Saudi Arabia's Princess Reema: the promise of youth

In an exclusive interview, Saudi royal and entrepreneur Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud explains how enterprise and engaging more women in the workplace could unlock the true potential of the kingdom’s young and growing population

What strikes you first about Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud is her energy. The Saudi royal and entrepreneur is eager to discuss the many initiatives she is driving, and the immense potential of Saudi’s youthful population. Nor are these token interests: Princess Reema is known for her hands-on approach to change.

“If you stand still, your opposition has the power to knock you down,” she told the South by Southwest conference in America, in March. “If you keep walking, they have to follow you. I’d rather keep walking.”

“We have such a massive resource in this country - men and women. To not use a resource is shameful”The path on which Princess Reema treads is guided by a determination to provide dignity and access to opportunity. This is particularly true of her efforts to enable more women to work in Saudi Arabia, a delicate mission given the kingdom’s social fabric.

“We have such a massive resource in this country and that’s men and women,” she says. “To not use a resource is shameful… You need to give people the respect and the opportunity to deliver.”

Largely as a consequence of a guardianship system that inhibits mixing of the sexes and the movement of women, Saudi Arabia has a patchy record on female employment. The labour force participation rate for women in the kingdom was just 20 per cent in 2013, compared to a GCC average of 43 per cent, according to the World Bank. These low rates are not for lack of education: joblessness among university educated women is eight times higher than that of university educated men, according to the World Economic Forum.

Returning to Saudi from the US a decade ago, Princess Reema took the helm of her family’s retail businesses, including Alfa International, which holds the Harvey Nichols licence in Riyadh. Disappointed by the lack of women on the shop floor, she and her team sought to identify areas where women could work legally. Working around the obstacles with a travel stipend and daycare facilities, the firm today employs some 70 women as make-up artists, dressing room attendants and in its buying and marketing departments. The real lesson for Princess Reema, however, was the need for training. She realised quickly that women lacked confidence that they could operate in the workplace, as well as work-related skills. The answer was to bring in a training company to fill the gaps.

“We talked about financial planning, legal rights, how do you use a human resources department, what does your company owe you, what do you owe them,” she explains. “When we looked at what we were doing it seemed so basic. But nobody had ever taught [the women] these things.”

“There’s a very big difference between creating something that gives people a skillset that allows them to succeed, versus charity”Princess Reema’s efforts are contributing to an encouraging, albeit minor, trend in the kingdom. The Economist Intelligence Unit noted female employment in Saudi’s private sector rose from less than 100,000 women to almost 400,000 in the two years to 2013, with the biggest increase in the retail sector. Getting more women on the payroll goes far beyond economics, she believes.“A more confident woman entering the workplace gives us a balanced society, but it also helps the next generation of men to respect women with that skillset,” she says. “I think that’s where our generational change will happen.” “There’s a very big difference between creating something that gives people a skillset that allows them to succeed, versus charity”

Princess Reema, 40, is herself part of that shift. A businesswoman with her own private equity company (Reemiyah) and fashion brand (Baraboux), she grew up in Washington DC where her father served as Saudi ambassador to the US. The American attitude to giving – “Giving back to your community is drummed into you from the minute you’re in kindergarten” – was an early influence, blended with a sense of duty given her family’s status. Princess Reema’s efforts, too, are a modern incarnation of a family tradition. Her grandmother, Queen Effat Al Thunayan, founded Al Nahda Women’s Philanthropic Society in 1962. Back then the centre taught women secretarial skills; today it teaches business skills.

“Education and giving back is almost a family mantra,” she says. “There’s a very big difference between creating something that gives people a skillset that allows them to succeed, versus charity.”

With this in mind, Princess Reema’s newest venture aims to support young entrepreneurs. She has stepped down as CEO of Alfa to launch Alf Khair, a co-working and incubation space for budding businessmen and women. Due to open in January 2016, Alf Khair will charge a membership fee, with different tiers for different services, and offer expert advice on issues pertinent to new businesses. Right now, the startup scene in the kingdom is a source of frustration for the royal. A paucity of financing and limited mobility across the Gulf to hunt down funding – for men and women – hampers entrepreneurial efforts, she says.

“These are [people] we’ve invested in, sent all over the world to get the best education. But the system they’re coming back to is not equal to their ambition,” she says ruefully. “[We] have to recognise this is a younger generation of people with different aspirations. If you’re telling them to get up and work, work to them might look different to my parents’ generation. We have to be accepting of that.”

Alf Khair is designed to help these young people who approach work differently, who eschew public sector jobs in favour of enterprise. Princess Reema’s model focuses on advice rather than seed funding: by giving young entrepreneurs access to professionals such as marketing and legal advisers, it can help them make better decisions about allocating scant resources, and alleviate some of the risk and uncertainty of starting a business.

Such an initiative is sorely needed to help tackle Saudi Arabia’s jobs crisis. The unemployment rate among Saudi nationals was 11.7 per cent in 2014, according to the Central Department for Statistics and Information, and the IMF predicts unemployment will balloon by up to 1.4 million by 2023. Moreover, nearly one-third of Saudi Arabia’s young people were jobless in 2012, estimates the World Bank. In a country where around two-thirds of the population is under 30, this figure threatens to gnaw at the country’s economic and social underpinning.

While Alf Khair tackles the jobs supply part of the equation, the other part of the social venture looks at the demand side: the “pandemic” skills mismatch between graduates and employers. Based on her Harvey Nichols experience, the Alf Dharb academy will comprise a roving training team to offer bespoke courses for businesses and colleges to equip Saudi youth with readiness to work skills. So far, retailers, restaurants and even a hospital have approached Alf Dharb and the academy trialled programmes in September, before a hard launch in 2016.

Getting the private sector engaged is a challenge, explains Princess Reema. The government’s perceived largesse has largely let corporates off the hook when it comes to strategic philanthropy, although that sentiment is starting to shift.

A fierce advocate for women and an entrepreneur to boot, Princess Reema shies away from the role model moniker. It is hard, however, to not be inspired by her actions.

“I didn’t grow up with the mental barriers of ‘I can’t’ or ‘I shouldn’t’… [so] you appear to be daring when you’re just doing what you should,” she says. “If someone says stop, then you stop. So far, nobody has said stop.”