How Princess Reema Is Opening doorways for ladies In Saudi Arabia

In a country where women can’t legally take the wheel of a car, one leader is finding ingenious methods to offer them other means of keep watch over.

August 10, 2015

“She comes from a country the place ladies can’t drive, cannot go outdoor, cannot go to eating places, can’t socialize, can not, can’t, can not . . .”

that is how Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud—entrepreneur, social activist, former CEO, single mother, and a member of the Saudi royal domestic—recollects being offered by using the moderator at a contemporary trade conference in la, the place she was once speaking about her efforts to raised integrate girls into her usa’s group of workers.

“and he or she turns to me,” remembers Princess Reema, “and goes, ‘How does that really feel?’ and that i stated, ‘neatly, to begin with, I need to perfect you. the whole lot you said about life in Saudi Arabia was wrong except for for one thing: we won’t drive. We hang around, i’m going to work, i’ve workers. we’re a very dynamic community. Would our lives be more enriched if we had been cell? 100%, but so would our economic system.’ that is not what she needed to listen to.” So the princess took it upon herself to start the dialog anew, gracefully but firmly sidelining the moderator and turning her attention to the room. “Let me tell you about us . . .” she started.

Princess Reema, forty, lives in Riyadh, the conservative capital of Saudi Arabia. with the aid of Western requirements, the constraints positioned on girls there are certainly severe. apart from having to dress modestly in public (in full-size abayas and head scarves), grownup Saudi girls want permission from their fathers or male guardians to marry, study, and commute. ladies comprise 60% of faculty college students, however make up just 13% of the body of workers (the majority are employed through feminine-most effective faculties or hospitals). In 2013, the sector economic forum ranked Saudi Arabia 127th out of 136 nations in its world Gender hole record. And but during my four-day seek advice from to the us of a, I witnessed the richness of experience that Princess Reema had tried to share in California. I used to be struck no longer by using the vulnerability of the ladies I met but by means of their shrewdness, hers in particular. The princess, who hosted me at the crew quarters on her family’s sprawling property, had inspired me to seek advice from right through Saudi ­Design Week, in order that within the evenings I may attend events along with her and meet her circle of female artist, dressmaker, gallery proprietor, and magazine editor chums. during the days, I sat in on her feverish planning sessions with female medical doctors, legal professionals, marketing entrepreneurs, and college college students, who were all rallying round 10KSA, ­Princess Reema’s doubtlessly groundbreaking breast most cancers consciousness campaign that aims to carry 10,000 ladies together at a Saudi ladies’s college on December 12.

Ten thousand ladies have by no means gathered in a single location in the united states, let by myself to champion their value as valued and treasured electorate. 10KSA, a feminine-only initiative generated, prepared, and hosted by girls, is a profoundly feminist undertaking, particularly in a country where breast remains to be considered a taboo phrase. but, just as when she pioneered the hiring of girls at Riyadh’s Harvey Nichols division store in 2011 (as CEO of her family’s luxurious retail company, which owned the shop), so much of Princess Reema’s job entails gracefully downplaying the political righteousness of the event. as a result of it’s not simply the spiritual police she’s up towards. A structural engineering pupil I met during a 10KSA planning meeting, a smart and persuasive young girl from a wealthy domestic, firmly believes that women must no longer be allowed to drive. “There are rules in existence,” she mentioned. “[The rules] are usually not about being inhumane. they’re for our own good. ladies here can assume they may be being mistreated, but they’re not. they simply need to be pitied.”

“that is what i am dealing with,” Princess Reema—who’d listened diplomatically to the young lady and provided a practical counterargument from an organisation’s point of view—instructed me after the woman left the room. “here, the phrases feminist, radical, activist, liberal, empowerment will not be useful to my goals. i’ll lose half of my target market.” To effect any enduring alternate in a culture that generally prides itself on resisting it, Princess Reema says she must concurrently invigorate and soothe, whereas being cautious to not alienate conservative thinkers via wielding her ambition too aggressively. In many ways, she’s walking the identical line as female mavens everywhere.

however here the stakes are larger. Many educated ladies she meets, for example, don’t even know the way to work. “they do not know the best way to get themselves to an airport and through an airport,” she says, “or e-book a lodge room. it can be only up to now few years that women might open bank money owed without their fathers,” she continues. “however not every girl is aware of she will be able to.” Princess Reema believes that achieving these small milestones is important. She believes that having women engaged in society results in a better society. and he or she’s decided to provide them a hand.

the fact that Saudi girls can not pressure, she says, “shouldn’t be the only story right here! What about the girls who go thus far out of doors the box of their boundaries to make those issues inappropriate to their success?”

Reema bint Bandar Al Saud is one of those women.


Princess Reema lives in a vast gated compound, her small but elegantly embellished condominium tucked neatly into a two-story cream-colored stone constructing. Golf carts and bicycles (driven through women and men) periodically whiz through, stopping close to a fountain in the roofed courtyard. Princess Reema’s oldsters—her father, Bandar bin Sultan, was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the united states from 1983 to 2005—live on the property, as do her seven brothers and sisters. The princess says it comforted her to huddle up close along with her now teenage children after her divorce 4 years ago. one in every of her sisters lives in the apartment above her. 2 hundred ft faraway from her kitchen windows, a building crew is busy building her new five-bedroom house.

We meet one morning in the compound’s sport room, a nook for gathering that’s kitty-corner to Princess Reema’s condo. The room is crowded with comfortable sofas, a Ms. %Man arcade game, and a large television in a soccer-ball-patterned body. There are two whiteboards, one scrawled with the planning agenda for 10KSA and the opposite with her children’s tutoring and extracurricular schedules.

The princess, wearing a comfy T-shirt gown and flip-flops, her formal abaya tucked away in a closet except it’s time to go out in public, is sipping rose tea on the desk when her sixteen-yr-outdated daughter, Princess Sarah, emerges from their condominium on her solution to a dentist’s appointment with her nanny. Their driver awaits them out front. “am i able to look at your footwear?” Princess Reema calls after her daughter. “Are these mine?”

“No, I acquired them in L.A. on Robertson Boulevard,” Sarah says with the miffy tone of youngsters international. (The household often visits los angeles, where Sarah will examine to power this summer season.)

“that you could’t go out tonight like that,” says Princess Reema, having a look at her daughter’s shredded overalls below her unfastened abaya. “Your father would kill me. placed on leggings underneath.”

“i am not carrying leggings beneath this. that is too ’80s.”

“Channel Debbie Gibson!” Princess Reema calls to her ­daughter’s retreating back. “All my references are ’80s, with the aid of the best way,” she says. At more than a few factors during my consult with she is going to reference Footloose, 9 to 5, The Princess Bride, and high Gun (e.g., “i don’t need to be seen as a maverick; Maverick will get Goose killed”). She retains your complete oeuvre of George Michael in her chauffeured Mercedes.

The ’80s touchstones are a holdover from Princess Reema’s youth in Washington, D.C. Her father’s job took the household there when she used to be 7 years previous, and she did not return to Saudi Arabia full-time except 2006. In the usa, she earned a degree in museum studies from George Washington college, however by no means envisioned a career. “My mother was an excellent mom, and that is the reason all i needed to be,” she says. “i wished the husband and the picket fence.”

On the job: Saleswomen at the Harvey Nichols division retailer in Riyadh, owned by means of Princess Reema’s householdphotograph: Kate Brooks, Redux

it is a fluke, in point of fact, that she discovered herself at the helm of ­Riyadh’s Harvey Nichols. by the time she back to Saudi Arabia, the division store had turn out to be much less the posh purchasing destination it billed itself as than an inhospitable bazaar selling 2d-charge designers. In 2010, she took a tour with board individuals of Alfa Intl., the store’s father or mother company, which her household owned, and could not withstand sharing her concerns. “If the store is meant to be excessive-end, why are you promoting center- to low-finish product?” Princess Reema remembers saying. “ ’that is false promotion. Your model mix is improper. Your retailer lighting is crap. It smells unhealthy. Your store individuals don’t have any clue what product is on the shelf.’ and they stated, ‘nice, how would you repair it?’ ” Three days later, her cousin, Alfa’s then-CEO, talked her into taking up. She become the country’s first female CEO of a retail firm.

all over the princess’s first few months on the job, King Abdullah (who died in January and used to be succeeded by using his 1/2-brother King Salman, Princess Reema’s great-uncle) issued a decree that girls would substitute male employees in lingerie retail outlets. The move was mostly in response to a campaign led by Reem Asaad, a female Saudi lecturer in finance whose humiliation by the hands of a male clerk led her to launch a web based-driven boycott of lingerie stores. The king’s decree then prompted the Ministry of Labor to require that ladies’s shops start a “feminization” process of hiring. corporations that did not comply could be fined or shut down.

Princess Reema was quick to acknowledge the cultural and industry opportunity of the decree and seized it, setting a new usual among employers with the aid of going out and recruiting ladies to work at the retailer. She constructed non-public make-up rooms for newly hired cosmetic artists and created the place of feminine dressing-room attendants. She granted transportation stipends to female staff to ease the burden of their trip if their fathers or husbands could not power them, and put in on-site youngster care—the primary division retailer in Saudi Arabia to provide an employee nursery—to go off guilt trips from residence. She saved males on in make a selection roles, obeying the rules of retaining genders separated with the aid of partitions or distance, and trusted her employees to follow self-regulate.

“And we had been crucified,” she says. inside six months, retailer earnings had tanked with the aid of forty two%. Her new body of workers was composed of untrained ladies and disgruntled males (most foreign-born, as Saudi men most often imagine carrier positions underneath them). The “spiritual ­police”—the Saudi executive team liable for imposing Sharia codes of ethical behavior—hovered repeatedly. Crowds picketed outdoor. “As a nation that’s ethical and virtuous we can’t promote that roughly conduct,” Princess Reema says, paraphrasing their outrage. “My point was once, ‘Why are you looking at it so suspiciously?’ however I needed to step out of my ego and my experience and understand that the those that i am employing do not combine, their households do not combine, so that is in fact stunning to the employee as so much as it is stunning to the investigator, and to the client walking in.” So the princess pivoted. feminine staff stay separated from all males by using glass partitions and government-mandated space necessities, and male employees now work in the restaurant and kids’s sections most effective.

It took two years, but the temper—and ­income—at Harvey Nichols have fully recovered, the princess says. One weekday afternoon, i’m taken on a tour of the store with the aid of one in every of Princess Reema’s protégées, Raghda Amin, a 30-12 months-outdated aspiring fashion dressmaker who grew up wearing the exclusive brands offered right here. industry is slow, she explains, because the retailer has simply reopened its doorways after the mid­afternoon prayer time. To my Western eyes, the black-cloaked customers appear incongruous against the opulent backdrop of colorful, showy excessive fashion. What’s a Saudi lady to do with five-inch Alexander McQueen stilettos or a physique-conscious Carolina Herrera night gown? Amin, whose iPhone buds drape over her abaya, explains that Saudi girls care deeply about style; they sing their own praises their in depth wardrobes at all-feminine house parties or when touring in another country.

Two years in the past, Amin nearly cease her job at Harvey Nichols. “My mom died of a heart assault,” she tells me. “the whole lot was black in my thoughts.” Her family doesn’t rely on her salary, so there used to be no explanation for her not to sink into grief. “Princess Reema came up to me and said, ‘Take as a lot time as you need. if you want to make money working from home, do this. simply don’t go away the corporate.’ Now i try to pay her again by means of working exhausting to point out her that she’s going to see the result of her make stronger via my success.”

nowadays Amin, who has risen to become the top of the visible merchandising division, presentations off her plans for the “city division.” it’s a swish part targeting teenagers that she plans to brighten like a cool garage with well-known ­model-clothier fees scrawled like graffiti. “We’re not allowed to play tune in the store, but perhaps we are going to try a little bit Maroon 5 in the correct rooms,” she whispers to me. “If people whinge, worst-case state of affairs is we turn it off.”

One floor below, ladies greet every different in the personal worker destroy room. Their smiles are shy and candy, their eyelashes thickly mascaraed. These will not be women who benefited from non-public-school educations, like Amin or Princess Reema. “inside 50 paychecks they could maybe buy a pockets at Harvey—and most certainly shouldn’t,” says the princess. About half of of the ladies wear niqabs, which cover their complete faces except for for their eyes, out of modesty, or shame as a result of their households are uncomfortable with their daughters working in a service place.

On the bulletin board outside the damage room, an uninspiring all-staff HR memo written in both Arabic and English bemoans shoddy worker attendance. employees at the store generally tend to indicate up late and go away early, as a result being dependent on a father or brother for a experience. in truth, inside the first couple of months of women being employed at the retailer, the body of workers suffered an 80% attrition price. female staff would cut back or flee when approached with the aid of male shoppers. If work was overwhelming or simply no longer definitely worth the headache of family members nagging at home, they stopped showing up.

Princess Reema was struck with the aid of her failure to predict how harsh a tradition shock a certified setting may be to her extra sheltered countrywomen. “We have been anticipating them to run before they could walk,” she says. So last January, she stepped down as CEO (she nonetheless is still on Alfa’s government board committee) and launched the social undertaking Alf Khair, which translates to “a thousand blessings.” “i wanted to impact extra alternate than I could throughout the 4 walls of the shop,” she says.

thru Alf Khair she founded Alf Darb, a coaching academy for women who wish to enter the team of workers. Alf Darb will settle for its first class of students early next 12 months, following a pilot application with group of workers from Harvey Nichols. The socioeconomically diverse mix of students, attracted thru trusted employers and high colleges, will teach on the academy three days a week and intern at hand-chosen jobs the opposite two. Mentors, supplied through Alf Darb, might be encouraged to remain in touch with the young ladies all the way through their professional careers.

the logo of Alf Khair looks as if a geometric butterfly, meant to represent Princess Reema’s need to create trade. “suppose how one butterfly alone might alternate a wind sample however many, many butterflies fluttering their wings together will lead to a change within the atmosphere,” Princess Reema says. think about the facility of 10,000 butterflies.


In 2001, Princess Reema acquired one of the vital worst cellphone calls of her lifestyles: a close friend shocked her with the news that she was once affected by late-stage breast most cancers. The friend had long past via her diagnostic and chemotherapy regimen alone, unsure of learn how to in finding give a boost to, and unlikely to have normal it anyway.

“Our neighborhood is very, very personal,” says the princess. “we don’t discuss. certain diseases or personal conflicts are regarded as shameful to handle, as a result of it means you are ungrateful or you’ll be considered as ‘lower than.’ So if in case you have an issue you keep it right in until it can be a disaster. nobody knew she used to be ailing except she was within the clinic and she or he’s dying.”

Rocked by way of the subsequent lack of her friend, and devastated by means of the truth that nearly 60% of the breast cancer circumstances in Saudi Arabia are diagnosed at late tiers (as in comparison with 30%, on average, within the U.S.), the princess turned her attention, connections, and tools toward improving girls’s well being. She helped a physician named Suad bin Amer discovered the Zahra Breast most cancers association, naming the group after bin Amer’s mother, who had died of the disease. right away, the Ministry of Social Affairs, an influential wing of the federal government, argued in opposition to the word breast being part of the authentic title. “We’re now not going to name it the overall Chest area affiliation,” Princess Reema remembers insisting. “it is called breast most cancers, the same way prostate most cancers will not be called ‘the most cancers down there.’ ” 

girls in Saudi Arabia are particularly vulnerable to late-stage diagnoses because of cultural taboos towards self-examination and an unwillingness to address the warning signs. In areas the place polygamy continues to be practiced, as an example, a lady with a lump in her breast fears being eliminate in desire of a more healthy wife. Princess Reema knew that schooling could be key to saving lives. Zahra representatives began traveling to department shops with moveable “purple homes”: 4 partitions and a roof that supplied timid women with a defend of privateness, wherein early-detection specialists would offer assistance. Then, eager to take consciousness to the next degree, she partnered with Modia Batterjee, a Saudi health practitioner and breast health and lactation expert, to try and smash a Guinness World report with the aid of having virtually four,000 women line up in the type of a purple ribbon within the metropolis of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Spreading the phrase: At Saudi Design Week closing may just, at the Al Faisaliah hotel near Riyadh, ladies had been invited to examine about the 10KSA adventure and take selfies in entrance of neon “wings of hope” to share on social media.photo: Al Bahiti

“but do you want to know the reality?” Princess Reema tells contributors of her 10KSA workforce right through a rec-room technique meeting tomorrow. “We broke a document and all of our fliers just ended up on the floor. It was once insanity. no person ended up going to our training booths.”

“but I think of it as a watershed experience,” says Seema Khan, the founder of a tech seed-funding company and 10KSA board member. “earlier, I by no means heard breast cancer in the public discourse in any circle. Whereas after, it felt like all and sundry used to be talking about it.”

“ok, it was the experience that introduced [breast cancer] into the public discourse,” allows the princess, now taking a look in advance. “i am now not worried about 10,000 folks coming to 10KSA. i am worried about what they’re going to get out of it.”

For December’s huge gathering, Princess Reema is working with a $675,000 budget which is totally lined by means of company sponsors, including the Alwaleed Philanthropies, GE, and Uber. (The princess’s crew has already put in a request for 2,000 Uber cars to be on call that day; the company has been a sport changer for Saudi ladies because it launched in Riyadh in 2014.) because the adventure’s media sponsor, the center East Broadcasting center has committed airtime to PSAs within the month of December. it’ll additionally invite workforce participants onto its morning shows and write breast most cancers into the story traces of a few of its dramas. throughout the event itself, 10KSA, along with the nationwide health Care Screening application, will supply free, on-web site mammograms, as well as screenings for other illnesses. GE plans to host each educational and job-truthful cubicles.

one day, Princess Reema’s good friend Yasmin Al Twaijwri, a high-degree epidemiology researcher at Riyadh’s King Faisal health center, joins us for a meeting after lunch. She’s prime a pioneering national survey of mental health, the Saudi health and Stress Survey. (“psychological health is a taboo topic” within the country, explains the princess.) Al Twaijwri will likely be bringing a 15-individual team to 10KSA to ask women, in a personal tent, about their inside lives. “We want to recognize what their needs are and how we can assist them in the future,” says Al Twaijwri. “because they want advocates to go and speak to policy makers.” The adventure will provide her with up to 10,000 analysis topics who can reply to a simple survey about possible signs of depression, a conversation the typical lady in Saudi Arabia is loath to initiate.

Princess Reema had estimated a firestorm of indignant backlash to her ribbon-formation marketing campaign in Jeddah, however, apart from some hateful cellphone calls, the adventure went off undisturbed. nonetheless, she knows she should continue to toe the road. The Ministry of schooling granted 10KSA free use of the King ­Fahad sports Stadium. “when we took a tour, the person stored saying, ‘you’re the primary women to ever set foot in right here!’ ” she says. “and that i knew the tone of the adventure would transform a women’s empowerment adventure of breaking barriers versus breast most cancers consciousness and health schooling. i don’t wish to knock a wall down. We just wish to widen the doorway.” So she selected a brand new venue, Princess Noura college, an all-girls’s college the place members can have access to the ten,000-plus-capability stadium, in addition to to tennis courts, soccer fields, and three basketball courts.

“Ten thousand women from various socioeconomic backgrounds,” marvels Princess Reema. “they’re excited, they’ve left their homes, they are ready to engage, they’re saying, ‘speak to me, i am here, inform me something.’ ” Her intention is to blueprint your entire planning and execution process so that it may be reused over and over. “We can not be the only beneficiaries of this,” she says. “I wish to see somebody copy us. Beat us, do it better, go have enjoyable.”

conversing of fun, 10KSA is not only about training. Princess Reema is planning a festive atmosphere (“image the carnival on the end of Grease,” she says). There will be Zumba lessons on the stadium field. A enjoyable run impressed by using the Hindu competition of Holi. procuring and meals stalls run via female entrepreneurs. a popular male DJ will spin data for a dance party, although, in fact, he’ll be sequestered in a private booth. 


the Al Faisaliah motelphotograph: Muzna Qumar

the outlet-evening birthday celebration for Saudi Design Week is held at a fancy new hotel hotel a few 45-­minute power from downtown Riyadh. The sublime foyer, all cool granite and groovy lounge tune, is sublime and packed, every nook crowded with exhibition stalls of excessive-finish wares from Saudi-born artists and designers. women and men—some with heads coated, some no longer—mingle quickly whereas lounge track plays over the speakers and waiters dressed in formal put on and bandoliers go Arabic espresso, dates, and trays of mini ­ice-cream cones. everyone swears that such a scene—a combined birthday party in public in a rustic where women nonetheless dine in sequestered “family” sections in restaurants—would had been ­extraordinary just 5 years prior. With 50% of Saudi Arabia’s inhabitants under the age of 35, and the u . s . a . boasting the absolute best selection of Twitter customers in the Arab area (“it’s unrestricted communication,” explains Princess Reema of social media’s attract), gatherings like this signify that vary is possible.

Design Week is the brainchild of Noura Bouzo, 29, the ingenious director and cofounder of Saudi Arabia’s first arts-and-tradition journal, Oasis, who launched the event final year with the assist of her sisters and others—and the backing of the princess. “Princess Reema is a role adaptation to plenty of us,” Bouzo tells me. “She’s female, and he or she’s completed all these items on her personal. that you may’t think about what that means for us all to see.”

The princess has two stands at Saudi Design Week, one exhibiting her Baraboux luxurious bag line (she’s the founder and artistic director) and some other inviting local artists to enter a contest to design the bottom of the 10,000 head scarves on the way to be worn at 10KSA—per Guinness laws, the top-masking component have to be uniform—as the women line as much as kind the ­greatest-ever human-consciousness ribbon. She gracefully strikes throughout the foyer, introducing individuals she thinks might profit from realizing each and every different and recruiting designers for her scarf competitors.

On the ride home, stalled in a sea of male drivers staring idly at their cell phones as the downtown is torn as much as make manner for a fully modern underground public-transportation device, Princess Reema is contemplative in the back seat of her chauffeured automotive. She tells me about her hero, her grandmother Queen Effat Al-Thunayan. She was once an suggest for girls’s education, and with the backing of the king she opened the country’s first personal school for women, in Jeddah, called Dar ­Al-Hanan, or “residence of Compassion.” because of group protest, it used to be firstly branded as an orphanage. The queen enrolled her own children there, so society ladies began sending their daughters there as neatly. the college still exists nowadays, a feeder for Saudi Arabia’s first non-public girls’s college, Effat university, which opened in 1999.

Work the gadget until it rights itself: it’s in Princess Reema’s blood. In 2000, she cofounded a girls’s-simplest day spa and gym in Riyadh, called Yibreen. feminine gyms are still unlawful in Saudi Arabia, so she and her partners opened it beneath a seamstress retailer’s license. They employed a seamstress, supplied her with a machine, and set up an place of work for her. “So if non secular police are available in, they say ‘ok, you’ve gotten the desktop and she or he has a excellent work house,’ ” says the princess. “And we’re like, ‘Yeah, and those treadmills over there imply nothing.’ ” Fifteen years later, there is nonetheless a seamstress working there, allowing Yibreen’s female company entrance into an otherwise forbidden world.

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