Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud (who prefers not to show her face for privacy and security reasons) is challenging Saudi gender conventions.

Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud

CEO, Alfa Intl.

For inviting Saudi women into the workforce.

"You cannot have half of your population not working," says Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud, CEO of Saudi Arabian luxury retailer Alfa Intl., who is bringing meaningful change to one of the world's least-progressive cultures. "The second a woman is responsible for her own finances, she'll want to explore more of the world for herself and become less dependent."

Over the past two years, Princess Reema has been making bold moves toward women's empowerment. At Riyadh's Harvey Nichols department store, she has ousted several dozen experienced salesmen to make room for the same number of female clerks. It's a controversial, highly unusual step in a country where women have traditionally not interacted with men outside the home at all, much less in service positions. (Women make up just 15% of the Saudi workforce, up from 5% in 1992.) Saudi traditionalists consider it a radical act.

A customer gets her makeup done by female employees at Riyadh's Harvey Nichols department store.Photo by Kate Brooks, Redux

But it was an act born of compromise. In recent years, the government has issued a series of decrees expanding job opportunities for women within retail—including banning men from working in lingerie and cosmetics shops that serve female-only clientele. Before then, stores that employed women were often closed down by the religious police, who enforce Sharia law. New regulations allow for increased female employment while adhering to some of the previous standards (separate break rooms and specified ratios of women to men in any given space, for instance). "Our society tends to change a bit slower than others," Princess Reema says. "We have to explain to people that it's evolution, not Westernization."

Born in Riyadh, Princess Reema grew up in Washington, D.C., where her father, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, served as Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States (he is a grandson of Saudi Arabia's founder). She majored in museum studies at George Washington University, and after graduation spent a few years working at L'Institut du Monde Arab in Paris and the Field Museum in Chicago, helping oversee her mother's extensive art collection. When the collection returned to Saudi Arabia in 2008, Princess Reema came home as well. She had been planning to spend some time as a stay-at-home mom, but Alfa, which her family partially owns, was struggling with Riyadh's underperforming Harvey Nichols store. She had a few ideas about how to turn it around. "It hadn't been renovated in a while, so we started with that," she says. "We gutted the store and started from scratch with empty shelves." Soon she found herself running the entire Alfa operation.

One of the reasons the Harvey Nichols store has been so successful in integrating women is that it provides workplace accommodations that go far beyond American standards. For one thing, women still can't legally drive in Saudi Arabia, so the company provides transportation to and from work. It's also among the few Saudi workplaces that offer day care. "I wanted to avoid the obstacle of the mother-in-law or husband at home saying, 'Who's going to take care of the children?' " Princess Reema says. And the company lets employees make their own decisions about whether to wear a veil, a major personal choice for Saudi women: "I will never ask a lady to cover or uncover her face."

But solving these workplace issues has been easy compared to handling the business impact of social change. The Riyadh department store—which opened in 2000 as Harvey Nichols's first location outside the U.K.—weathered a 42% drop in profit last year, partly because of opposition to the female sales force and partly because of loyalty to the far-more-seasoned salesmen it replaced. "The women don't have the experience yet," says Princess Reema. "It's almost like throwing them to the wolves. But I buy into this. The training is the investment that we're making in these ladies. I want women to have better opportunities." Some Saudis are apparently still adjusting to the new face—and faces—of Harvey Nichols Riyadh, but Princess Reema seems confident that they will ultimately come around. "It's just social perception," she says. "And that's going to change."

[Photo by Andrew Hobbs]

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  • Larry Wilson

    The big problem there, most men still see a woman as their property and not a person. Kind of like they look at their livestock. Not anything like a equal in anyway at all. It's where a woman does what she is told or she can still be beaten or even stones still.

  • ramynatt

    I worked in Riyadh for thirteen years as did my wife. We are back in the USA now. It is a great achievement to see Princess Reema working to help the Saudi women achieve a wonderful change in the country.

    Thank you for your work Princess Reema.

  • shaldi

    Ah yes, the usual left-wing liberal "academic" tripe. From "Western imperialism" to the courage of the downtrodden Muslim masses.

    Wrapped up in pseudo-fashion, upper East side Manhattan twaddle.

    Ah yes, to be a brainless liberal.

  • Shaldi!

    Thank you for point this out to the Western Liberal, and reminding the rest of us why the world knows Muslims to have smaller brains than the donkey. Oh - donkey = ass just in case you were confused.

    Saudi = doormat. The useless thing you wipe your feet upon.

    Thanks for the history lesson!!

  • Lawrence Vaccarelli

    you do realize how utterly hiiarious that picture with the woman being made up while surrounded by darth vader garbed look alikes is don't you....lmao

  • Phil M. Kelley

    Is it westernization or evolution for these female employees to serve their customers all swaddled up in burkas? It is neither. What is the point of selling makeup or clothing when the end result is that the female wearing it will have to cover it up with the burka afterward?

  • Carol A. Preece

    Ignorant comment as Arab women can wear make-up at home without burka and this is what many do.

  • rkboard

    All too often, in our Western culture, we put on nice clothes and make-up when we go out, but don't make the effort for our husbands when we're at home. And really, isn't that who we should really be making the effort for? It's my understanding that Muslim ladies wear their burkas and veils in public, so as not to advertise themselves to strangers, but when they love to dress up and wear make-up for when they have get-togethers with their friends in each others homes and for their husbands when at home. Each culture has their own values, and as long as the burka and veil are the woman's choice (and not forced upon her by meddling morality police), then it's not for me to judge.

  • Sabeeh F Rafique

    why not? what's wrong with it? what if she wants to wear make up and look good for her husband? she can wear it and cover it but show only to her husband, there is nothing wrong with it. also if she wants to look good for herself she can buy it, use it and do whatever she like. I didn't know the point of the make up was to put on a show for others...

  • sian

    It’s great to read all the comments on the article. I was present when Princess Reema spoke at the Fast Company conference, and also heard her explain that Alfa was indeed following the law, and that what is difficult in KSA is that the regulations have been so stringent that all businesses suffered. She did not claim innovation, rather that Alfa included women on the cosmetics floor 2 years before the law was passed. She also clearly mentioned that the campaign to get women working in lingerie stores was started by Reem Assad and that her campaign is what motivated the Ministry to begin its feminisation program. Lastly, Princess Reema explained that Alfa collaborated with Glowork on the study about obstacles facing women in retail, and then acted upon its findings. The result of this, of which they are rightly proud (being no less an issue for women in Saudi as those elsewhere), is an onsite daycare, and this easily accessible location is something exclusive to Harvey Nichols.

  • I'm a Saudi woman who was born & lived my whole life in Saudi Arabia. I also work in the retail industry. Although I appreciate the effort of the princess & the writer of this piece, but I find it not accurate. 1-The princess DID NOT start employing women by choice & certainly wasn't the first. It's the law. All retailers in the femaleclothing & cosmetics sector are obligated by The Ministry of Commerce to hire women. If the store didn't hire women, the ministry will simply close it. So the princess didn't chose, her company was forced. 2-As the article says; the company dropped 42% in profit. All the retailers in KSA did. And yes, it's because they hired women who have no experience in this sector. Based on that, I see absolutely no difference between Alfa Intl. & any other retailer in the country. Except Alfa is run by a princess, lost more profits, and is smaller than many other huge, experineced players in the market like Alhokair & Alshaya (who build an academy to train women).

  • walad23

    Exactly right. This is a silly piece of nonsense that caters to ignorance of people who have no idea about what is going on in Saudi Arabia, Good for you Noha.

  • yuekaiyo

    Stop being so negative. At least she do it for woman like you. Appreciate the effort and take it. She do realize she take in women who have no experience and that they make investment on their training.

  • yuekaiyo

    Stop being so negative. At least she do it for woman like you. Appreciate the effort and take it. She do realize she take in women who have no experience and that they make investment on their training.

  • It is and let evolution be indigenous and free of the attributed traits. While capitalism is a right of every nation, Western ideas itself are neither home grown nor is of monopoly; not to mention the westernization of the West deriving its roots imperialistically from the other nations of time. Dismissing the stereotype, Women In Egypt were able to vote even before women in the United States were granted the right to vote. Let evolution be evolution…..

  • Bravo, Princess Reema. Key to all of this, i think, is an element that may at first seem just a detail: offering child-care at work for the female employees. Let's not forget that many "advanced" and "liberated" countries fail to understand the importance of valuing women as a "whole person" and the complexity of roles we can hold, and often struggle to balance. This article shows an intelligent, thoughtful move to bring women into the workplace (and so out of the confines of the home) so that they can be, in addition to their household duties and roles, also of assistance to others. That can only lead to a greater sense of confidence and self-importance for employees and customers alike: good for people and good for business. May this have a ripple effect!