NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be here with you this evening, and I am truly honored to be the recipient of this prestigious award. I am not sure, though, that I deserve an award for doing my duty and doing something that I truly enjoy and love.

I was initially hesitant to accept the award for several reasons, one being that I only lasted two-and-a-half years in banking and that was more than 20 years ago, so my credentials as a banker are dubious. In addition, the award was originally described–thankfully mistakenly–as a lifetime achievement award. While I readily accept that the years are catching up with me, I believe that I still have much to do to live up to this award. And, with the grace of God, I hope that I still have many years to devote, not only to our family business, but to the Arab world, to Saudi Arabia, and to fostering better understanding between East and West.

I am very fortunate, because I and my brother, Khaled, and my sisters, Hayat and Hutham, had in our father, Suliman Olayan, a wonderful role model. ABANA (Arab Bankers Association of North America), which my sister Hutham helped establish, was kind enough to honor my father in 1992 with a lifetime achievement award, and the truth of the matter is that you honor him and the Olayan family here again this evening. It is he who instilled in us a sense of duty, and it is he who, in the terrible aftermath of 9/11, would encourage us to get involved, especially given the current state of affairs.

Twenty-two years ago, when I accompanied my husband to Saudi Arabia and did not know if it would even be possible to work in Riyadh, it was my father who encouraged me to get involved in the family business there, who mentored me, and who taught me that most limits are self-imposed. I hope that in some small way I honor him and his memory in the things that I do.

What a different world existed back then! And how different the status of East-West relations and the state of the Arab world are today, as the spotlight of the rest of the world focuses upon us.

Spotlight Now on Arab World

What that spotlight reveals is a region that has tremendous wealth and natural resources and that reflects considerable progress in many areas–in infrastructure, in increasing market capitalization, technology and wealth. This progress, however, fails to incorporate many of the fundamental changes that are key to our development and competitiveness and the ability of the Arab world to take its rightful place on the world stage, those changes being the improvement of our educational systems, the creation of job opportunities for our young men and women, a sense of a common purpose and a common destiny and the development of a stronger sense of engagement and social responsibility.

We cannot have those or any other changes forced upon us or dictated by others. While we can no longer continue to pretend that we can have progress without real change, we cannot embrace change that does not take account of our values and traditions. Real change must come from within, and it can only come from within if people are properly educated, perceive that they have choices and opportunities and accept that we are all responsible for and have a duty to each other.

Business Community and Government Must Change

Both we in the business community and our governments also need to change the way we think. The purpose of our investments and the guiding principle of our economies cannot simply be to make the rich richer, with an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. That is an issue, by the way, that is not unique to the Arab world. Consider the following:

The richest 1 percent of the world’s people earns as much income as the entire bottom poorest half. The world’s three wealthiest families have a combined wealth equal to the annual income of 600 million of the world’s people. Three billion of the world’s people, almost one half of the world’s population, live in poverty and earn less than $2 a day.

The economic, political and social implications of this are all intertwined and cannot be ignored, especially in the Arab world. No Arab, whether based in Riyadh or Manama or Amman or Gaza or here in New York, can afford not to care, not to question why we are in this predicament and not to ask what must be done to improve our situation. We in the private sector can no longer sit back and expect our governments to take care of us. We must assume responsibility.

Business Community’s Responsibility

What does that entail?

It means that we must work with our governments to foster and support educational systems of the highest quality and to define the appropriate academic and technical skill sets that will bring our educational curriculum into line with the demands of the 21st century workplace and enable us to be competitive in the region and the world.

It means that we must adopt and adhere to a system of meritocracy, so that a man or woman gets the job and position for which he or she is best qualified.

It means that we must become good corporate citizens and lead by example–in every hiring decision, every investment choice, every commercial transaction and in every report to our board, our shareholders and our regulators.

It means that we must act as responsible citizens in providing honest feedback and assistance to our governments in relation to their efforts to effect programs of reform.

And it means that jobs and career opportunities must be created and open to women, as well as men.

We Must Act Now

And we have to do these things now. Take Saudi Arabia as an example. Our birthrate exceeds 3 percent, and 60 percent of our population is under the age of 20. Our unemployment rate is somewhere between 9.6 and 12.5 percent and climbing, and that does not take women into consideration. If we do not create jobs for men and women, the gap will widen even more and the resulting resentment and poverty will strain our social fabric to the breaking point.

While these challenges are considerable, they can be addressed. Actually, one of the major challenges facing Saudi Arabia, our large and youthful population, can if handled properly be turned into an asset.

A good example of what can be achieved–and hopefully replicated in other sectors of our economy–is what was done in an industry close to ABANA’s heart–our banking industry. The banking industry in Saudi Arabia is actually a very good example of how leaders in both the private and public sector identified a need, developed an approach, and did much to address some of the problems and challenges that I have described.

What Can Be Achieved

Bankers and officials at SAMA (Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency) recognized the need to properly train Saudi bankers, so they focused on creating the proper technical training system to give young Saudis the appropriate skill sets needed for them to play a real role in the development of the banking sector.

The government worked with local banks to develop training programs and to establish the Institute of Banking and also both funded training abroad. The banks then adopted a genuine system of meritocracy, as a result of which young Saudis were able to come through the ranks, prove themselves and assume senior positions of responsibility at several of our key financial institutions, at Tadawul (our share trading system), and at the recently formed Capital Markets Authority.

More importantly, these opportunities now apply to men and women–you would be hard pressed to walk into the corporate finance department of several of our banks and not find Saudi women playing a key role in, and occasionally leading, a project. This is real progress and real change.

Yet, much more needs to be done in the Arab world, especially in relation to women. Our record is simply not good enough.

Proponent of Gender Neutral Meritocracy

Make no mistake–I am neither a radical feminist nor a proponent of artificially putting women in positions. I am a proponent, though, of a system in which opportunities are, as you say here, “gender neutral” and of a true meritocracy that sees the right person in the right position for the right reasons, regardless of gender.

We should also not forget, though, that it took the West quite some time to provide women with the same rights and opportunities as men, including the right to vote. An American friend reminded me that it took World War II and the sheer necessity of having women in the work place while men were on the battlefield to provide impetus to greater opportunities for women here in the US.

On this subject, and in relation to all the other areas I have mentioned, we all need to be willing to “push the envelope” a bit. And each of us, whether an Arab interested in improving our societies or a Westerner interested in improving relations, needs to be actively involved. We all need to work on fostering a better understanding–both at home and here in the West–of the challenges that face us in the Arab world, as well as the assistance and support that would bolster our efforts. There also has to be a better understanding here in the West of the sort of interference that, even with the best of intentions, actually hinders the efforts of our governments to advance a program of reform. And when we do experience successes along the way in our attempt to meet these challenges, we need to make sure people are aware of them.

By crafting this award to focus on the importance of dedicating time and effort to more than just the bottom line — although I hasten to add that no son or daughter of Suliman Olayan would ever be allowed to lose sight of it for long! –ABANA has taken a very important step. And while I am very appreciative of the personal honor afforded me this evening, as an Arab, as a business person, and as a mother, I am much more appreciative of the significance of this award in shifting the focus to the societal obligations of those of us who are in the private sector.

I thank you very much.

Lubna S. Olayan is chief executive officer of Olayan Financing Company, a holding entity for the Olayan Group’s operations in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East that was founded by her father, Suliman S. Olayan, in 1947.

For more information:

Women’s eNews–
Saudi Calls for Equity; Grand Mufti Blasts Speech:

The Olayan Group:

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