Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lubna S. Olayan: One of the Most Powerful Women in the World

Lubna S. Olayan Photo Wikipedia
Lubna S. Olayan Photo Wikipedia

Lubna Suleiman al-Olayan is a Saudi woman of remarkable achievements. Born in the early 1950s in Al-Qassim in the heart of Saudi Arabia, she rose to be one of the most powerful women in the world. She runs a global empire out of the Middle East, as the CEO of Olayan Financing Company, the Middle East arm of the multinational Olayan Group with more than 15,000 employees.

Ms Olayan’s early education began in Lebanon (Beirut), where her father, Suleiman, served as a contractor on the huge Tapline project, one of the biggest transportation and trucking job of any pipeline. Her father, a successful businessman in his own right, encouraged her to achieve success through hard work. He also taught his children to be modest. In her own words, “my father and mother were keen to raise us not to be arrogant. That is, a human being should not be proud with his money, but with his deeds. For this wealth did not land on my father overnight.”

After her school internship, she went to the United States for higher studies and received her BSc degree from Cornell University and then her MBA from Indiana University. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law (LLD) degree from Trinity College, Dublin, in June of 2011.

Following a stint at J.P. Morgan as a financial analyst, Ms Olayan returned home to Saudi Arabia and joined the Olayan Financing Company (OFC) in 1983 as a financial analyst and assistant to her father, who was then the chairman. She became CEO and deputy chairman of OFC in 1986 and continued to serve in those same roles following the reorganization in early 2000 that consolidated Olayan Group’s trading, real estate, and consumer-related operations in the region with those of OFC.

Today, she oversees the operations of some 40 companies established by her father. Among them are joint ventures with multinational companies such as Coca Cola, Xerox, Kimberly Clark, and Colgate Palmolive. Under her direction, OFC strives to enter profitable relationships with proven multinationals. The company fully owns and operates 400 branches of Burger King throughout the Middle East–North Africa (MENA) region and is the sole agent for Toshiba laptops and for healthcare products for many other companies. These are some of the distribution, manufacturing, service, and investment activities of the company.

But it is not all business for Ms Olayan. She gives her time to educational and charitable ventures in the interest of others. She was elected to the board of the non-profit Down Syndrome Charitable Association (DSCA) in Riyadh in June 2005. In 2006 she joined the advisory board of Effat College, a private non-profit college for girls in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In 2007 she was elected to the board of trustees of Cornell University, and she has been appointed to the board of King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST).

A mother of three, Ms Olayan has received many global awards given in recognition of accomplishment and service. Among her many accolades are her listing by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the most influential businesswomen in the world. Forbes continues to list her as one of the most powerful women in the world. She was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009 and continues to draw attention by her remarkable success.

What makes Lubna Olayan special is that, as a female in the traditional professional male bastion of society, she has managed to overcome traditional barriers in Saudi culture and hold her own. In Saudi Arabia, of course, men and women are segregated as much as possible. Every woman, including Ms Olayan, is dependent on the goodwill of her guardian, father, husband, brother, or son. A woman can pursue a career of her own choosing only if her family agrees. In 2004, Ms Olayan was nevertheless the first woman in Saudi history to deliver the keynote address at the Jeddah Economic Forum, a major international conference that included many notable world figures, such as Bill Clinton, the ex-president of the United States, Mahathir Mohamed, prime minister of Malaysia, and the president of Kazakhstan. She also chaired the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2005.

Ms Olayan once said, “My vision for the future of my country is summarized in a country enjoying a flourishing and diverse economy where any serious Saudi national can find a work opportunity, regardless of the sex, in the field where he or she is qualified to work.” Realization of this vision is still many years away.

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