The “Destination for Muslims” initiative — launched as part of the Vision 2030 unveiled last year by Saudi Arabia — targets Umrah visitors, Muslim traders, state guests from other Muslim countries to visit other sites in the country outside the Muslims holy sites of Makkah and Madinah.

At the same time, the initiative seeks to boost tourism infrastructure investments, mainly through private-public partnerships (PPPs).

Saudi Arabia tourism visa move: A sign of the times

What that means is the private sector will be increasingly involved in developing tourist sites to support the influx of visitors to the country’s major attractions.
Saudi Arabia, with a land area of 2.15 million square kilometres, is geographically the fifth-largest state in Asia.

In terms of tourist sites, it boasts of unique communities thriving in the magestic mountain ranges in the south-western Asir region, the ancient Nabatean sites of Madain Saleh in the northwest, the historic city of Diriyah (a Unesco world heritage centre) where the first Saudi State was established in 1745 in the central Arabian peninsula, and the imposing tower houses and souqs of the old district of Balad in Jeddah — to name just a few. Initially, the push is to attract tourists from Muslim countries who visit Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj pilgrimage and Umrah.

Every year, millions of Muslims travel from around the world to Saudi Arabia to complete the pilgrimage in the holy city of Makkah.

The Saudi UNESCO site of Diriyah. The historic city is where the first Saudi State was established in 1745. A heritage hotel is being planned near the site. Last year, 2 million Muslim pilgrims from all over the world gathered in Makkah.

Saudi Arabia to attract tourists to ancient site

The Jeddah-based Arab News reported that the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) has launched the initiative to make Saudi Arabia the preferred destination for Muslim tourists from all around the world.

Public-private partnership

Tourism is a key sector identified by Saudi authorities with the most potential to generate jobs and boost the economy.

Saud Al-Mogbil, SCTH spokesman, said all the initiatives of the National Transformation Programme 2020 demand a PPP model. 

The King Fahd Fountain in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is the world’s tallest fountain, reaching a height of about 312 meters (1,024 feet), thus making it taller than the Eiffel Tower (including the antenna). The second-tallest is the Gateway Geyser in East St. Louis, Illinois, USA., which reaches about 192 meters (630 feet).

A public–private partnership (PPP, 3P or P3) is a cooperative arrangement between two or more public and private sectors, typically of a long-term nature.

Ornate wooden lattices used as wind breakers adorn every room in the old houses in Historic Jeddah. – Courtesy: Rima“SCTH is building a productive PPP initiative that will transform the national tourism sector and contribute significantly to Saudi Vision 2030,” Al-Mogbil told the Jeddah-based paper. 

‘Women above 25 to be granted Saudi tourism visa’

He added that the SCTH is linking up with key partners such as the ministries of interior, foreign affairs, Hajj and Umrah and the Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Vision 2030

“SCTH President Prince Sultan Bin Salman is the mastermind of this initiative,” said Al Mogbil. The Madinah area is rich in precious Islamic inscriptions engraved on rocks.

The programme is an offshoot of Saudi Vision 2030, a “transformation plan” that has identified tourism as one of the main sectors with the potential to deliver lasting economic benefits and positive social changes in a post-oil economy, said Al-Mogbil.

Under the “Destination for Muslims” drive, Umrah travelers are given the option to enrich their visit by enjoying high-quality tourism products following the completion of their religious rituals. 

Abha city, in Saudi Arabia, is known for its cooler clime, natural beauty as well as historical, social and cultural heritage. It also has unique agricultural environment and is also known for its unique rosewater. Saudis flock to the mountain city to attend its festivals.

The move is also seen as a major tourism investment booster, the official said. Under the programme, four important groups are targetted: Umrah visitors, Muslim businesspeople, state guests from other Muslim countries, and Muslim transit passengers.

“Its success, however, is closely related to several other areas of focus by the SCTH — such as exhibitions and conferences, cultural heritage and wellness tourism,” the official said.

“To cater for such a broad range of activities,” the official said, “SCTH is engaged in an ambitious development programme of infrastructure (development) and training to create a tourism environment that can deliver these tourism experiences.”

“This article was first posted on Gulfnews.Com. on 6 May,2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”

While there has been growing global interest in blockchain technology, very few actual use cases exist right now. That is only normal, as such ventures require a lot of research and development before they can be brought to market. In Saudi Arabia, a new venture is underway to disrupt the energy sector as we know it today. Blockchain technology and smart contracts are of great interest in this regard.

Although smart contracts traditionally work best with data already on the blockchain, there have been some big developments in this area. Zap, for example, allows real-world events and data to be used to trigger specific smart contract-based actions. This could open up a lot of new business opportunities, including the trading of energy in a peer-to-peer fashion.

As it turns out, there are many ways to achieve that. The energy sector has taken notice of these smart contract-related developments and has begun actively experimenting with some of the possibilities. Peer-to-peer trading of energy will not only reduce overall costs, but it will also remove a lot of administrative work from the equation. Whether it is electricity, oil, gas, or any other form of energy, the industry can benefit from decentralized technology in one way or another.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia’s first-ever blockchain event took place. Riyadh, the capital city, hosted the Decoding Blockchain conference. Disrupting the energy sector was a big topic during this event. Even national petroleum giant Aramco made it clear they are experimenting with blockchain technology for various reasons. In their opinion, the “next generation of smart contracts” will play a big role in the future of Saudi Arabia’s energy market.

As mentioned earlier, Zap is quietly making a lot of progress on blockchain tech and smart contracts. Its new energy venture, known as EnergyLedger, has the objective of ensuring that contractors are paid for their exact work, as they do it, without unnecessary transaction processing fees. Instant settlement of transactions and a reduction in human error are some of the project’s key benefits.

While it is good to see such ventures being developed, it remains up to energy giants to embrace this new option. Decentralization and peer-to-peer trading are not necessarily of great benefit to companies which have monopolies on particular aspects of the energy industry. Even so, change is coming to this industry, whether companies want it or not. Embracing the blockchain may very well become an absolute necessity in order to remain competitive.

“This article was first posted on Themark.Com. on 28 April,2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”



Saudi Arabia’s Council of Economic and Development Affairs has launched the Quality of Life Program 2020, with a total expenditure of $34.6 billion (130 billion riyals).

The Quality of Life Program is, one of the Vision Realization Programs 2030 which was approved by the Council of Ministers.

The Program comes as a continuance to the operational Programs that were launched to support the achievement of the Vision 2030, as well as to strengthen the cornerstones in the Kingdom.

The implementation plan of the Quality of Life Program 2020 reflects the vision of the government of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to prepare the required environment to improve individuals and families’ lifestyle.

In addition, to promote new options that enhance participation in cultural, entertainment, sports and other appropriate activities that contribute to the quality of life, job creation, as well as, to encourage investment opportunities, and diversifying economic activities, while enhancing the status of Saudi cities in the ranking of the best cities in the world.

The launch of the Quality of Life Program 2020 follows the efforts of Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince and Chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, to achieve the objectives of the Kingdom’s vision 2030. The Crown Prince is keen to make the Kingdom’s economy more prosperous and the Saudi society more vibrant.

Total expenditures in the sectors related to the quality of life program 2020 up to 2020 reaches to 130 billion riyals (34.6 billion dollars), of which 74.5 billion riyals (19.8 billion dollars) total direct investments in the program. 
The government capital expenditure is more than 50 billion riyals (13.3 billion riyals) until 2020, and investments available to the private sector around 23.7 billion (6.3 billion dollar) for the same period through 220 initiatives adopted by the program up to 2020.

This does not include all forms of capital expenditure in major projects Such as Al Qadiya Project, the Red Sea Project, Al-Dariyah Gate Project, Historical Jeddah Project, Royal Commission for Al-Ola and other projects, in addition to all related projects of the private sector, with total investments exceeding SR 86 billion (23 billion dollar).

The 2020 Quality of Life Program aims to achieve non-oil Gross Domestic Production growth in the related sectors by 20% per year until 2020, and the contribution of local content in the relevant sectors by 67% until 2020.

The program indicators within macroeconomic measures up to 2020 includes creating more than 346,000 jobs and generated non-oil revenues of SR 1.9 billion (0.5 billion dollar). 

Saudi cities 

The overarching goal of the Quality of Life Program 2020 is to include at least three Saudi cities in the list of the top 100 cities in the world to live in by 2030. While the overall aspiration refers to three cities in the kingdom, this Program pursues to the improvement of the lifestyle of citizens and residents throughout Saudi Arabia in general, through the development of different lifestyles, improvement of infrastructure, and the expansion of various sectors concern the wellbeing of citizens. 

Attractive investment opportunities 

Quality of Life 2020 aspires to provide economic and investment opportunities for sustainable growth and development. Creative industries have proved to be key drivers of economic growth around the world. There are many opportunities for these sectors to thrive in the Kingdom; number of funding models will be developed in order to stimulate the private sector to invest, in both capital expenditures and operating expenses.

The program encourages the private sector and foreign investors to invest in many vital markets related to improving the quality of life. The main objective of the Program is to increase the involvement of the private sector in the development of the strategy by improving participation in vital areas that require high capital expenditures, and the return on investment is initially low, encouraging private sector investment in the future.

“This article was first posted on Alarabiya.Com. on 2 May,2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”


Higher oil prices won’t change the pace of Saudi Arabia’s reforms, the country’s finance minister told CNBC Wednesday.”Higher oil prices will only help reduce the deficit and build reserves, we will continue our reform,” Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Jadaan told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Wednesday.

“I assure you that there is a lot of excitement about reform and when you see results you get more energy to do more because you can see that it’s working and helping the economy,” Al-Jadaan said. Reforms were more than just those helping with government income, he said, rather they were important for Saudi Arabia in its mission to diversify the economy and have a “sustainable income,” he said.

Reforms in Saudi Arabia are being overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that are being implemented as part of the kingdom’s “Vision 2030.” The program of reforms, ranging from broader rights for women to massive infrastructure investment, are aimed at moving the economy away from its dependence on oil and boosting employment for the predominantly young population.

Other measures have included the introduction of value-added tax (VAT) in Saudi Arabia and the gradual withdrawal of energy subsidies as a way to boost revenues and cut government spending.
“We have had a very successful year over the last year a lot has been achieved in terms of fiscal discipline, the government has been really very efficient in its spending and, overall, non-oil revenue has been as planned or even in certain parts (of the economy) better than planned,” he said.
He said that oil revenues are increasing as prices rise, which are helping the country to reduce its deficit, which the government has managed “to reduce by 40 percent in the last two years.”

Outlook for the economy ‘stable’

Al-Jadaan’s comments come as Moody’s ratings agency reaffirmed Saudi’s “A1” credit rating on Wednesday, and said the outlook for the economy was “stable.”

It stated that the country’s credit strengths included a “strong fiscal position; substantial external liquidity buffers; a large stock of proved oil reserves combined with low extraction costs; and prudent financial system regulation.”

The stable outlook, Moody’s added, reflected its view that risks to the country’s credit profile are broadly balance. “The government’s reform program, including the plans to balance the fiscal budget by 2023, could over time offer a route back to a higher rating level,” the report said.

Reforms in Saudi Arabia are being overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that are being implemented as part of the kingdom’s “Vision 2030.”

The program of reforms, ranging from broader rights for women to massive infrastructure investment, are aimed at moving the economy away from its dependence on oil and boosting employment for the predominantly young population.

Other measures have included the introduction of value-added tax (VAT) in Saudi Arabia and the gradual withdrawal of energy subsidies as a way to boost revenues and cut government spending.

Projected budget deficit

Earlier on Wednesday, Al-Jadaan said that the country had a projected budget deficit of 195 billion riyals ($52 billion) in 2018, or 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), down from 230 billion riyals last year.

Speaking at a conference in Riyadh, the minister said first-quarter fiscal results showed progress in increasing non-oil revenues, Reuters reported. Vision 2030 has a goal to increase non-oil government revenue from 163 billion Saudi Arabian riyals (SAR), or $43.4 billion, to $1 trillion SAR by 2030.

The need for economic diversification was hastened by the dramatic fall in oil prices that started in June 2014 amid a global glut in oil supply and lackluster demand, an event that has hit the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, hard. As such, the Saudi economy is likely to have seen its first contraction in 2017 for the first time since 2009.

Asked whether higher oil prices could affect the strategy of Vision 2030, Al-Jadaan said

“Oil prices are a market dynamic. I don’t think it’s up to oil producers to set the price otherwise we would not have seen prices below $30 a few years ago. It’s a market dynamic (based on) supply and demand and we think demand is going to continue,” he said.

“Oil is going to be here for an extended period of time and we think a balanced oil price is right for producers and consumers,” he said.

“This article was first posted on Cnbc.Com. on 2 May,2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”

For more than 80 years, Baker Hughes, a General Electric Co. (BHGE), has played a key role in the Kingdom’s oil and gas supply chain ecosystem. It celebrated a new milestone in Saudi Arabia when its drill bit manufacturing plant in Dhahran produced more than 10,000 drill bits since the plant first started production in 2011. This is one main manufacturing plant that not only covers local needs, but also the only plant in the Kingdom to export to the world.

While about 36 percent of the polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) drill bits are supplied to Saudi Aramco, the other 64 percent are exported to 41 countries including the US, China, India, Russia, Argentina, the UK, Kenya, Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia.

The plant is also considered the first ever to manufacture drill bits locally and from scratch in the Middle East.

The facility has reached 73 percent Saudization, which highlights BHGE’s emphasis on sponsoring Saudi talent and creating high-quality jobs for nationals. 

“I joined the facility as an engineer in this plant and today I am the manager of it,” Mohammed Almutlaq, the facility manager, told Arab News. All of these efforts underline BHGE’s commitment to strengthening localized manufacturing and boosting exports in alignment with Saudi Vision 2030. When it comes to Saudi female presence in the oilfield within the company, Almutlaq said: “Last year, around 40 Saudi female professionals were hired, including 10 engineers,” he added. 

“We are planning to double the number next year as there will be an expansion in the plant where a big number of Saudi females will join us as engineers and quality-control inspectors. We do not want to limit ladies to administrative and office roles like human resources, accounting or finance. On the contrary, we aim to open up opportunities for Saudi professional ladies.”

On the same note, Rayed Eskandrani, who served as the human resources talent manager and is now sales and marketing manager, said: “Along with the Dharhan facility, we have the research and technology center in KFUPM Dhahran Techno-Valley which integrates the competencies of engineers and scientists from the Saudi oil and gas industry.

“There are Saudi female professionals working in labs; creating and inventing new products that serve our customers in the most efficient way. We recruit specialized PhD holders who conduct research and make inventions that carry their names.” 

He added: “Even though the percentage of females to males in our company is almost 5 percent and it keeps gradually increasing, we are proud to have the first Saudi female drilling engineer who joined us two years ago to be part of the BHGE family. Saudi females have proved how competent they are, no matter what field they choose. 

“For instance, our female drilling engineers, who were well trained, went to different oilfields in different locations, including Oman, Norway and the US. The ones who went to the US on assignments have been given offers to stay with the company’s US team owing to their proficiency and competence. These professional ladies have wowed whoever they work next to.”

“This article was first posted on ArabNews.Com. on 30 April,2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”


After a 2017 equities run in which almost every stock market across the globe went up, this year the average performance across 137 single-country stock ETFs is flat. But two global stock markets have continued to boom unlike the rest of the pack: Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The iShares MSCI Saudi Arabia ETF (KSA) is up close to 18 percent, surpassed only by the VanEck Vectors Egypt Index ETF (EGPT), up 22 percent, according to data from through April 27. It would be easy to conclude amid a big rally in crude that it’s oil. Yet it’s not only oil that has led to booms in these two Mideast stock markets.

Egypt is an oil producer, but it is a net importer — not exporter — of hydrocarbons. For Saudi Arabia the stock market strength comes amid the consolidation of power under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known colloquially as MBS.


In KSA, the Saudi stock ETF, financials (39 percent) and materials (31 percent) are the two largest sector weighting. Energy represents less than 1 percent of the portfolio.

“The performance of bank shares shows that MBS is a factor,” said Jean-François Seznec, a member of the Middle East Institute and expert in international banking. Seznec spent years working in banking in the Middle East and still travels to Saudi Arabia regularly. “There is an enormous amount of hope that reforms will truly bring new industries, which will create jobs and service industries,” he said.

The $20 billion joint venture between Saudi Aramco and Dow Chemical is an example of a deal that will support the broader Saudi Arabian economy, Seznec said. “I visited it three months ago, and it is amazing what’s being done there. … I think that creates a lot of positives, and banks are doing well because investors know all these new companies will be borrowing money.”

Foreign investors want stability and reforms

MBS has been on a world tour promoting business opportunities in the kingdom, from technology to entertainment, even including professional wrestling. Saudi Arabia has implemented a series of market reforms to encourage foreign investment and entrepreneurship.

“Foreign investors like political stability and reforms,” said Neena Mishradirector of ETF Research at Zacks Investment Research.

Foreign direct investment is less than 1 percent of Saudi Arabian GDP, which is very low compared to most emerging economies, where FDI runs between 2 percent to 3 percent of GDP, according to the Institute of International Finance. Foreign investment in Saudi Arabia declined after Arab Spring and stayed low because of the lack of structural reforms.

“There was a question as to whether he could consolidate power, and some of the Saudi nationals thought maybe there would be strong opposition,” said Garbis Iradian, chief economist for the Middle East/North African region at the Institute of International Finance. “But he showed that he was able to consolidate power.”

Now major stock index providers, FTSE and MSCI, have plans to add Saudi stocks to emerging market benchmarks, moves that are a response to Saudi reforms. In early April, FTSE declared that Saudi Arabia will be classified as a secondary emerging market effective March 2019. As a result, the kingdom will have a 2.7 percent weighting in its main emerging stock benchmarks. If the 5 percent sale of Aramco shares happens, then the projected weight for the kingdom would increase to 4.5 percent. MSCI may also make a decision to include Saudi stocks in its emerging market indexes by June of this year.

“Ongoing economic reforms were among the main reasons behind this [FTSE] upgrade,” said Neena Mishradirector of ETF Research at Zacks Investment Research. “Foreign investors like political stability and reforms.”

Any time a country’s stocks — or even an individual company stock — is being added to a major global index, it means that investors whose funds track the index will have to buy the stocks, and that provides underlying support. A report this month from the Institute of International Finance stated that it expects a sharp increase in capital inflows to Saudi Arabia in 2019 based at least partially on the index moves.

The IIF stated that there is “further upside for Saudi stocks for the rest of this year” based on potential MSCI inclusion by June and rising oil prices. That point is debatable, as some emerging markets in which stocks were buoyed by planned index moves actually reversed sharply once the country’s stock market was officially added to the benchmarks.

Oil’s ripple effect in the Saudi economy

IIF’s Iradian said several factors have helped Saudi stocks boom. For years, the stocks had underperformed, creating the room for equities upside, and there has historically been a correlation between Brent oil prices and Saudi equities. “You have an economy where 85 percent of export is some form of oil and the rest, even the non-oil, is petroleum products,” Iradian said. He said the higher oil revenue helps the private sector and leads to greater economic confidence because it implies a higher level of government spending.

After years of austerity due to the oil price crash and increasing concerns that the Saudis cannot continue to fund their heavily subsidized economy, the rally in crude has flipped the budget equation. “The budget this year is expansionary and that boosts the economy,” Iradian said.

The IIF estimates non-hydrocarbon real GDP growth at 2.7 percent in 2018 and 2019, compared to 1 percent last year, mainly driven by fiscal stimulus.

Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said higher oil prices lessen all the worries from 2015 and 2016 about the Saudi government’s ability to maintain its commitments, but the consolidation of power in the hands of the Crown Prince also is significant for the market and investors as his reform program is widely regarded as critical for Saudi Arabia’s future prosperity.

In January, Saudi regulators changed rules for qualified foreign institutions to allow them to own up to 49 percent of listed securities as the kingdom opens up its stock market and plans a 5 percent sale of $2 trillion oil giant Aramco in 2019.

IIF noted in a recent report that plans to privatize several state-owned enterprises beyond the Aramco deal, a doubling in the size of the domestic stock market and the trading of local currency government bonds on the Saudi exchange, which began this month, all deepen the kingdom’s capital markets. In February a bankruptcy law was enacted to make the Saudi market more attractive to entrepreneurs and investors.

“The bankruptcy law is a very important one,” Seznec said. “It was one of the main things stopping foreign ownership in Saudi Arabia.” The international banker said all of these activities of the kingdom are for real and will push earnings positively, but it would be unrealistic to not think the market has reacted significantly to the crude oil rally. “It’s unrealistic to think otherwise, but in the medium term to long term, this is sustainable.”

Even the Aramco deal is not only about generating hundreds of billions for state coffers, Seznec said, but to create a culture of transparency with a state-owned company. “If you do it with the biggest state company, that will emphasize that transparency is important for everyone,” he said.

On Sunday, Aramco announced it was adding a woman to its board of directors for the first time, Lynn Laverty Elsenhans, the former chairwoman, president and CEO of Sunoco.


“This article was first posted on Cnbc.Com. on 30 April,2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”



Riyadh – Saudi health care sector is witnessing major transformations in line with Vision 2030 which focuses on enhancing the quality of preventive and therapeutic health care services, Cathy Easter, president and CEO of Houston Methodist Global Health Care Services, has said.

This was demonstrated during the inauguration of Houston Methodist Hospital’s new office in Riyadh, which will cater to the hospital’s Saudi-based partners and global patients.

Vision 2030 addresses the Kingdom’s health care sector challenges, and will work on promoting preventive care, reducing infectious diseases and encouraging citizens to make better use of primary care. With an estimated 2 million increase in the Saudi population by 2020, doctors will be provided training to further improve treatment for chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancers that threaten the nation’s health. Houston Methodist aims to improve access to medical services and reduce waiting times for appointments with specialists and consultants through various partnerships with key health care institutions.

“With a relationship spanning more than three decades, the health care sector in the Kingdom has witnessed major improvements in human capacity building and in the sharing of best practices in patient care, education and transformational leadership. Houston Methodist has been a long-standing partner in the Kingdom and with healthcare being one of the main focus areas of Saudi Vision 2030, our commitment to the Kingdom’s healthcare sector remains unchanged; we have no doubt that through our unified vision, shared experiences and efforts, we will further contribute to its growth,” Ms. Easter said,

She said that the office will serve as a focal point for Houston Methodist’s global efforts with the Ministry of Health as well as public and private health care institutions. The new office will serve to assist Saudi patients with their clinical and non-clinical needs in addition to facilitating exchanges between official and private healthcare organizations, physicians, nurses and patients.

The office’s inauguration took place following the launch of the First National Sepsis Reduction Campaign, headed by the Saudi Patient Safety Center, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Houston Methodist Hospital. The ‘Saving Lives, Saving Costs’ campaign aims to raise awareness and knowledge of patient safety and replicate the successes and lessons learned from other health institutions in the Kingdom.

“This article was first posted on Saudigazette.Com. on 3 May,2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”

Lubna Olayan remembers the date. It was April 15, 1983, when she and her father sat down to dinner in Riyadh. Olayan and her American husband, John Xefos, had just returned to her native Saudi Arabia after nine years in the United States.

“Over dinner he says ‘Lubna, what are you going to be doing here?’ ” Olayan recalls her father saying. Olayan had worked as a J.P. Morgan analyst in New York, and half-heartedly thought she’d see if there was work at a bank in Saudi Arabia. But her father had something in mind.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have to do that. My executive assistant just submitted his resignation. Why don’t you start tomorrow morning?’ “

Thirty-five years later, Olayan is the powerful CEO of Olayan Financing Company, the Middle East arm of the global private investment company The Olayan Group. Olayan Financing works on everything from medical supplies to office equipment to fast food.

The 62-year-old Olayan rarely gives interviews. The day in April she met NPR in her bright, cluttered office in Riyadh, she was wearing a cream-colored sweater and a stylish necklace. Her hair fell to her shoulders. It would be hard to tell you were in Saudi Arabia, where women routinely wear an abaya, the floor-length covering, and head scarf.

Olayan is a regular speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and has been considered one of the most influential people in business by Forbes, Fortune and Time magazine. She has shattered stereotypes of Saudi women who are widely viewed by the outside world as cloistered and subjugated. She’s seen as a pioneer in a country where women have had few liberties and there’s segregation between the sexes.

“Even my most chauvinist of Saudi friends and clients have great admiration for the way that she manages her companies,” executive Bernd van Linder told Fortune in 2015, when he was CEO of the then-named Saudi Hollandi Bank. “She is respected as a person rather than as the first Saudi woman to do this or that.”

Olayan says for her first 18 years at Olayan Financing Company she was the only woman who worked there.

One of the hardest things about it? “There was no ladies’ room,” she says. “I would travel to go visit many of our factories … I mean absolutely no woman in any of the factories, no women in the boardroom, so there is no need for the facilities,” she says.

Olayan says she felt pressure to prove she wasn’t given the job just because she was the boss’ daughter.

Her father, Suliman Olayan, started the company as a trucking business back in 1947. During a visit to the U.S. in the 1960s, Lubna Olayan says, her father “fell in love” with New York and its stock exchange.

He instilled hard work in his four children, teaching them you have to earn your money, as well as people’s respect, she says. Above all else, he wanted Olayan, her two sisters and one brother to get a university education. (Lubna Olayan went to Cornell and got her MBA at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.)

Olayan spent years working with her father. And as she rose to the top, she says, she urged him to hire more women in the company.

There were a few other women in business at the time, usually working in small operations run out of their homes. She couldn’t understand why men and women were able to work together in Saudi hospitals, but not in offices, factories or elsewhere.

“How is our society going to progress if 50 percent of the population is not allowed to contribute?” she says.

Olayan wanted to change that. She slowly started reaching out to male colleagues and senior members of government for support. She says they encouraged her because they had wives and daughters who wanted to work. But they also warned her to respect the kingdom’s rigid customs, and avoid confrontation.

“So, you negotiate, you deal, you do this, you take and give,” she says. For her, the ultimate goal was to have women in the workplace.

Finally in 2001, Olayan took a stand and hired her first female colleague, Hana alSyead, whose mission was to increase the number of women employees at the Olayan Financing Company. Soon 40 females were hired to work in one of the factories making disposable medical gowns.

From there, they started building the ranks of women in the offices — some segregated, some mixed. It was all kept under the radar to avoid attracting attention and creating problems. “It was key not to speak about it,” she says.

Now things are slowly changing.”It’s completely different now,” she says. “The change from when we started to where we are now is tremendous.”

“When we started hiring women … you needed the male guardian’s approval for the woman to work,” she says. Now, she says, it’s easier for women to get jobs in Saudi Arabia.

Still, there are only about 500 women at Olayan Financial Company, a small fraction of its 16,000 employees across Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Olayan acknowledges she has a lot to do to include more women, especially in senior positions. She’d like to see women grow to 30 percent of the company’s Saudi personnel.

Lately, Olayan has gotten a boost in her efforts: The government is also encouraging women to enter the workforce, as part of a reform plan to diversify the economy and create jobs. That even includes allowing women to drive, starting in June, to make it easier to get to work.

Driving a car is something even Olayan has not been allowed to do in Saudi Arabia, despite her power and prestige.

“This article was first posted on on 1 May,2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”


Saudi Arabia is getting friendly with U.S.-based blockchain-focused startups.

The Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology recently partnered with ConsenSys, a Brooklyn-based production studio focused on building enterprise software products powered by Ethereum. The ministry co-hosted a “blockchain bootcamp” with ConsenSys as part of its efforts to support technological development.

The three-day bootcamp provided in-depth training on how to create a development environment and build decentralized applications. You might have noticed that this isn’t the first time Saudi Arabia has gotten cozy with a blockchain startup. It recently also partnered with Ripple, the San Francisco-based fintech startup known for the XRP coin.

The kingdom’s defacto central bank teamed up with Ripple to pilot instant cross-border payments between banks in the region using the blockchain. Ripple said this would allow for faster, cheaper, and more transparent transactions.

The Saudi central bank is also working with the United Arab Emirates central bank to issue a digital currency that would be accepted in cross-border transactions between the two countries. As the Saudi government continues to experiment with digital currencies, it signifies a transfer of focus from oil to emerging technologies, such as blockchain and digital tokens.

Ahmed Al-Thenayyan, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister for the technology industry and digital capacities, said that AI, Internet of Things, and the blockchain “serve as major contributor[s] to the Industry 4.0 and the development of GDP.”

“This article was first posted on Fortune.Com. on 7 May,2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”


Dubai: A nationwide hyperloop transport network could reduce traveling times in Saudi Arabia from hours to a matter of minutes under plans by Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin entrepreneur. 

Speaking exclusively to Arab News on the sidelines of an event in Dubai to launch a new cargo logistics system in partnership with UAE ports group DP World, Branson said he had discussed the proposed Saudi hyperloop with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the US and now was in advanced talks with the Saudi government.

A hyperloop project for the Kingdom could be announced later this year, he said.

“We are talking about linking Saudi cities across the country. It is a vision that allows people to be able to travel quickly, securely and comfortably with completely clean technology,” Branson said.

The ultra-fast network could cut travel time between Riyadh and Jeddah — currently about 10 hours by car — to less than an hour, he estimated.

The hyperloop system would probably be launched on the Red Sea coast, possibly to connect the Red Sea Resort, a partnership between Branson and the Saudi government, with the rest of the region. It could also potentially link Neom, the $500 billion high-tech city in the northwest of the Kingdom, and be extended to Riyadh and the rest of the country.

“It will cost half the price of conventional high-speed rail networks, and can carry cargo as well as passengers. The crown prince visited the Virgin Hyperloop site in America and I think he liked what he saw. I think the project in Saudi Arabia will happen pretty quickly,” Branson said.

After the US meeting, the crown prince said: “Hyperloop is the catalyst to enable all fourth-generation technologies to flourish in the Kingdom while creating a vibrant society and thriving economy through visionary cities and high-tech clusters.”

Branson was speaking at an event in Dubai to mark the launch of DP World Cargospeed, a transport system based on hyperloop technology that will allow much faster delivery times in the global logistics business, and has the potential to revolutionize global trade in the same way that containerization did 50 years ago.

“Goods can be delivered anywhere in the world in 14 hours, cargo from Dubai to Saudi Arabia within less than an hour,” said Sultan bin Suleyam, chairman of DP World.

“The technology has been developed to connect cargo delivery around the world at the speed of air travel but the cost of land transportation,” he said.

The system uses comparatively small pallets that can be loaded on to special pods for movement between logistics centers. Cargo and passengers can be transported together and separated at the point of arrival. 

A pilot test of the system will take place on a 10-kilometer stretch of track near Mumbai within a few weeks, Branson said. “I think Saudi will begin not too long after that,” he said.

Rob Lloyd, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, held out the prospect of a GCC-wide, high-speed transport system. “We think it’s feasible to think about a hyperloop network that will connect Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Jeddah for cargo and passengers.”

Virgin completed a feasibility study with the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority this year to explore the viability of a UAE-wide hyperloop system.

“We are aligned with the RTA to create a feasible and well-thought-out system that will create the maximum benefit for passengers and cargo,” Virgin Hyperloop One said in a statement.

Several other hyperloop projects have been mooted in the UAE, but so far none has been officially approved.

The RTA recently denied rumors that it had approved a link between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, citing the need for careful planning and research to “reduce the potential risks and maximize the potential of the project.”

The authority also denied approval for a link between Dubai International Airport and the new Maktoum airport that would reduce a 30-minute road trip to a six-minute journey.

“This article was first posted on ArabNews.Com. on 29 APRIL, 2018: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum.”