Saudi Billionaire Says Companies Struggled to 'Absorb' Reforms

  • Lubna Olayan makes rare public remarks at Saudi-U.S. Forum
  • Entertainment industry making it easier to attract talent

Lubna Al-Olayan

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Saudi Arabia lined up prominent officials and CEOs to promote plans to wean the economy off oil on the first day of President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh. Among them was one of the kingdom’s richest women.

Delivering rare public remarks in her home country, billionaire businesswoman Lubna Al-Olayan said companies have struggled with the magnitude of changes imposed by authorities in the first year of the so-called Vision 2030 plan. She, however, praised the “open discussion” between the government and the local business community.

“From the private sector point of view, I think we’re very excited about this Vision 2030 and the transformation efforts,” Al-Olayan, who rarely grants interviews, said during a panel discussion at the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum on Saturday. “But I think the execution the first year, the execution of this plan has been a little bit -- in some ways, we as the private sector have found it too much to absorb,” she said. “So this has been a challenge.”

Activity in the non-oil private sector came to a standstill last year after authorities rolled out an austerity drive to repair public finances hit by the oil-price plunge. Energy subsidies were reduced and payments to contractors delayed. Officials are now in talks with companies as they seek to launch a four-year stimulus program to revive growth.

Only Woman

Al-Olayan, chief executive officer of the Olayan Financing Co. and co-chair of the forum, was the only woman on the panel, speaking along with top officials including Energy Minister Khalid Al Falih and Yasir Alrumayyan, managing director of the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

She spoke of new opportunities for women in business in the conservative kingdom, where women still can’t drive and some need a male guardian to approve their employment. She said her family company, the Olayan Group, employs more than 540 women, whose presence has given “quite a bit of challenge to young men who thought that the platform was all theirs.”

Increasing female employment is a key objective of Vision 2030, spearheaded by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

More women are being named to senior positions in financial services industries. Sarah Al Suhaimi in February became the first woman to head the Saudi Stock Exchange, also known as Tadawul. Samba Financial Group, one of the kingdom’s major banks, followed by naming Rania Mahmoud Nashar as chief executive officer.

Al-Olayan said the kingdom’s plans to develop an entertainment industry is “really making it socially much more easier to attract good talents and to have better working environments in the country.”

Davos Guest

A former analyst at J.P. Morgan, Al-Olayan oversees the Middle East operations of Olayan Group, a diversified company founded by her father in 1947. She is a regular participant in the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Her billionaire family hired Saudi Fransi Capital as financial adviser for the planned share sale of some of its local assets, according to people familiar with the matter. The Olayan Group was valued at more than $10 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index in 2015.

— With assistance by Matthew Martin

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