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Power Players: 8 Saudi Women Excelling in High-Profile Roles Across Various Fields

Breaking barriers and setting precedents: These Saudi women are excelling in high-profile roles across various fields.

Photo: MO4 Network

In recent years, the landscape for women in Saudi Arabia has undergone a remarkable transformation, reflecting a broader societal shift aligned with the ambitious Vision 2030. This comprehensive blueprint for the Kingdom’s future, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, aims to diversify the economy, and modernize the nation, with a significant focus on empowering women. As a result, Saudi women are increasingly stepping into high-profile roles across various influential organizations, both locally and internationally. “The support of women in Saudi is revolutionary. We’ve been granted multiple opportunities, from scholarships to leading positions and international representation of the Kingdom.

The evolution was a vision of our great leaders who saw the potential in women all over the Kingdom,” explains Rehaf Gassas, CEO of the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society. This profound cultural shift spotlights Saudi women’s resilience, talent, and leadership. Spanning across multiple industries, including law, arts and culture, finance, and entrepreneurs, Saudi women are fast setting new precedents. “Women have the power to achieve anything they set their mind to. Our ability to multi-task, attention to detail, and dedication had to be implemented into the workforce to help organizations flourish,” adds Gassas. The contributions of women are redefining societal norms and heralding a new era of inclusivity and innovation in the country. Vogue Arabia spotlights eight trailblazers who set the bar high in Saudi.

Donia Abu Taleb

Photo: Amer Mohamad, Yasir Ali

Saudi taekwondo athlete Donia Abu Taleb needs no introduction. Earlier this year, she made history when she became the first Saudi woman to qualify for the Paris Olympics. “I am proud to be the first woman to achieve this. I am also honored to be a role model for Saudi women, or everyone who has a dream and aspires to make history with it,” says Abu Taleb. She adds that the victory has come after great efforts involving continuous exercises where the commitment to qualify made her forget about the fatigue of the past years.

Abu Taleb recently returned from the 26th Asian Championships with a gold medal, which made it yet another important moment for the Kingdom. “The experience wasn’t easy at all – we are talking about Asia, the continent where taekwondo originated. Winning gold was very tough.”

Her love for taekwondo started at a young age, and she credits her late father as her inspiration for taking up the sport. As a young girl in the Kingdom, training in male-dominated sports was difficult. “I was in a boys club as there were no martial arts training centers for women. I used to be upset and cry because training with boys requires much physical and mental effort.” She adds that her father always told her not to give up, and she owes every medal she’s earned to him. “I became more resilient and never gave up. I told myself I am strong and won’t be defeated easily.” Abu Taleb’s resilience made it easier to deal with the challenges along the way, and adds that she now enjoys rigorous training and feels that there will be no result without any effort. “Even though the path is very clear (after qualifying for Paris), we are far from the comfort zone. My ongoing preparations include intense training and camps.

Basma Elkhereiji

Photo: MO4 Network

A trailblazer in Saudi’s F&B industry, restaurateur, and chef, Basma Elkhereiji is a force to be reckoned with. Her restaurant, The Social Kitchen in Jeddah, is one of the city’s most well-known dining hotspots and featured in ‘The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ list in the discovery category. Meanwhile, The Social Bakery is equally popular. She soon added another feather to her cap by launching ACL, a culinary logistics company. “My biggest achievement is the launch of my company ACL, a Saudi-based F&B and hospitality consultancy firm that provides key solutions – from concept ideation to operations and management of restaurants. It helped me launch my latest ventures, Alieía, a Greek seafood restaurant, and Khalila, the first members-only lounge,” says Elkhereiji.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, and raised in Saudi, the entrepreneur always wanted to be a chef, but at the time, the industry wasn’t well developed for women in the Kingdom, so she went to business school in the US. “In hindsight, the degree helped me a lot. I learned how to cook in my mother’s kitchen.” Her foray into the industry was through sheer persistence. “I used to host parties and large gatherings where I cooked, designed, and transformed spaces for a night to fit the theme. I did the dining and entertainment experience before it became trendy,” she says. Elkhereiji started by catering to friends and family, and things started growing. She first opened a small café, which was very successful, and later, The Social Kitchen. Given the male dominance in the food industry, Elkhereiji faced her fair share of challenges. “It was initially tough, but after a few years of me catering in Saudi, the women’s movement started – a sort of female renaissance. I ended up getting a lot of support to follow my dream. I was very lucky.”

Reemaz Oqbi

Photo: MO4 Network

When Reemaz Oqbi – one of the main star’s of Saudi Arabia’s first grand opera – sings, one immediately finds oneself in a trance-like state, whether the ballad is Edelweiss from The Sound of Music on her Instagram, or an aria on stage. Her powerful voice can make you smile or bring you to tears. Currently a soprano and flutist at the Saudi National Orchestra and Choir, she is also a part of the creative management team. “Finding new ways forward, developing and ensuring the quality of the music produced by the group, and strengthening the community of musicians, have all been general goals for me in this role,” says Oqbi. At a young age, the musician has already achieved milestones – being a part of the production of Zarqa Al Yamama, the first Saudi grand opera, and singing with the Saudi Orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Born in Jeddah and raised in California, Oqbi’s musical journey began when she was seven. She remembers being enrolled in multiple music lessons as a child, singing hymnals at the community choir, and tirelessly playing the flute. “Growing up, I was fortunate to be completely immersed in an incredible musical education, passing through things like marching band, musical theater, orchestra, wind symphony, jazz choirs, and even mariachi at some point.” In grade 10, she recalls something her late mentor and voice teacher told her, “If you keep at this, you could make a career out of opera.” Her words ring true to date.

Oqbi attended university in the UAE, where she participated in a performing arts program. Soon after, she worked as a full-time flutist with the Firdaus Orchestra at Expo 2020, and in 2022, she performed at the Saudi National Day ceremony. The following year, Oqbi made her debut at the International Opera Festival in Riyadh. The soprano’s brightest moment was performing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last year. “The feeling of pride I had that night was indescribable. I sang my solo set of three classical pieces before joining my peers to conclude the night. Once the adrenaline wore off, I realized that this, right here, is where I’m meant to be.”

Rehaf Gassas 

Saudi women

Photo: Abdulrehman Abdullah

As the CEO of the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society (SHPS), Rehaf Gassas’ role includes leading the heads of departments, creating initiatives that support the local communities, and crisis management. Established in 2010, the SHPS, a nonprofit society, has been instrumental in safeguarding and preserving Saudi’s heritage and culture, and in 2019, Unesco registered it as an international non-governmental organization on heritage. “In 2019, I was selected to be a part of an international facilitators network dedicated to implementing the Unesco 2003 Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage. This was a pivotal moment in my career. I was honored to be one of the first Saudi females to join the network and become a certified Unesco expert,” explains Gassas.

The daughter of a diplomat, Gassas grew up in various countries including India, Malaysia, and the United States. After completing a degree in applied arts and design and majoring in conservation from the University of Malaysia, she moved back to Saudi in 2011. “I worked at a center for adults with ADHD called Reach to Change. Later, I worked as an art teacher at a school. In 2014, I applied for a master’s scholarship at the SHPS. I got accepted to do my masters in World Heritage and Cultural Project Management in Turin, Italy.”

Since then, there has been no turning back for Gassas. She started her career with SHPS as a project coordinator and worked her way up to becoming the CEO in under a decade. In 2015, she remembers working on Saudi files to inscribe intangible cultural heritage at Unesco, which involved reaching out and connecting with the local communities in the Kingdom in order to learn about their cultural heritage and document it. “It was a tremendous effort. I recall one of my mentors saying to me that once you start, you’ll become addicted to the exploration of heritage and the discovery of new cultures, and it was true. After 10 years in the field, I don’t think I can ever imagine myself anywhere else.”

Jood W. Alharthi

Saudi women

Photo: Ghada Alghanim

The New York-based international lawyer and peacebuilding advisor is the first Saudi woman to hold a position in the executive office of the secretary-general at the United Nations and has had a fascinating career. “I am incredibly proud to be the first Saudi woman to serve in this role. This milestone represents not just a personal achievement, but also a significant step forward for Saudi women and their contributions on the global stage,” says Jood W. Alharthi. In her current role, she has advised senior leadership and field offices on the rule of law, prevention, and peacebuilding, as well as responding to crises and fostering stronger cooperation and multilateralism. “My work focuses on the Asia and Mena regions, covering diverse thematic areas aimed at developing resilient societies.” She adds that getting this far was no easy feat, given the highly competitive field of international peace and security.

Last year, Alharthi was invited by the Saudi Human Rights Commission to deliver the opening remarks for International Women’s Day in 2023. In her speech, she highlighted the invaluable contributions of women to the political and global arenas, emphasizing how their involvement leads to sustainable outcomes and accelerated progress.

Alharthi’s journey began in the United Kingdom, where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in law, specializing in international law. She had a clear vision of contributing to global discourse throughout her studies. While at international law firms, she has engaged in international litigation, international humanitarian law, and dispute resolution. “Because of this, I have accumulated knowledge while working on multijurisdictional matters, deconstructing the several layers of complex situations, and supporting the peace process, mediation, and peace agreements, whether at cross-border, regional, or local levels.” Alharthi finds it extremely rewarding to be able to contribute her expertise to the Mena region. For instance, when she spoke at the Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum, she designed a session on the humanitarian-peace-development nexus with UN senior leadership, and moderated the panel.

Aya Al-Bakree

Photo: Diriyah Biennale Foundation

“Launching the very first art biennale in the history of our country is one of my biggest achievements to date,” says Aya Al-Bakree, CEO of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation. She adds that in a country where biennales didn’t exist and where the word ‘biennale’ itself is foreign, she is extremely grateful to have drawn in so many people closer to the arts, providing them with engaging programs and community moments from which to learn and explore their creative interests. “Most importantly, the biennales provide local artists with world-class platforms to contribute meaningfully to global contemporary cultural discourse. Today, some of the Saudi artists who participated in our biennales are now being called to participate in other global biennales and are receiving international recognition.”

As the CEO, Al-Bakree leads the foundation collaboratively and views her role as a catalyst elevating the quality of artistic experiences and educational opportunities locally, alongside creating platforms that allow for ‘cross-pollination’ and exchange between local and international artists. Al-Bakree grew up in Jeddah and obtained a global communications and art history degree at the American University of Paris. She began her career at a central French contemporary art gallery where she met artists from all over the world, and gained a first-hand understanding of the commercial channels available to support their practices and perspectives in gaining exposure. “I then became keen to bring back those learnings to Saudi and decided to return home, where I joined one of the country’s most renowned contemporary art galleries at the time.”

Al-Bakree explains that because of the emerging nature of the local art scene, she wasn’t confined to a specific ‘box,’ but was exposed to all operational and strategic aspects of the work, from curatorial programs to art production, art handling, editorial development, all the way through to final presentation. “It was here that I made it a personal objective to support local artists in making new connections to nurture their creative practices, both within Saudi and beyond.”

Nouf Al Moneef

Saudi women

Photo: Abdullah Almusharraf

“From my childhood in Riyadh, I was drawn to culture, architecture, arts, and design, and I always aspired to work in these fields,” shares Nouf Al Moneef, festival director of Noor Riyadh. As the interior architect steering Riyadh Art’s annual and largest festival of light and art, Al Moneef is preparing for the fourth consecutive year of managing this event. In just three editions, the festival has welcomed over five million visitors and showcased the artworks of hundreds of Saudi and international artists. “Witnessing Noor Riyadh establish itself as a pillar of Saudi Arabia’s expanding cultural calendar, has been an immensely gratifying achievement. It has provided a platform for young artists to present their work to new international audiences,” she affirms.

Al Moneef’s exposure to architecture started at a young age, when she was inspired by Zaha Hadid. The director recalls spending hours mesmerized by the image of her work in the book and adds, “My father explained to me she was a woman of many firsts – the first Arab woman of Iraqi descent to leave an imprint, the first to present herself in a confident way in an industry which was not specifically built for her.”

After obtaining a master’s degree in fine arts in interior architecture from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Al Moneef traveled the world, experiencing different cultures and ways of life, which inspired her to open her design studio. Art and culture were still niche industries in Al Moneef’s early days, and they came with roadblocks. “I found myself continuously looking for ways to present and showcase art in an alternative way. Today, I have to say these challenges were surpassed through delivering many large-scale events and executing seamless experiences on a global scale, while still keeping the authenticity and legacy of the region.”

Mona Khashoggi

Photo: Rohit Sabu

Mona Khashoggi can go by multiple titles – author, theater producer, playwright, and soon-to-be film producer. But above all, the multi-hyphenate is a cultural revivalist. The mastermind behind Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era, a musical that premiered in London’s West End in 2020, Khashoggi became the first Arab ever to produce a West End musical. The sold-out show played at The London Palladium, one of the most prestigious theaters, and was a roaring success. Ironically, Khashoggi never set out to be a theater producer. “I met Robert Wilson, a renowned American theater director who does bilingual shows at the Venice Biennale. He invited me to see one of his shows, and I thought, why don’t we Arabs do the same?” says Mona Khashoggi. She then had the idea to revive classical Arabic music and thought there was no one better than Umm Kulthum to be the subject. “She’s more than a singer. She’s an actor, activist, and hero who represents empowerment.”

Born in Riyadh, Khashoggi grew up in Lebanon and then London, and had a very artistic upbringing. Her father exposed her and her siblings to music and theater from a young age. The creative obtained her master’s in Middle Eastern studies, specializing in law, politics, and anthropology, from The School of Oriental and African Studies. And so began her journey of cultural revival – albeit in different forms. For instance, her charity, The Mansoojat Foundation, revives and preserves the costumes of Saudi Arabia. “I co-founded this organization with a group of Saudi ladies in 1999. We went around different regions in the Kingdom to collect costumes and study their way of life. We started with 20 costumes and now have 800.” Elsewhere, over the years, she’s worked tirelessly to help Arab artists gain international exposure. Meanwhile, her book Jaffa Orange Groves, is based on the people of Palestine before 1948 – how they lived, ate, and danced. “My life’s mission is to enlighten the West and international audience about our culture. I want to revive and preserve it.”

Originally published in the June 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

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