Saudi Arabia: Who is Reem Asaad?

reem asaad         Reem Asaad is an exceptional Saudi woman.  She is a wife, mother, financial advisor, writer, activist and key promoter of rights for women in her country. She was ranked the third most powerful Arab Woman in 2012 by Arabian Business Magazine.  It gives American Bedu the greatest pleasure to further introduce Reem to readers through this exclusive interview.

First of all, Reem, thank you so very much for agreeing to this interview.  It is an honor to have the opportunity to ask you a bevy of questions.

You are welcome. My pleasure.

I’d like to start at the beginning.  Where are you from in the Kingdom?  How would you describe your upbringing?  Traditional?  Open?  Conservative?

My family is originally from Al-Madina Al-Munawarah. However, I was born in Egypt, where both my parents went to school then college before moving to Saudi when I was one year old. Their upbringing was a hybrid of liberal and traditional. Liberals in thought and beliefs, they still held some traditions with a “twist”.

What influences did you have in your childhood that impacted you to become the successful businesswoman you are today?  In addition, who influenced you the most and how?

Both my parents are college graduates and professional. My father is a retired orthopedic surgeon and my mother earned a degree in commerce  and held a variety of jobs in education, banking and later became an entrepreneur.

What was your educational background?  Where did you go to school and in what subject did you major?

I graduated with a bachelor degree in science at King Abdulaziz University, majoring in chemistry. Years later I enrolled in an MBA program offered by Northeastern University (Boston) and graduated just before the tragic 9/11/ 2001. My focus was investment finance.

When did you first travel outside of the Kingdom?  How often did you get to travel outside of the Kingdom as you were growing up?  How did these trips exposing you to differing customs and cultures impact you?

My first trip was back to Saudi Arabia from my birth country of Egypt. As I grew up my parents took me and my siblings to Asia, Europe and the US on summer vacations. Foreign language was a key part of our upbringing both in Saudi and abroad. We learned English at a very early stage and grew up “thinking” differently. At school I was always asked: “How do you speak English so well?” I never really understood why it was even a “question”. I knew better later J

How were you as a Saudi woman able to break into the field of investment management and finance?  What were some of the challenges you, as a woman, had to face and overcome?

Upon my return from the States, I was hired by the National Commercial Bank one of the largest in the Kingdom. Luckily the banking platform was a turning point in terms of female hiring. I was one of three women to be hired into non-female related positions. I received intensive training in my area of choice. Today, women assume all roles in banks including executive positions.

Do you think your campaign to provide women opportunities in Saudi lingerie stores not only made you a wider known public figure, but was that also a pivotal moment for you as an activist?   saudi lingerie campaign

It was a great learning experience. Through it I came to know many underlying social, labor and economic issues that contributed to the delay of women’s progress and advancement. I would like to add that the success of this campaign is not about me, but rather about the thousands of women who supported the initiative and determinedly entered the workforce.

Can you share some details about your campaign and how many Saudi women have had new employment opportunities as a result?

This is a big Q. I suggest that you visit the Lingerie campaign page on FB (it is closed but please request and I’ll open up).

What did you feel when your campaign experienced success?

Exhilarated! When I learned that the Ministry of Labor (regulator) put the law into practice and enforced the recruitment of women in the sector, I simply sat back trying to digest a journey of 3 years that came to a happy end. It was like graduating with a high degree after years of work.

What are other campaigns in place or that you would like to see in place which would provide more rights and opportunities for Saudi women?  Which are the most important to you and why?  How can others help support you?

  • Daycare facilities for women at work.
  • Transport for every working woman without a personal driver, plus transport compensation for women below certain income bracket who use personal driver.

I’d like to now ask a few personal questions if you don’t mind.  I know you are a mother and have three daughters.  Is your husband Saudi?  Was your marriage arranged?

My husband is of a Saudi father and Lebanese mother. My marriage was arranged by choice. We met through mutual friends and got married within a few months.

How does your husband feel about having a wife who also has an executive level career?  Have you had to make any career comprises due to any family requests?

My husband’s and entire family support was vital in keeping me moving on. In fact both my parents and husband are the strongest supporters of all and any work that I decide to embark on. Naturally, we have differences, but work and career decisions are ultimately mine.

What is your personal advice to Saudi women who would also like to have both marriage and their own career?  What sacrifices should they expect to make?  How can they convince a lesser supportive husband to allow them to have a career?

I like women who know what they want. Every woman must have a degree and / or skills that enable her to get a job in hard times. Life is full of surprises, and we can only prepare early on. The sacrifice that working women face are quality time with her family. But even that, nowadays is not warranted; for with all technological distractions, kids prefer leisure away from parents. In terms of unsupportive spouses, I believe that economy dictates what happens in the family. Men under financial pressure often yield to ideas previously unquestionable such as a wife getting a job. Unfortunately, there are no clear statistics on these trends which hinders the better understanding and measuring of this social detour in the Kingdom.

You are setting an example and a legacy for your three daughters.  As a mother, what are your hopes, dreams and aspirations for them?  Do you want for them to have careers?

My daughters will hopefully have the opportunity to choose for themselves, in terms of career, marriage and life in general. Their generation will have different aspirations and pursuits, something we cannot predict. All we can hope to offer them is solid education and best possible exposure to the outside world.

Saudi Arabia is not always an easy place for women.  Do you want your daughters to have their adult lives inside the Kingdom?  Please explain your answer.

Yes. It started as early as kindergarten. My two elder daughters (youngest is only 2 yrs old) attend a French school where their learning and educational experience is different from the mainstream experience in local schools. For adult education, I would like to see each one successful in her field of choice, be it arts, sports or academia. No boundaries, no limits as long as she is fulfilled and positively contributing to the world.

Your lingerie campaign was a landmark campaign for the Kingdom.  Do you think that opportunities will eventually open up for women to have a greater choice of career opportunities; to drive; to vote and to have greater control over their own lives?  Why or why not?

Yes, eventually things will change’; “when” is the million dollar question. With the population growth, the state will not longer be able to accommodate more personal chauffeurs or excess foreign labor, which is already exhausting the feeble infrastructure. Generation Y will ultimately have the upper hand. It is up to the government to join forces and win them over.

There remain misunderstandings among Westerners about the Saudi women.  Too many see a Saudi woman as repressed and oppressed based on how she dresses when in public and due to the fact that a woman requires a mahrem (male guardian).  What would you like to say to individuals who share this view?

First, Saudi women dress the same but cannot be more different, ideologically, and in every aspect of life. The mystique surrounding typical Saudi women is a result of traditional preference of anonymity and privacy – a very cultural matter. This is also changing, thanks to social networking and new technology. The philosophy of sharing and exposing oneself to the world, was previously tabooed, socially speaking. Today, girls compete to post up not only their full name, but their photos and stories for the entire world to read and engage. This all happened in the span of 5-8 years, and the trend is accelerating, so in a few years, Saudi women will lose that edge (joking).

How can expatriate women in the Kingdom and Saudi women meet and get to know one another?  It seems like these kind of bridge building opportunities would erase many false impressions.

Expat women are very good in building their own networks. Some are keenly interested in building bridges and contributing to clearing a highly distorted image of Saudi women. I think that a good collaboration of both teams can generate excellent results.

In closing, is there anything else you’d like to add that I’ve not asked?

Not so far J

Thanks again, Reem, for giving American Bedu the opportunity to interview you and ask all of these questions.  I wish you all the continued success!


22 Responses

  1. Great interview with a remarkable Saudi woman!

  2. Excellent interview.

  3. From what I have heard and read about Ms. Asaad, I found her to be visionary, intelligent, courageous and dedicated citizen. In fact, she and her colleagues will be remembered as the game-changer in a country where a few men dictate their crippling wishes on every citizen.

    Reem’s lingerie project open welded steel doors for millions of marginalized Saudi women and changed the minds and attitude of Saudi men toward women. She should be the Minister of labor because it’s people like her who will propel Saudi Arabia to a better, egalitarian, tolerant and participatory future.

    Since I am older than Reem and have seen women playing major roles in farming, herding and raising families, many on their own, I totally disagree with her that tradition is to blame for the oppression, cloaking and relegation of most Saudi women to a non-citizen class.

    By her admission, Saudi women who have access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube express themselves in extravagant words and looks which they would practice in malls and streets if it were not for the autocratic and theoretic anti-women and anti-religion failing system.

  4. Wow, serious props to this lady. I hope she gets some international award and/or recognition for bringing employment opportunities to Saudi ladies in retail and a dignified experience to female customers.

    One question I didn’t understand from the interview is how she feels about the #Women2Drive campaign. It sounds like she supports the continuation of women not being independent if she wants the government to fund drivers for women below a certain income bracket. I am curious as to why she doesn’t support full reversal of this ban on women drivers.

  5. Congratulations to Reem! Having met a lot of Saudi and Arab ladies, I can say that I feel timid as a westener in front of them 🙂 lol
    They are very dynamic in their majority, real fighters for life from an early age.
    I hope that with the new employment opportunities for women in KSA, they will become more visible for what they really represent- one of the most dynamic parts of the society!

  6. In the Saudi case, women are the only hope for the country’s stability, unity and tangible progress.

    More importantly, empowering Saudi women will guarantee the defeat of religious extremism and its byproduct terrorism without which the system will collapse despite the West’s bigoted, myopic and dangerous support.

    Privileged Saudi women, including royals, can do much more to save their country and move it from its current political, religious and social polarized and stagnant status into a united, participatory and tolerant future.

    Saudi women can utilize, seek support from and network with human rights and progressives, especially among conservatives and vocal individuals and groups in the West.

    Men will tag along once women lead, as exemplified by Shoulder to Shoulder among other social movements.

  7. Dear Ali,

    yes- absolutely right- a lot of KSA men are already tagging along to their success.
    Yes, there is a minority that is still hard to change, but the majority is steadily increasing in the acceptance of women in many more jobs that previously were considered taboo.
    I am very happy about that indeed as an active participation of women will make the society far more dynamic, productive as well as improving equality between men and women.

  8. Women at the State Department have declined repeated invitations to speak at events regarding empowerment of Saudi women. Empowering Saudi women is in the best interest of the US national security, economic stability and democratic values.
    =========== Women – Engaging Girls

    Posted by Tara Sonenshine and Rose Gottemoeller / December 27, 2012
    Under Secretary Sonenshine and Acting Under Secretary Gottemoeller pose for a photo with a student group the Tomorrow’s Women in Science and Technology (TWIST) in an event at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

    Tara D. Sonenshine serves as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Rose Gottemoeller serves as Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security.

    Think about it. Breaking the glass ceiling and advancing science go hand-in-hand. If we can get more women and girls – maybe half the world’s population – studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), we have more chances to solve major global crises, from disease to arms control, from communications to health. Getting ahead on STEM is a challenge worth taking on.

    Over coffee one day, we decided that we would do our part to address this challenge. The answer, we believed, was self evident: We need to recruit greater numbers of young people to enter the fields of STEM so that we can extend our budding talent pool. And we must reach out to the 50 percent of our population traditionally constrained from pursuing careers in science: women.

    That is what motivated us to create two programs, both launched on December 19, dedicated to removing barriers to career advancement for women and encouraging young women to pursue the key disciplines of national security. The first is the “RT Girls! Program” – the letters referring to our respective Office designators. The program, designed to encourage girls in STEM and international security, was launched at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in Virginia.

    Before a student group called Tomorrow’s Women in Science and Technology (TWIST), we related our educational and professional experiences, and shared our convictions: America needs the kind of innovation and skill sets that these young women are acquiring, to be more competitive in today’s global economy. We will also need these skills to maintain our security. From working for global nuclear disarmament to fighting maritime piracy to cyber security, the future of international security is demanding – and the need for committed people imperative.

    We also had the opportunity to hear students’ accounts of their own STEM-related projects, ranging from rockets to neuroscience to climate change research.
    The event at Thomas Jefferson was vibrant and productive, and we plan to expand our outreach beyond additional high schools in the area, nationally and internationally.

    Recognizing the obstacles that women working in these fields face, we also launched the “RT Women’s Lecture Series” – a series of quarterly events engaging women in public diplomacy and international affairs, focused on removing professional barriers in information, technology, arms control, and science sectors. The first lecture – “Cracking the Code: Breaking Down Barriers to Advancement and Promotion for Women” – featured Meg Gottemoeller, Executive Director of Member Engagement and Human Capital at the Conference Board.

    Attendees included women and men working in hard security fields, think tanks, on Capitol Hill, and Embassy Row. The roundtable discussion was lively and the questions posed to the group by the speaker were not easily answered. Nevertheless, the group came away charged to build on past successes to help women to advance, adding critical value to these important fields.

  9. @ ALL ABOVE
    All is well which ends well. I would only suggest SAUDI WOMEN to be very careful when offering themselves for interviews.
    Sometimes the words of the mouth may may bring trouble for all Saudi Women and men.

  10. Examples? Can you elborate?

  11. Thank you for the excellent interview with this remarkable woman!

  12. Dear readers, thank you for your comments and opinion. It is quite interesting how we view our own work vs. How others feel about or view it.
    My contenment about the results of the campaign and the ensuing change of lives of many thousands is beyond words. Each tine I pass by a cashier counter or a department store today, I get the feeling that these women emanate confidence and indeoendence. They may have not lived he 70s or tje 80s where women were relatively more privileged financially . Men fully provided for their daily living. That and more will be the subject of my upcoming guest speech at the WARWICK ECONOMIC SUMMIT next February (2013). I am truly honored to be soeaking alongside key finance figures in the UK.. about

  13. Dear readers, thank you for your comments and opinion. It is quite interesting how we view our own work vs. How others feel about or view it.
    My contenment about the results of the campaign and the ensuing change of lives of many thousands is beyond words. Each time I pass by a cashier counter or a department store today, I get the feeling that these women emanate confidence and indeoendence. They may have not lived he 70s or tje 80s where women were relatively more privileged financially . Men fully provided for their daily living. That and more will be the subject of my upcoming guest speech at the WARWICK ECONOMIC SUMMIT next February (2013). I am truly honored to be speaking alongside key finance figures in the UK.. about this experience in more detail. Once video taped I shall post the speech on my website … for now, thank you Carol and tjank you all. Regards, Reem

  14. Dear Reem,

    It was such a pleasure to interview you and a real honor to know you.

    On Wed, Jan 2, 2013 at 4:34 PM, American Bedu

  15. Great Interview!!!

  16. This is a great interview. Reems efforts may be the start of a shockwave of change for the better for the whole of Saudi society.
    I have heard there are women everywhere in shops now, not only in lingerie shops.

  17. It’s so encouraging to see dedicated muslima like Mrs Asaad campaigning so vociferously for women rights in Islam. It’s always refreshingly wonderful to see such refreshing ideas!

    Recently, I read about another American-Muslim, Raquel Evita Saraswati, a muslim women rights activist, whose efforts are equally eye-opening. You can read her entire interview here:

    Here are a few excerpts:

    Islamism – a theo-political ideology responsible for the subjugation of women, minorities and Muslim dissidents – does not recognize the value of the individual, and misogyny thrives wherever that is found. Malignant interpretations of religion are often to blame for these abuses, especially when questioning the “divine” is impermissible.

    Where Islamism thrives, evil is deemed sacred, and challenging it is a punishable offense. Islamists have no interest in allowing Muslims to have a personal, dynamic relationship with our faith, because when we do, Islamists lose power. One of the methods by which they retain their power is to make women public enemy number one, and to treat their control of our bodies as a divine mandate.

    A religion is what its followers make it to be, and Muslims opting for violence have chosen to paint their faith as one that is prone to anger. Frustration with their inability to succeed in the competition between nations also has led some Muslims to seek symbolic victories.

  18. The problem is not the individuals and groups who use religion to commit atrocities. It’s the institutions that produce them and the rulers that use religion to justify their ignoble motives and absolute rules.

    Muslims can best be served by revisiting their religious text books and re-interpret the parts that are vague, justify discrimination against women and non-Muslims and make them resistant to different interpretations. Better yet, religion should be a belief not states’ constitutions and legal systems.

  19. […] From American Bedu, December 31, 2012 […]

  20. In the name of Allah who no God but him

    Hello to everyone…

    @ Ali
    YOU SAID: religion should be a belief not states’ constitutions and legal systems.

    But I do not think so. Islam is an all-aimed and complete religion as the last one. Islam from Muhammad SAWAWS to us was an social/political-based which answers all life-time requests. Islam is not a religion in a cave or such things. Islam created to rule all things among ruling Ummah(Islamic society)

  21. @ ؛a Ali–Islam does not rule, men do. They quote the Quran, Shariah and the Hadith to justify their polices, oppression of women, religious minorities, siphoning of public wealth and rejection of non-Muslims and their beliefs.

    Islam, like other religions, is subject to personal interpretation; therefore, can be interpreted to serve the men in power as the case in Saudi Arabia.

    You should read the Saudi Mufti sermons, especially since the start of the unstoppable Arab revolt against oppression, poverty, tyranny and marginalization.

    Believing blindly is indicative of one’s utter inner emptiness and detrimental weakness.

    Why Muslims are the only people who chop the heads of those who convert to other religion? True believers believe for themselves and let others judge for themselves.

  22. […] From American Bedu, December 31, 2012 […]

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