There was breaking news in September when Saudi Arabia announced that, starting next June, women would be permitted to drive. Months earlier, however, another stunning announcement came through: The kingdom was entrusting its financial markets to a woman. In February, Sarah Al Suhaimi was elected chair of the Tadawul, Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange, becoming the first and only woman to lead an exchange in the Middle East.
News of her appointment is all the more significant in a country where just 20 percent of women work — compared to roughly 60 percent in the United States — and one-third of female job seekers are unemployed, five times the rate for men. The majority of Saudi women still require the consent of a male guardian, either by law or custom, to work, marry or travel outside the country.
Breaking the glass ceiling? Suhaimi, 37, has already shattered three in her still young career: as the first female head of asset management at Jadwa Investment, the first female bank CEO at NCB Capital (a position she still holds) and the first female chair of Tadawul — at $439 billion, the largest stock exchange in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, young women here speak of her as a beacon — broadcasting what’s possible in a country that has long sent a very different message to girls.
Suhaimi is also serving as a real-time test case of a new approach the kingdom is applying to a host of issues: “Throw talent into challenging situations and let them figure it out,” as she recently put it at the launch of the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Do this, and miracles happen, she told OZY several days later.
From financial sector reforms to women’s rights, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a seismic shift — put in motion by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. Many of his deputies are similarly young, ambitious and well-educated and, like Suhaimi, they have been thrust into positions of power formerly occupied by men decades their senior.
Suhaimi’s path to prominence is all the more notable because she, like the crown prince, is one of the few leaders to stay home for their studies. Her success is rooted in Saudi Arabia, a fact her admirers trumpet as evidence of what other Saudi women can accomplish. She graduated from King Saud University “and now she is heading … the financial [system]. That really amazes me,” says Amal al-Shaman, a member of the Shura Council, the country’s advisory parliament. “She is smart, dynamic … and she knows what she’s doing.”
But while her current role affords her the highest profile in her career to date, it also brings with it the highest stakes. Suhaimi’s primary task is to revamp the stock exchange to attract more investment by foreigners, first allowed to buy Saudi stocks in 2015, in a bid to diversify its economy away from oil. She is leading Tadawul in its effort to convince ratings agencies and brokerages to reclassify it in emerging market indexes, which could translate to billions in overseas investment. Reforms she has led so far “bode well,” says Raphaele Auberty, Middle East and North Africa country risk analyst at BMI Research, but, Auberty cautions, “the performance of the Tadawul remains weak,” with limited trade volumes and still-cautious investors.
The daughter of the former head of Saudi Arabia’s Capital Market Authority, the market regulator, Suhaimi first worked as an analyst — the only woman in the investment arm of what is now Samba Financial Group. She was soon promoted to senior portfolio manager, leading her team to record returns at the investment bank, before joining Jadwa Investment as chief investment officer.
As a junior and mid-level professional, Suhaimi insists she ignored the social and logistical barriers women face, focusing instead on the task at hand. “When I was in those situations where I had to figure it out, I learned a lot,” she tells OZY. “It gives you … confidence because you know the details. And when you know the details, that gives you a lot of power.”
Suhaimi became the first Saudi female head of asset management at Jadwa at the age of 30, and then the first female CEO of NCB Capital, the country’s largest asset management bank, at 34. Three years later, she was named to the board of Tadawul and then elected chair by her all-male peers.
How much Suhaimi can accomplish as chair remains to be seen, but it would be hard to overstate the significance of her high-level appointment. 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. And undergirding the symbolic impact of Suhaimi’s new post is a real and dramatic change in the Saudi government’s position. Women are a “wealth of untapped potential,” according to its latest labor market report, which points to improved opportunity as a near-term goal.
“My role is just to be an example,” says Suhaimi. “And at the same time, I tell [young Saudi women] to focus on what they are doing and not pay attention to whatever barriers can stand in their way, whether it is a real barrier or perceived.” As those barriers begin to fall, Suhaimi, an agent of change in a conservative society, is reaching out to other women with the keys to the kingdom.