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Women of the Future: Meet the Sisters of Saudi’s Al Rushaid Family

Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia, June 2018

Mashael Al Rushaid, Hana Al Rushaid, and Wafa Al Rushaid. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia, June 2018

The Al Rushaid sisters offer an intriguing glimpse into the Kingdom’s destiny – one they believe will be led by women.

Originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.

They may come from extraordinary wealth, but for the Al Rushaid sisters, resting on their laurels was never an option. While theirs was undeniably a life of privilege, it was also one of love, support, and independence. The sisters all run their own businesses, working across the creative landscape – from one of Saudi Arabia’s first interior design companies founded by a woman, to a major art institute in Riyadh, a kaftan brand, and an art gallery in London.

Three of the sisters are sitting in a circle, eating candy handed out by oldest sibling Hana. “I can’t move without chocolate!” she laughs. The strong bond between them is evident. Hana, Wafa, and Mashael interject only to support or praise one another’s arguments, each one proud of the other’s achievements. Their father, Abdullah Rasheed Al Rushaid, founded the Al-Rushaid Group, which has vast national and international holdings in construction, engineering, real estate, and technology. Both parents impressed upon their children that, as a family of moderate Saudi Muslims in the world’s most gender-segregated nation, they were “different.”

“They didn’t want to label people as ‘conservative,’ so they just told us we were different because we traveled a lot and had disparate experiences to our peers,” Wafa explains. “They taught us to always stay in touch with reality, but also to dream about being better. They were a very strong support to us, which made us stronger, too.” Mashael nods in agreement. “Our mom instilled a sense of independence in us and our dad inspired us to keep aspiring to do more.”

Hana Al Rushaid. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia, June 2018

Hana Al Rushaid. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia, June 2018

Raised in Khobar, in the Eastern Province on the Persian Gulf, the six siblings – Hana, Sana, Wafa, Yasmeen, and Mashael, and brother Rasheed (affectionately referred to as “the boy” by his adoring sisters) exemplify modern Saudi Arabia and give a glimpse of what the Kingdom could be like once Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s far-reaching reforms – called Vision 2030 – come into full effect. A Kingdom where its roughly 14 million women live fully realized lives while still honoring and respecting its culture; a country where all citizens contribute to its growth. With the changes including not only cultural reforms like lifting the ban on women driving and relaxing restrictions on women’s dress and guardianship, but also economic diversification and a crackdown on corruption, the Al Rushaids provide a blueprint for what lies ahead.

The sisters are optimistic about this future under the Crown Prince; their elation peeking through gracefully restrained exclamations of hope and relief. “Ten years ago, when people asked me what the country needed to change, I said a miracle,” Wafa says. “Today, I believe miracles can happen. If anybody told me this was going to occur…” Her voice trails off, the sisters are silent with emotion. “I would never have imagined this could be. We are living history.” Hana concurs: “We’re so proud of it. The whole country is pushing for more and wanting more, we’re really eager for change. We always thought it would happen in our kids’ or our grandkids’ lifetimes. We knew change was coming but it was very slow. We’re happy it’s happening in our lifetime. It was a hard dream for us to reach, with many obstacles: culture, religion, society, acceptance.”

The radical changes coming to the country might have come as an overnight surprise to the rest of the world, but in Saudi Arabia, citizens have been discretely preparing for it for years. “People were behind closed doors, but the minute changes were announced, everybody was ready. Suddenly, art galleries and restaurants were opening,” Wafa says. “And all it took was political will,” Hana adds.

Mashael Al Rushaid. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia, June 2018

Mashael Al Rushaid. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia, June 2018

At 48, Dr Wafa Al Rushaid has achieved an imposing résumé. With a PhD in international relations and diplomacy, her alma maters include Harvard University, the New York Institute of Finance, London School of Economics, and Oxford University. Her wide-ranging career has mostly focused on the empowerment of women, from working at the United Nations Development Programme for nine years to assisting at UNESCO in Paris. As a banker, Wafa also founded the first women’s investment department at the then Saudi American Bank. “I have always been a feminist, working to uplift women,” she says. The latest iteration is the Raffles Design Institute in Riyadh, which she founded in partnership with her family and the Raffles Education Corporation.

“When I hit 40, I decided to be my own boss,” she explains, her modulated voice complementing her no-nonsense demeanor. “I didn’t want to be the boss’s daughter, I wanted to prove that I deserved this seat.” The school is the first design institute in the MENA region where women can also study fashion and jewelry design, visual communication, fashion marketing and merchandising, and interior and gaming design. While Wafa believes it was her fate to enter a creative field, launching a design-focused business in Saudi proved challenging. “The perception was that design is a hobby, not a career. But when Raffles opened, people started recognizing that it can make money; you can get a degree in fashion or graphic design.”

Oldest sister Hana is the carer of the group, bringing in and adjusting various veils for the photo shoot and handing out sweets afterwards. She is soft-spoken, extremely eloquent, and considered. While the sisters are reluctant to discuss their relationship with the hijab, Hana is heartfelt in her belief that she wears the veil because she’s proudly Saudi and because it adds femininity. “Everybody my age is expected to look graceful,” she smiles. She cares deeply about her family and her country and takes her time to answer thoughtfully; nothing is rushed. As the creator of Collection Showrooms and by launching her own interior design studio three decades ago, the 51-year-old Hana has worked on countless regional and international projects. As for the changes ahead, she hopes Saudi women get what they deserve and what they’ve been working towards: “I’m glad we’re part of it. I wish we will win the fruits of our waiting all these years.”

Wafa Al Rushaid. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia, June 2018

Wafa Al Rushaid. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia, June 2018

With her pixie face and haircut and neutral accent, Mashael is the cosmopolitan baby of the family. At 31, she is a decade younger than her next sibling, and experienced the world differently. To start, she went to boarding school in Europe while her siblings grew up in Khobar and went to public schools. She has the same entrepreneurial streak, though, and has worked across finance, publishing, oil and gas, banking, and fashion. She’s currently owner of Heist gallery in London, as well as partnering with her friend Ekaterina Malysheva on the catsuit label Ekat Suits (she was a bridesmaid at Malysheva’s wedding to Hereditary Prince Ernst-August of Hanover last year, where the bride wore three custom Sandra Mansour gowns.) The gallery is where she finally feels content. “It took me a long time to be comfortable with doing what made me happy and gave me pleasure and not only financial gain,” she says. “I may have skills in certain things but it’s a gift and a privilege to enjoy everyday life.”

While the Kingdom’s societal changes are monumental, women’s challenges are far from over. “It’s another layer of oppression,” Mashael says. “We have to prove ourselves in a much harder environment.” Women have to be twice as good to be seen as equal – “Which is great because of the generation of educated women it created,” she continues, with Wafa pointing out that 68% of higher degree holders in the country are female. Yet they are going to lead the charge for change. “The government has a big priority to bring women to the front,” Hafa says. “The women who have been recognized so far have done so through their individual efforts. They worked hard, but it takes a generation. There are thousands of women to be appreciated still; thousands who could be in the front seat. But we are fortunate to be living in a time when the leadership is recognizing that we need more women in government and business.”

Throughout the struggle, there was always a way, Wafa says. “You just had to find the way that suited you. The doors weren’t really locked, or we wouldn’t be where we are today. Some women gave up, they were pessimistic and just dropped everything, while others were determined and knocked on all the doors until they found the one that would take them to recognition. We were empowering ourselves and building a system that would suit us. We’re still young and we’re still hoping for more and, at the rate we’re going, I know we will get there.” Women are becoming important and influential in the country’s economy, she points out, with a lot of single moms and more than 20% of households being financially run by women. “The sense you get now is happiness and looking forward to something we never thought would happen,” she says.

It’s time to go – Mashael flew in from London and the two older sisters fuss over her. She’s deferential to them but it’s evident they delight in each other’s company and rush off for dinner afterwards. Which five-star establishment will feed the Al Rushaid sisters tonight? They laugh. “Salt!” Confounding the stereotype of the Saudi woman, one hipster burger at a time.

Now Read: Interior Designer Rawan Alsahsah Invites Us Into Her Eclectic Jeddah Home

Photography: Ziga Mihelcic 
Styling: Vasil Bozhilov 
Hair and Makeup: Amanda Kay, Giusi Mertoli 

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