Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

How Princess Reema Is Opening Doors For Women In Saudi Arabia

In a country where women can’t legally take the wheel of a car, one leader is finding creative ways to offer them other means of control.

How Princess Reema Is Opening Doors For Women In Saudi Arabia

“I don't want to knock a wall down,” says Princess Reema. “I just want to widen the doorway.”

[Photo: Rene & Radka]

"She comes from a country where women can't drive, can't go outside, can't go to restaurants, can't socialize, can't, can't, can't . . ."

This is how Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud—entrepreneur, social activist, former CEO, single mother, and a member of the Saudi royal family—recalls being introduced by the moderator at a recent business conference in Los Angeles, where she was speaking about her efforts to better integrate women into her country's workforce.

"And she turns to me," remembers Princess Reema, "and goes, 'How does that feel?' And I said, 'Well, first of all, I need to correct you. Everything you said about life in Saudi Arabia was wrong except for one thing: We can't drive. We hang out, I go to work, I have employees. We are a very dynamic community. Would our lives be more enriched if we were mobile? One hundred percent, but so would our economy.' That's not what she wanted to hear." So the princess took it upon herself to begin the conversation anew, gracefully but firmly sidelining the moderator and turning her attention to the room. "Let me tell you about us . . ." she began.

Princess Reema, 40, lives in Riyadh, the conservative capital of Saudi Arabia. By Western standards, the limitations placed on women there are indeed severe. Aside from having to dress modestly in public (in full-length abayas and head scarves), adult Saudi women need permission from their fathers or male guardians to marry, study, and travel. Women comprise 60% of college students, but make up just 13% of the workforce (the majority are employed by female-only schools or hospitals). In 2013, the World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 127th out of 136 countries in its Global Gender Gap Report. And yet during my four-day visit to the country, I witnessed the richness of experience that Princess Reema had tried to share in California. I was struck not by the vulnerability of the women I met but by their shrewdness, hers in particular. The princess, who hosted me at the crew quarters on her family's sprawling property, had encouraged me to visit during Saudi ­Design Week, so that in the evenings I could attend events with her and meet her circle of female artist, designer, gallery owner, and magazine editor friends. During the days, I sat in on her feverish planning sessions with female doctors, lawyers, marketing entrepreneurs, and university students, who were all rallying around 10KSA, ­Princess Reema's potentially groundbreaking breast cancer awareness campaign that aims to bring 10,000 women together at a Saudi women's college on December 12.

Ten thousand women have never gathered in one place in the country, let alone to champion their worth as valued and valuable citizens. 10KSA, a female-only initiative generated, organized, and hosted by women, is a profoundly feminist undertaking, particularly in a country where breast is still considered a taboo word. But, just as when she pioneered the hiring of women at Riyadh's Harvey Nichols department store in 2011 (as CEO of her family's luxury retail company, which owned the store), much of Princess Reema's job involves gracefully downplaying the political righteousness of the event. Because it's not just the religious police she's up against. A structural engineering student I met during a 10KSA planning meeting, a smart and persuasive young woman from a wealthy family, firmly believes that women should not be allowed to drive. "There are rules in life," she said. "[The rules] are not about being inhumane. They're for our own good. Women here can think they're being mistreated, but they're not. They just want to be pitied."

"That's what I'm dealing with," Princess Reema—who'd listened diplomatically to the young woman and offered a pragmatic counterargument from an employer's point of view—told me after the girl left the room. "Here, the words feminist, radical, activist, liberal, empowerment are not useful to my goals. I'll lose half my audience." To effect any enduring change in a culture that largely prides itself on resisting it, Princess Reema says she must simultaneously invigorate and soothe, while being careful not to alienate conservative thinkers by wielding her ambition too aggressively. In some ways, she's walking the same line as female professionals everywhere.

But here the stakes are higher. Many educated women she meets, for example, don't even know how to work. "They don't know how to get themselves to an airport and through an airport," she says, "or book a hotel room. It's only in the past few years that women could open bank accounts without their fathers," she continues. "But not every woman knows she can." Princess Reema believes that achieving these small milestones is vital. She believes that having women engaged in society leads to a better society. And she's determined to give them a hand.

The fact that Saudi women cannot drive, she says, "is not the only story here! What about the women who go so far outside the box of their limitations to make those issues irrelevant to their success?"

Reema bint Bandar Al Saud is one of those women.

Princess Reema lives in a vast gated compound, her small but elegantly decorated apartment tucked neatly into a two-story cream-colored stone building. Golf carts and bicycles (driven by men and women) periodically whiz by, stopping near a fountain in the roofed courtyard. Princess Reema's parents—her father, Bandar bin Sultan, was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005—live on the property, as do her seven brothers and sisters. The princess says it comforted her to huddle up close with her now teenage children after her divorce four years ago. One of her sisters lives in the apartment above her. Two hundred feet away from her kitchen windows, a construction crew is busy building her new five-bedroom house.

We meet one morning in the compound's recreation room, a nook for gathering that's kitty-corner to Princess Reema's apartment. The room is crowded with comfortable sofas, a Ms. Pac Man arcade game, and a large television in a soccer-ball-patterned frame. There are two whiteboards, one scrawled with the planning agenda for 10KSA and the other with her children's tutoring and extracurricular schedules.

The princess, wearing a comfortable T-shirt dress and flip-flops, her formal abaya tucked away in a closet until it's time to go out in public, is sipping rose tea at the table when her 16-year-old daughter, Princess Sarah, emerges from their apartment on her way to a dentist's appointment with her nanny. Their driver awaits them out front. "Can I look at your shoes?" Princess Reema calls after her daughter. "Are those mine?"

"No, I got them in L.A. on Robertson Boulevard," Sarah says with the miffy tone of teenagers worldwide. (The family regularly visits Los Angeles, where Sarah will learn to drive this summer.)

"You can't go out tonight like that," says Princess Reema, looking at her daughter's shredded overalls beneath her unfastened abaya. "Your father would kill me. Put on leggings underneath."

"I'm not wearing leggings under this. That's too '80s."

"Channel Debbie Gibson!" Princess Reema calls to her ­daughter's retreating back. "All my references are '80s, by the way," she says. At various points during my visit she will reference Footloose, 9 to 5, The Princess Bride, and Top Gun (e.g., "I don't want to be seen as a maverick; Maverick gets Goose killed"). She keeps the entire oeuvre of George Michael in her chauffeured Mercedes.

The '80s touchstones are a holdover from Princess Reema's formative years in Washington, D.C. Her father's job took the family there when she was 7 years old, and she didn't return to Saudi Arabia full-time until 2006. In America, she earned a degree in museum studies from George Washington University, but never envisioned a career. "My mom was a great mom, and that's all I wanted to be," she says. "I wanted the husband and the picket fence."

On the job: Saleswomen at the Harvey Nichols department store in Riyadh, owned by Princess Reema’s familyPhoto: Kate Brooks, Redux

It's a fluke, really, that she found herself at the helm of ­Riyadh's Harvey Nichols. By the time she returned to Saudi Arabia, the department store had become less the luxury shopping destination it billed itself as than an inhospitable bazaar selling second-rate designers. In 2010, she took a tour with board members of Alfa Intl., the store's parent company, which her family owned, and couldn't resist sharing her concerns. "If the store is meant to be high-end, why are you selling middle- to low-end product?" Princess Reema remembers saying. " 'That's false advertising. Your brand mix is wrong. Your store lighting is crap. It smells bad. Your store people have no clue what product is on the shelf.' And they said, 'Great, how would you fix it?' " Three days later, her cousin, Alfa's then-CEO, talked her into taking over. She became the country's first female CEO of a retail company.

During the princess's first few months on the job, King Abdullah (who died in January and was succeeded by his half-brother King Salman, Princess Reema's great-uncle) issued a decree that women would replace male workers in lingerie shops. The move was largely in response to a campaign led by Reem Asaad, a female Saudi lecturer in finance whose humiliation at the hands of a male clerk led her to launch an online-driven boycott of lingerie shops. The king's decree then prompted the Ministry of Labor to require that women's department stores start a "feminization" process of hiring. Companies that did not comply would be fined or shut down.

Princess Reema was quick to recognize the cultural and business opportunity of the decree and seized it, setting a new standard among employers by going out and recruiting women to work at the store. She built private makeup rooms for newly hired cosmetic artists and created the position of female dressing-room attendants. She granted transportation stipends to female employees to ease the burden of their commute if their fathers or husbands couldn't drive them, and installed on-site child care—the first department store in Saudi Arabia to offer an employee nursery—to head off guilt trips from home. She kept men on in select roles, obeying the rules of keeping genders separated by partitions or distance, and trusted her employees to practice self-control.

"And we were crucified," she says. Within six months, store profits had tanked by 42%. Her new staff was composed of untrained women and disgruntled men (most foreign-born, as Saudi men typically consider service positions beneath them). The "religious ­police"—the Saudi government group responsible for enforcing Sharia codes of moral conduct—hovered constantly. Crowds picketed outside. "As a nation that is moral and virtuous we cannot promote that kind of behavior," Princess Reema says, paraphrasing their outrage. "My point was, 'Why are you looking at it so suspiciously?' But I had to step out of my ego and my experience and realize that the people that I'm employing don't mix, their families don't mix, so this is actually shocking to the employee as much as it's shocking to the investigator, and to the client walking in." So the princess pivoted. Female employees remain separated from all males by glass partitions and government-mandated space requirements, and male employees now work in the restaurant and children's sections only.

It took two years, but the mood—and ­profits—at Harvey Nichols have fully recovered, the princess says. One weekday afternoon, I am taken on a tour of the store by one of Princess Reema's protégées, Raghda Amin, a 30-year-old aspiring fashion designer who grew up wearing the exclusive brands sold here. Business is slow, she explains, because the store has just reopened its doors after the mid­afternoon prayer time. To my Western eyes, the black-cloaked shoppers seem incongruous against the opulent backdrop of colorful, showy high fashion. What's a Saudi woman to do with five-inch Alexander McQueen stilettos or a body-conscious Carolina Herrera evening gown? Amin, whose iPhone buds drape over her abaya, explains that Saudi women care deeply about fashion; they show off their extensive wardrobes at all-female house parties or when traveling abroad.

Two years ago, Amin almost quit her job at Harvey Nichols. "My mom died of a heart attack," she tells me. "Everything was black in my mind." Her family doesn't depend on her salary, so there was no reason for her not to sink into grief. "Princess Reema came up to me and said, 'Take as much time as you need. If you want to work from home, do that. Just don't leave the company.' Now I try to pay her back by working hard to show her that she will see the result of her support through my success."

Today Amin, who has risen to become the head of the visual merchandising department, shows off her plans for the "urban department." It's a sleek section targeting teenagers that she plans to decorate like a funky garage with famous ­fashion-designer quotes scrawled like graffiti. "We're not allowed to play music in the store, but maybe we'll try a little Maroon 5 in the fitting rooms," she whispers to me. "If people complain, worst-case scenario is we turn it off."

One floor below, women greet each other in the private employee break room. Their smiles are shy and sweet, their eyelashes thickly mascaraed. These are not girls who benefited from private-school educations, like Amin or Princess Reema. "Within 50 paychecks they could maybe buy a wallet at Harvey—and probably shouldn't," says the princess. About half of the women wear niqabs, which cover their entire faces except for their eyes, out of modesty, or shame because their families are uncomfortable with their daughters working in a service position.

On the bulletin board outside the break room, an uninspiring all-staff HR memo written in both Arabic and English bemoans shoddy employee attendance. Workers at the store have a tendency to show up late and leave early, a result of being dependent on a father or brother for a ride. In fact, within the first couple of months of women being employed at the store, the staff suffered an 80% attrition rate. Female employees would shrink or flee when approached by male customers. If work was overwhelming or just not worth the headache of family members nagging at home, they stopped showing up.

Princess Reema was struck by her failure to predict how harsh a culture shock a professional environment could be to her more sheltered countrywomen. "We were expecting them to run before they could walk," she says. So last January, she stepped down as CEO (she still remains on Alfa's executive board committee) and launched the social enterprise Alf Khair, which translates to "one thousand blessings." "I wanted to effect more change than I could within the four walls of the store," she says.

Through Alf Khair she founded Alf Darb, a training academy for women who want to enter the workforce. Alf Darb will accept its first class of students early next year, following a pilot program with staff from Harvey Nichols. The socioeconomically diverse mix of students, attracted through trusted employers and high schools, will train at the academy three days a week and intern at hand-selected jobs the other two. Mentors, provided by Alf Darb, will be encouraged to stay in touch with the young women throughout their professional careers.

The logo of Alf Khair looks like a geometric butterfly, meant to symbolize Princess Reema's desire to create change. "Think how one butterfly alone might change a wind pattern but many, many butterflies fluttering their wings together will cause a change in the atmosphere," Princess Reema says. Imagine the power of 10,000 butterflies.

In 2001, Princess Reema received one of the worst phone calls of her life: A close friend shocked her with the news that she was suffering from late-stage breast cancer. The friend had gone through her diagnostic and chemotherapy regimen alone, unsure of how to find support, and unlikely to have accepted it anyway.

"Our community is very, very private," says the princess. "We don't talk. Certain diseases or personal conflicts are considered shameful to address, because it means you're ungrateful or you'll be seen as 'less than.' So if you have a problem you keep it right in until it's a disaster. Nobody knew she was sick until she was in the hospital and she's dying."

Rocked by the subsequent loss of her friend, and devastated by the fact that nearly 60% of the breast cancer cases in Saudi Arabia are diagnosed at late stages (as compared to 30%, on average, in the U.S.), the princess turned her attention, connections, and resources toward improving women's health. She helped a doctor named Suad bin Amer found the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, naming the organization after bin Amer's mother, who had died of the disease. Immediately, the Ministry of Social Affairs, an influential wing of the government, argued against the word breast being a part of the official title. "We're not going to call it the General Chest Area Association," Princess Reema remembers insisting. "It's called breast cancer, the same way prostate cancer is not called 'the cancer down there.' " 

Women in Saudi Arabia are especially vulnerable to late-stage diagnoses because of cultural taboos against self-examination and an unwillingness to address the warning signs. In regions where polygamy is still practiced, for example, a woman with a lump in her breast fears being cast off in favor of a healthier wife. Princess Reema knew that education would be key to saving lives. Zahra representatives started traveling to malls with transportable "pink houses": four walls and a roof that provided timid women with a shield of privacy, in which early-detection specialists would offer counsel. Then, eager to take awareness to the next level, she partnered with Modia Batterjee, a Saudi physician and breast health and lactation specialist, to attempt to break a Guinness World Record by having almost 4,000 women line up in the form of a pink ribbon in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Spreading the word: At Saudi Design Week last May, at the Al Faisaliah Resort near Riyadh, women were invited to learn about the 10KSA event and take selfies in front of neon "wings of hope" to share on social media.Photo: Al Bahiti

"But do you want to know the truth?" Princess Reema tells members of her 10KSA team during a rec-room strategy meeting the next day. "We broke a record and all of our fliers just ended up on the floor. It was madness. Nobody ended up going to our education booths."

"But I think of it as a watershed event," says Seema Khan, the founder of a tech seed-investment company and 10KSA board member. "Beforehand, I never heard breast cancer in the public discourse in any circle. Whereas after, it felt like everybody was talking about it."

"Okay, it was the event that brought [breast cancer] into the public discourse," allows the princess, now looking ahead. "I'm not worried about 10,000 people coming to 10KSA. I'm worried about what they're going to get out of it."

For December's massive gathering, Princess Reema is working with a $675,000 budget that's fully covered by corporate sponsors, including the Alwaleed Philanthropies, GE, and Uber. (The princess's team has already put in a request for 2,000 Uber cars to be on call that day; the company has been a game changer for Saudi women since it launched in Riyadh in 2014.) As the event's media sponsor, the Middle East Broadcasting Center has committed airtime to PSAs in the month of December. It will also invite team members onto its morning shows and write breast cancer into the story lines of some of its dramas. During the event itself, 10KSA, in conjunction with the National Health Care Screening Program, will offer free, on-site mammograms, as well as screenings for other diseases. GE plans to host both educational and job-fair booths.

One day, Princess Reema's friend Yasmin Al Twaijwri, a high-level epidemiology researcher at Riyadh's King Faisal Hospital, joins us for a meeting after lunch. She's leading a pioneering national survey of mental health, the Saudi Health and Stress Survey. ("Mental health is a taboo subject" in the country, explains the princess.) Al Twaijwri will be bringing a 15-person team to 10KSA to ask women, in a private tent, about their interior lives. "We want to know what their needs are and how we can help them in the future," says Al Twaijwri. "Because they need advocates to go and talk to policy makers." The event will provide her with up to 10,000 research subjects who can respond to a simple survey about possible symptoms of depression, a conversation the average woman in Saudi Arabia is loath to initiate.

Princess Reema had predicted a firestorm of angry backlash to her ribbon-formation campaign in Jeddah, but, with the exception of some hateful phone calls, the event went off undisturbed. Still, she knows she must continue to toe the line. The Ministry of Education granted 10KSA free use of the King ­Fahad Sports Stadium. "When we took a tour, the man kept saying, 'You're the first women to ever set foot in here!' " she says. "And I knew the tone of the event would turn into a women's empowerment event of breaking barriers versus breast cancer awareness and health education. I don't want to knock a wall down. We just want to widen the doorway." So she chose a new venue, Princess Noura University, an all-women's college where participants will have access to the 10,000-plus-capacity stadium, as well as to tennis courts, soccer fields, and three basketball courts.

"Ten thousand women from varied socioeconomic backgrounds," marvels Princess Reema. "They're excited, they've left their homes, they're ready to engage, they're saying, 'Talk to me, I'm here, tell me something.' " Her goal is to blueprint the entire planning and execution process so that it can be reused over and over. "We can't be the sole beneficiaries of this," she says. "I want to see someone copy us. Beat us, do it better, go have fun."

Speaking of fun, 10KSA is not just about education. Princess Reema is planning a festive atmosphere ("Picture the carnival at the end of Grease," she says). There will be Zumba classes on the stadium field. A fun run inspired by the Hindu festival of Holi. Shopping and food stalls run by female entrepreneurs. A popular male DJ will spin records for a dance party, though, of course, he'll be sequestered in a private booth. 

the Al Faisaliah ResortPhoto: Muzna Qumar

The opening-night party for Saudi Design Week is held at a posh new resort hotel about a 45-­minute drive from downtown Riyadh. The chic lobby, all cool granite and groovy lounge music, is elegant and packed, every corner crowded with exhibition stalls of high-end wares from Saudi-born artists and designers. Men and women—some with heads covered, some not—mingle effortlessly while lounge music plays over the speakers and waiters dressed in formal wear and bandoliers pass Arabic coffee, dates, and trays of mini ­ice-cream cones. Everyone swears that such a scene—a mixed party in public in a country where women still dine in sequestered "family" sections in restaurants—would have been ­unheard of just five years prior. With 50% of Saudi Arabia's population under the age of 35, and the country boasting the highest number of Twitter users in the Arab region ("it's unrestricted communication," explains Princess Reema of social media's allure), gatherings like this signify that change is possible.

Design Week is the brainchild of Noura Bouzo, 29, the creative director and cofounder of Saudi Arabia's first arts-and-culture magazine, Oasis, who launched the event last year with the help of her sisters and others—and the backing of the princess. "Princess Reema is a role model to a lot of us," Bouzo tells me. "She's female, and she's done all these things on her own. You can't imagine what that means for us all to see."

The princess has two stands at Saudi Design Week, one exhibiting her Baraboux luxury bag line (she's the founder and creative director) and another inviting local artists to enter a competition to design the bottom of the 10,000 head scarves that will be worn at 10KSA—per Guinness regulations, the head-covering portion must be uniform—as the women line up to form the ­largest-ever human-awareness ribbon. She gracefully moves through the lobby, introducing people she thinks could benefit from knowing each other and recruiting designers for her scarf competition.

On the ride home, stalled in a sea of male drivers staring idly at their mobile phones as the downtown is torn up to make way for a fully modern underground public-transportation system, Princess Reema is contemplative in the back seat of her chauffeured car. She tells me about her hero, her grandmother Queen Effat Al-Thunayan. She was an advocate for women's education, and with the backing of the king she opened the country's first private school for girls, in Jeddah, called Dar ­Al-Hanan, or "Home of Compassion." Due to community protest, it was initially branded as an orphanage. The queen enrolled her own children there, so society ladies started sending their daughters there as well. The school still exists today, a feeder for Saudi Arabia's first private women's college, Effat University, which opened in 1999.

Work the system until it rights itself: It's in Princess Reema's blood. In 2000, she cofounded a women's-only day spa and gym in Riyadh, called Yibreen. Female gyms are still illegal in Saudi Arabia, so she and her partners opened it under a seamstress shop's license. They hired a seamstress, provided her with a machine, and set up an office for her. "So if religious police come in, they say 'Okay, you have the machine and she has a good work space,' " says the princess. "And we're like, 'Yeah, and those treadmills over there mean nothing.' " Fifteen years later, there's still a seamstress working there, allowing Yibreen's female guests entrance into an otherwise forbidden world.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.

The Fast Company Innovation Festival