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Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud

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

[Photo by Andrew Hobbs]

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."

A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.