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18 Iconic Saudi Women Helping Shape the Future of the Kingdom

In honor of Saudi National Day, we round up 18 iconic women who are helping shape the future of the Kingdom with their work and contributions.

HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud
The Kingdom’s ambassador to the US

Princess Reema

Photographed by her daughter, Princess Sarah bint Faisal Al Saud

Princess Reema continues to build on her long list of achievements. Last year, she was appointed as Saudi Arabia‘s first female ambassador to the United States. Weeks later, the royal was tapped to head the Gulf country’s newly-established Special Olympics Federation. For decades, Her Royal Highness has been shattering glass ceilings and pushing boundaries for Saudi women across the Kingdom. In recognition of these efforts, in 2016, she was appointed Vice President for Women’s Affairs of the General Sports Authority, just days before the 2016 Olympics. Later, in July 2020, she became the first Saudi woman to be appointed to the International Olympics Committee. In her open letter for Vogue Arabia’s Saudi issue, HRH Princess Reema states, “Never has there been a more promising, more optimistic time to be a young woman in Saudi Arabia than right now. Barriers are being replaced by opportunity. What we are now seeing in the Kingdom is a historic wakeup call – a long-overdue realization that our economy cannot prosper or thrive if half our population is on the sidelines, unable to fully participate and contribute. Change is now happening all around us and our collective journey will continue until Saudi women are so genuinely accepted in every job and sector that we never again have to call any Arab woman “the first.” What will the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia look like 30 or 50 years from now? That I don’t know. But what I do know, is that whatever the future holds for the Kingdom, young Saudi women will be at the front of the line, integral to the process of shaping it.”

Lojain Omran
TV host and social media personality

Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic

Described as “one of the most influential media personalities in the Middle East,” the Saudi Arabian television presenter made it to number 55 in Forbes’s 2017 list of 100 Arabic celebrities. During her long career in media, she has hosted well-known TV programs on different channels. With years of experience in the world of new media, Omran has contributed extensively in awareness and humanitarian areas. In 2016, she was appointed Ambassador of the Mohammed bin Rashid Award for Tolerance and was awarded the Arab Women’s Award 2018 by the Arab Women’s Foundation in London. Being one of the most influential personalities on Instagram and Snapchat, she shares her work and daily experiences, in addition to inspiring quotes and words that open the door for interactive, educative and cultural discussions with her followers.

Sofana Dahlan
Lawyer and social entrepreneur

Photographed by Lina Mo

Founder of the first all-women law firm in Saudi Arabia, Sofana Dahlan is an accomplished lawyer specializing in the commercial, cultural, and creative sectors, and a legal consultant in protecting human rights and dispute settlements. “Since my childhood, I have learned how to adapt and achieve a balance between the strict general social approach and the enlightened open-mindedness my family embraces,” she says. When she graduated in 2000, women were not allowed to practice law, and her certificate was not equated. Instead, she went on to get a degree in Islamic Studies for her certificate to be equated. She then obtained an MBA degree in business administration and an executive diploma in Global Leadership and Public Policy. Thirteen years after her graduation, she was finally authorized for law practicing. Dahlan worked towards developing and fostering creative sectors in the Kingdom. She led flourishing initiatives, like Tashkeil which aims at sponsoring, motivating, and supporting creative entrepreneurs; Kayan Spaces, a creative coworking space; and The Saudi National Creative Initiative (SNCI), which transfers knowledge from global creatives to local ones. She feels proudest of Rikaz Almadinah, a leading cultural initiative combining the genuine past with modernity of the present and future aspirations.

Arwa Al Banawi
Fashion designer

Photographed by Stavros Antypas

Fusing high-end fashion with streetwear, Arwa Al Banawi is a contemporary brand that seeks to empower professional and fashion-forward women and continues to inspire with an eclectic and upbeat aesthetic. “As a young girl, I wasn’t very confident. I remember wearing those clothes and feeling like I could run the world.” That’s how she fell in love with fashion. “I started to dive into it from my room in Jeddah. I remember reading magazines and feeling a sense of liberation because it made me understand that there’s a big world out there. All I wanted to do was find my calling…” With no fashion design school in Jeddah, Al Banawi studied books and fabrics, learning to drape with her mother’s prayer scarves. “They were long and colorful, and I would use myself as the mannequin,” she says. When the London College of Fashion arrived in Dubai, she could start her design journey by enrolling in fashion courses. This led to her ultimately launching her eponymous brand in 2015. Al Banawi stands for empowering women and communicating the Arab culture through her brand.

Lulwah Al Homoud
Artist

Photographed by Hayat Osamah

Riyadh-born, Saudi artist Lulwah Al Homoud studied sociology at King Saud University, then left for the UK, where she researched Arab calligraphy and Islamic geometry as part of her MA from Central Saint Martins. She was the first Saudi to graduate from the celebrated college of art and design. Characterized by intricately placed Arabic letters in delicate mesmerizing patterns, her work explores calligraphy and Islamic philosophy. “I always wanted to do something different,” she says. “I didn’t want to follow a school.” Al Homoud trained with the renowned Pakistani calligrapher Rasheed Butt and drew inspiration from Egyptian calligrapher Ahmed Moustafa. Her process centers heavily on research. Using calligraphy, she painstakingly builds up intricate patterns based on a sacred sense of geometry. It has found an international audience, featuring in the collections of the British Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia in the Netherlands. She also heads her Lulwah Al Homoud Art Foundation, which publishes books, organizes exhibitions, and promotes cross-cultural research. One of her works hangs in the office of HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, and she even crops up in the national curriculum. “My dream is to see my country at the forefront of education, because it has all the components to get there,” she says.

Mishaal Ashemimry
Aerospace engineer

Photographed by Lina Mo

Mishaal Ashemimry is an aerospace engineer, and the CEO of her own company, Mishaal Aerospace, and the first Saudi woman to join NASA. During her master’s studies, Ashemimry did the research for NASA and wanted to be part of the effort to design a nuclear missile with the goal of getting humans to Mars. On the launching of her own company, Mishaal Aerospace, she says, “It was one of the greatest experiences for me to learn the breadth and depth of my abilities, even at a very young age.” The company manufactures rockets to send small satellites into low Earth orbit. She adds, “My most important goals are to be an astronaut, to reach the moon than Mars.” In order to achieve her dream, she had to study aeronautical engineering, have a pilot’s license and be a diver, and she acquired all these skills, in addition to being a professor at Miami University and an advisor to an American company specialized in defense and space.

HRH Princess Lamia Bint Majed Saud AlSaud
Secretary-General of AlWaleed Philanthropies

Photographed by Taha Baageel

Graduated from Misr International University in Cairo in 2001, Princess Lamia started two years later the publishing company Sada Al Arab, producing three magazines from Cairo, Beirut, and Dubai. When relatives suggested that she not use her own name in order to be taken more seriously, she refused. She rarely shied away from controversial topics, shedding light on the realities women in the Middle East often contend with. In 2010, she published the novel Children and Blood, which delves into the subject of honor killings. Since 2016, she has served as the Secretary General of AlWaleed Philanthropies, a global foundation established 40 years ago by HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud. She has also earned numerous international awards for her humanitarian work. Through her journalism, philanthropic work, and advocacy of women’s empowerment, she not only helped change the narrative but also came to embody a new definition of what it means to be a female Saudi royal. Princess Lamia has been successful as a changemaker. “I think God gives everyone a gift and I believe mine is that people listen to me and I can help them,” she says. “I’m not the typical HRH,” she says, downplaying her legacy. “This title was my grandfather’s [King Saud bin Abdulaziz AlSaud] and we inherited it. But I want to do something for me. What impact can I make in this world?”

Mashael bint Mansour Binsultan
Co-founder of Equestrian Union

Photographed by Simsim

Born and raised in Riyadh, Mashael bint Mansour Binsultan graduated from King Saud University with a degree in medical science. She is a show jumper, and she has been riding for the past 20 years. Equestrian Union is an initiative that she co-started as Saudi female riders back in 2015. The first show was in October 2015. It was done at a very high standard on an international-sized grass arena surrounded by a stunning mountainous landscape in a private farm in Riyadh city. All rules and regulations of the international FEI standards were followed.

The main purpose of establishing the Equestrian Union was to give female riders an equal chance to compete with male riders. This is considering the fact that showjumping is one of the few sports in which males and females compete head-to-head. Fortunately, last season (2019- 2020) the Equestrian Federation opened up the equestrian sports to all female participants. The aim of the Equestrian Union is to continue promoting not only showjumping specifically, but also social family-oriented sporting events and recreational activities, which is one of the main strategic goals of the 2030 Saudi vision.  There were no challenges in setting up the Equestrian Union. Our families and friends were extremely supportive since the beginning. “I think everyone can see the reform Saudi is going through with the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz and the ambitious vision of HRH the Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman. The vision touches on all aspects of life across all social and economic dimensions, with a strong focus on enhancing the quality of life with a specific focus on human well-being through the promotion of the sports sector. Wishing all the best to our Kingdom and hoping we can be a part of this optimistic vision,” says Binsultan.

Safeya Binzagr
Pioneering artist

Photo: Supplied

Jeddah born, Safeya Binzagr is an artist that changed the course of art history in Saudi Arabia and shape generations of artists to come. Founder of Saudi Arabia’s fine art movement, the place of birth of the now legendary Binzagr is forever an extension of her spirit. She believes that there is no separation between place and artist but a bond that only beckoned brighter with time. “My home country is my favorite place on earth,” she states simply. Binzagr first made history in 1968. Along with her friend Mounirah Mosly, she was one of two female artists to ever hold an art exhibition in Saudi Arabia. “I thought, I will do the exhibition; they will receive it or they will object. If they do, I will try again,” she remembers from her home in Jeddah.

Binzagr continued making history by becoming the first internationally exhibited Saudi artist with shows in Paris, London, and Geneva, as well as attaining the respect and recognition of museums globally with her art found in the permanent collections and exhibitions held at the British Muse-um, and various others across the globe. She was also recognized by the UN Environment Program for her works contributing to the protection of national heritage, the GCC in the field of culture during the meeting of the Gulf ministers of culture in 2013, as well as bestowed with first-class honors in 2017 in the order of King Abdul Aziz from King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, in appreciation of her contribution to Saudi culture, which the artist hails as her proudest moment. “I loved art but I never thought that I would become what I am now,” she marvels of her journey. In 1973, Binzagr decided to stop selling her art, which had resulted in an unparalleled contribution of more than 450 artworks, over 35 exhibitions, and her standalone museum. She has dedicated her long life to breaking barriers and capturing the essence of traditional Saudi life, its people, its colorful traditions, and deep heritage. “I’m proud of our ambitious artists; we have a true art movement in Sau-di,” she says. “I thank God that I’m still watching the harvest of pioneers who started the art movement in the Kingdom. And in this short period, we’ve reached international ground. I hope that as an artist, I did what was expected of me for my society.”

HRH Princess Noura AlFaisal
Designer and founder of Nuun Jewels

Photographed by Djinane Al Suwayeh

HRH Princess Noura AlFaisal has been working in the jewelry design field for more than 20 years. In 2014, she launched her own brand, Nuun Jewels. “I always had an affinity for jewelry, even as a young child, as well as a love of art and design in all their forms,” she says. “It was a very natural evolution and not at all planned.” The royal’s desire to foster local design talent in Saudi Arabia has extended to creating the mentorship program Sougha. Her ethos is resolutely sustainable. She believes that jewelry should rise above local trends and fashion and be timeless. “My hope is that my pieces become family heirlooms,” she says. She comes from a long line of strong women on both sides of her family, who have shown her what to aspire to in both her personal and work life. While learning to build a brand and a sustainable business has at times been di cult, where she finds herself most comfortable is being creative and designing. “I am blessed in that I love what I do. That is more than enough.”

HRH Princess Basma bint Majid bin Abdul-Aziz AlSaud
President of Art of Heritage

Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic

President of Riyadh-based Art of Heritage HRH Princess Basma bint Majid bin Abdul-Aziz AlSaud has worked with the organization since her presidency in 2009. One of the key projects undertaken with her leadership is the retelling of the story of Saudi traditional dress, whilst empowering female artisans. “The organization’s ethos is to uphold and grow Saudi culture via the training of Saudi women artisans explains HRH Princess Basma. Art of Heritage is affiliated with the Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, the country’s oldest charity, which was founded in 1963 by the late Queen Effat Al Thunayan, the most prominent wife of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. The organization also manages Yadawy and employs around 20 women with special needs to produce a line of pottery. “We really invest in the Yadawy women,” says Princess Basma with a measure of pride. “They don’t have to stay at home because they have disabilities. They go to work like any other woman and they take a salary.”

A date to remember is the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Art of Heritage was honored to dress the female members of the Saudi delegation. They marched into the stadium in traditional thobes, with each uniform incorporating embroidery from one of the five regions of the country – coupled with sneakers. She believes, “It says a lot that Saudi women have reached the Olympics, and the clothing they were wearing was designed and created by women in their home country, celebrating their heritage. It’s a big message.”

Manal Al Dowayan
Contemporary artist

Photographed by Camille Zakharia

Dhahran born, Manal Al Dowayan holds a Master’s Degree in Systems Analysis and Design and a MA in Contemporary Art Practice in Public Spheres from the Royal College of Art, London. Currently living and working between London, Dhahran and Dubai, the artist journey began almost 15 years ago, with black-and-white experiments in a 1970s Aramco darkroom abandoned by oil explorers. This was in Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, a place, at the time, which was void of galleries or museums. “That darkroom, where I would spend my weekends, was my savior when I got back from my studies,” she recalls. The art Al Dowayan makes maps a cultural geography that engages with notions of visibility. Her immersive work for last year’s Desert X in Al Ula, Now You See Me, Now You Don’t, saw participants literally merge into the landscape through her installation of trampolines. “The only physicality in that work becomes the body, which also disappears,” she says. Al Dowayan expounds that the biggest question of her practice is the politics of invisibility. “Who is invisible and why? This inquiry began from a personal perspective as a woman in public space. You can see it in Landscapes of the Mind, which questions whether we belong to landscapes, or they belong to us,” she says.  Situating herself between the communal and the global, she remarks on artistic engagement in identifying and galvanizing her country’s evolution, but also positions herself as a woman who straddles the spectrum of visibility and intersectionality. “Our next challenge in Saudi Arabia is an environmental consciousness,” she states. “Ruins of ancient civilizations show us that we belong to a longer narrative. We never had this chance as creatives to say we aren’t just Saudi – we are part of a larger human history.”

Dr Maha Al Mozaini
Scientist

Photographed by Abdulrahman Abdullah

The scientist at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh holds a PhD from Harvard Medical School and specializes in immunosuppressed patients and infectious diseases. Dr Maha Al Mozaini is also the founder of the first HIV/Aids laboratory in Saudi Arabia and a true pioneer who has won a host of awards, including being named a Pioneer in Science at the Arab Health Global Awards in 2019. Her team has worked on various projects regarding HIV and Covid-19, including a low-cost, fast-testing system. Like many women in the region, Dr Al Mozaini has overcome a variety of challenges in the pursuit of her vocation. “There are several factors that might face women in a STEM career, such as biases, social norms and expectations, and that influence their opportunity,” she says. There are challenges ahead, too, but Dr Al Mozaini is optimistic. “We each need to do what we can to quicken the pace and move forward. We must strive to do more than provide the resources women need to succeed; we must create an environment that empowers them to use those resources – without apprehension and fear.”

Sawsan Albahiti
Soprano

Photographed by Mokhtar Chahine

Sawsan Albahiti is Saudi Arabia’s first professional Saudi opera singer. In her second year of pursuing a degree at the American University of Sharjah, Albahiti chose the choir singing course as an elective because she liked music. Moments after Albahiti sang “Happy Birthday” at the audition, the teacher introduced new words into her vocabulary that left her “shocked to the core:” soloist, opera, soprano. “Don’t believe that there’s anything impossible. There is a way sooner or later,” she says. Upon returning to Saudi Arabia following her studies, Albahiti had few opportunities to perform, so she focused on her career in marketing. She relied on her passion for opera and music to keep the dream alive and maintained her vocal training. Her perseverance paid off. “I was above the moon and stars,” she says, when Vision 2030 became a reality – part of which is an ambitious plan placing cultural and artistic engagements at the center of the Kingdom’s vision to progress inter-community and cross-cultural exchange. It enabled Albahiti to finally share her gift and perform in her country. She honors her Saudi identity as integral to her journey as an artist, including as a collaborator with the global cultural movement Opera for Peace. Though initially hesitant to embrace a career as an opera singer, she is encouraged by the outpouring of support from her peers and mentors, including vocal coaches from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Belgium, and Strasbourg Opera House. Already a trained vocal coach, she is now an advisor to the Music Commission at the Ministry of Culture, with goals to cultivate the next generation of performing artists. “I’m so happy that this is happening, and that I’m part of the change and plan,” she says.

Suad Al-Husseini Juffali, Maha Juffali-Ghandour, and Dania Ghandour Alyan
The three generations behind Help Center

Photographed by Lina Mo

The Help Center is a safe space for people with intellectual disabilities as it develops the skills of the disabled, preparing them for integration into society, providing full support to their families, and raising awareness of their rights. Suad Al-Husseini Juffali, co-founder and member of the Board of Trustees at the Help Center and other charities and institutions, plays a leading humanitarian role in educating the community on charitable work. In doing so, she focuses on health, education, maternal and childcare, poor families, and literacy. She conveyed this passion to her daughter and granddaughter. “I believe philanthropy is not an innate trait, but rather an acquired one that is born by instilling good values in children from an early age and living with them,” says Suad. Maha Juffali-Ghandour, the Help Center’s director and delegated member of the Board of Trustees, works with some distinguished councils in the educational, medical, and social sectors, locally and internationally. She says, “Since I was young, the importance of philanthropy was instilled in me through accompanying my mother to charitable activities. Then, I volunteered to work with two children with intellectual disabilities.” The volunteer career of Dania Ghandour Alyan prompted her to study psychology, specialize in intellectual disabilities and special social education. Then, she worked directly, as a member of the Board of Trustees, director of therapeutic departments, and a special educa-tion consultant. She prepared new plans to bridge the gap in the entertainment field at the Center and developed technical and sports skills. “The Center’s success was achieved through the work of the late Ahmed Juffali’s family and their belief in the importance of spreading the message of the Help Center, supporting the staff, parents, and volunteers,” says Suad. The Center has developed enough to provide service to more than 5,500 families, from newborns to the elderly.

Aseel Al Hamad
Interior design engineer

Photo: Supplied

Saudi interior design engineer and motorsport enthusiast Aseel Al Hamad is helping shape her country’s spaces for the future. As a Saudi female entrepreneur – who was honored by the General Investment Authority as an inspirational female helping transform the image of the Kingdom – she considers it her duty “to support, encourage, and inspire Saudi women, especially the young generation, to reach a bigger goal that is aligned with the Saudi Arabia Vision 2030.” In June 2018 as soon as Saudi Arabia historically lifted its ban on women driving in June 2018, Al Hamad was the first to drive a Formula One car in addition to being the first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation, demonstrating the drive and dedication needed to follow your heart. Looking back on her bold achievements, she advises women to take small steps. “I feel that if you look at the whole project from a distance and see how difficult or complicated it can be, it is overwhelming,” she considers. “Take small steps and never focus on the end result; you will notice that your dreams come true as long as you work hard and never lose hope. I also believe that life is like a race and anyone can be a champion.”

Haifaa Al-Mansour
Film director

Photo: Supplied

Saudi director, Haifaa Al-Mansour released her first feature film Wadjda in 2012, making history and becoming the first Saudi Arabian woman to direct a film. The first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and first Saudi Arabian woman to direct a film, Wadjda was also the first production from the Kingdom to be submitted for Academy Awards consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Though it didn’t snag an Oscar, the highly-acclaimed movie won numerous awards at film festivals across the globe, including the Muhr Arab Award at the Dubai International Film Festival. Following the success of Wadjda, Al Mansour went on to produce two other features, Mary Shelley (2017), a biopic about the English writer of Frankenstein, and a film adaptation of Trisha R. Thomas’ Nappily Ever After.

Mila Al Zahrani
Actor

Photographed by Djinane AlSuwayeh

Mila Al Zahrani is an actor, known for The Perfect Candidate (2019), Boxing Girls (2019) and lately The Fates Hotel (2021). “Being a Saudi woman means that I am a brave and capable woman, and able to reach my goals,” she says.

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