Saudi Arabia oil giant appoints female board member

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For the first time Saudi Aramco, the world’s most profitable company according to Bloomberg, has appointed a woman to its board.

The Saudi state-owned oil producer is planning to become a publicly listed company and has appointed five new board members. Among them is Lynn Laverty Elsenhans, a former CEO of Dallas-based motor fuel distributor Sunoco and prior to that a senior executive at Royal Dutch Shell.

In Saudi Arabia only one-fifth of all women work and only a tiny number have made it to board level. However, the kingdom is beginning to implement significant changes in its attitude towards gender roles and last year a woman, Sarah al-Suhaimi, was made chair of its stock exchange. She is also CEO and a board director of NCB Capital, the investment arm of the National Commercial Bank, the largest bank in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government has set a target of increasing female participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% by 2030. By contrast, in the UK, women make up just under half of the total workforce (46.5%) and the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards is at around 28% with a target of 33% on FTSE 250 boards by 2020.

Women in the kingdom are subjected to male guardianship, in which men – fathers, brothers, uncles, sons – make all key decisions for them including travelling abroad and studying. But recently, with the rise of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and plans to diversify and modernise the nation’s economy, reforms have seen women given the right to drive and encouraged to take a more major role in the workforce.

Royal decrees have recently granted girls the right to take part in physical education in schools and at least 10 women have been appointed to high profile decision-making roles in government and the private sector. Perhaps most significantly, measures are under way that will mean women no longer need the permission of a guardian to take a public sector job.

However, a recent report by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, while describing the progress made so far in women’s rights as promising, added that the changes “do not mark a very clear ‘on the ground’ change for women’s equality. Saudi Arabia has neither theoretically nor empirically closed the gap between men and women with regard to women’s presence in the public sphere and their access to resources.”

Saudi Aramco made profits of $33.8bn (£25bn) in the first half of 2017 – $5bn more than the second most profitable company, Apple. The flotation of the company, set to take place in London, New York or Hong Kong later this year or early next, is set to be the largest of all time.

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