, and all of the investment companies have women’s departments, or they are catering to women in one way or the other.

[SUSRIS] As part of the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum you participated with the Saudi delegation on outreach visits in Atlanta. One visit was to the Chamber of Commerce. Tell us about that.

[Kuwaiz] We met with some very lovely ladies from the Chamber of Commerce. They were from different business sectors and we had a group discussion. We discovered there are a lot of similarities between the two cultures, and the way we do business and the way they do business. Most of the discussion was about how business, here and there, is male dominated. Actually we were talking about it being male dominated in the United States but male only in Saudi Arabia. In any case it is very similar.

We talked about how women had to do a balancing act between careers and raising children and how it affects us. They extended to us an invitation for a visit with the International Women’s Forum so we will try to get a group together from Saudi Arabia to participate in that. We extended to them an invitation to come to Saudi Arabia for a visit with the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce.

[SUSRIS] What was your impression of your American counterparts’ image of Saudi women in business?

[Kuwaiz] I don’t think they came at it with preconceived notions about us. It’s just a blank slate since few have seen us in the past so they don’t have a basis for judgment. When you are talking to people with a certain level of sophistication, who don’t take what the media tells them at face value, they are more open. They say let’s learn who is the Saudi businesswoman.

The reaction, I would say, was that they were very excited. They did not think that we had so many businesswomen. Among us were women in engineering, in investment, in finance and other sectors.

Since we are here with the business forum much of the dialogue was financial. We talked about them building partnerships with Saudi women. In the end, its all about doing business. We talked about the opportunities for investment in Saudi Arabia, the topic of this forum. We talked about how they could invest in partnerships or through franchising. We extended ourselves to them to help get connected, to look for partners for them in Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] In the last year there have been a number of landmark developments in the news. Women will vote in the municipal council elections and they will be able to stand in the Shoura, the Consultative Council. What’s your impression about the progress being made? Is it evolving quickly enough? Are you optimistic?

[Kuwaiz] It’s a call for optimism when you see change for the better and it’s all for the better. Even if it’s window dressing, I don’t have a problem with that. In the beginning it might be window dressing but in the end women will prove themselves. They will make changes and preserve them. It is step by step process. It can’t be done in one leap.

[SUSRIS] What are the areas where the most important progress is being made?

[Kuwaiz] You can’t pick one thing or one area more significant than the others where changes are occurring. Progress for women cannot be sorted one thing from another. All of them are interrelated. Of course, the changes in women’s financial circumstances are important. I think the increased financial independence of women in Saudi Arabia, either through inheritance or through monthly salaries, has  given women a larger say in the families decisions. It has made her stronger and more confident. Like everywhere else we have a society where a family needs stable income so that means the women have to work. They want to provide a better life for their families. They want the best schools for their children. They want to travel. So Saudi women started to work and with that came empowerment, financial empowerment. You also have the women who have inherited their wealth so they have the power now. I think that has contributed to the motion of change to a certain extent.

[SUSRIS] What are the impediments to progress for women?

[Kuwaiz] I think that with any change, anywhere, there will be somebody who doesn’t want that change. The efforts to end slavery in the United States resulted in a horrible Civil War as an example. We have change coming and there are some people that don’t want that change to come. I think in the end those that will prevail are those that have the biggest number of followers and I think the number of followers will increase as people’s mindsets change. I think that is the key to anything, the change of perceptions and attitudes. I also think that it is important for the tens of thousands of Saudi students to be studying overseas. That opens their minds.

[SUSRIS] What are your expectations for the Business Opportunities Forum?

[Kuwaiz] This is my first time, but for me I am looking forward to the exposure. I’d like to change the stereotypes that exist, stereotyping Saudi women as weak and oppressed.  It’s very important to me. I’d like people to understand what Saudi women are about.

In the primary focus of the Forum, which is business opportunities, I see this gathering as an excellent opportunity to build investment in Saudi Arabia. There are tremendous opportunities for investment and partnerships and I think both Americans and Saudis can benefit. Of course the relationship between the two countries is very important. So building bridges alongside building business is important — to change the outlook towards Saudi Muslims.

You know I think our biggest problems were when the Saudi society was separated from everywhere else. In the 1970s our family went to the United States because my father was studying there. We came back in about 1977, and there were a lot of Saudi students coming back from the States at that time. Then the numbers of students going to America dropped off. That was a mistake.

[SUSRIS] Thank you for your time with us today. Do you have any last comments you’d like to share?

[Kuwaiz] Thank you. I think I would only add that the empowerment of women is very important to the development of our society but this change that we’re always talking about comes with a natural balance. Balance will be maintained in society, but at the same time there will be changes in the mindsets of the people of Saudi Arabia, an opening up. Change won’t come by itself. It won’t just happen. It has to come from changes in how people think. The empowerment of women must come from within. They have to grasp it. It won’t be given to them.

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About Samra Al-Kuwaiz

Samra Al-Kuwaiz, a lecturer at King Saud University, is a board member and Partner of Osool Capital in Jeddah. Ms. Al-Kuwaiz has often been named among the most influential women in the region’s financial industry.

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