By Maira Sultan Al Aziz | Riyadh
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud is the granddaughter of the Late King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and Queen Effat, daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan (former Saudi ambassador to the United States and currently Director General of Saudi Intelligence Agency). She is the CEO of ALFA International and Al Hama LLC, that manages brands Donna Karan and operates the Harvey Nichols Department Store in Riyadh.
Some of her exemplary achievements include a place in the Top 20 Arab Businesswomen in 2008 for her success with Yibreen (an exclusive women’s day spa) in 2008 and a Guinness World Record in 2010 for the World’s Largest Human Awareness chain in a campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer.
In this exclusive interview with INN Live, we learn how Princess Reema breaks the mould of the traditional Arab woman of Royal lineage and comes across to us as an inspiring symbol of humility, dignity and compassion.
INN Live: It is rare for Saudi women to come out and have their voices heard, especially since you are from the Royal Family. However, you have made some remarkable achievements. This in reference to the Pink Human Awareness Chain that made it to the Guinness Book of World Records and the Mount Everest campaign for breast cancer.
Princess Reema: Yes, we did break the Guinness World Record with 3,952 women. Infact we had 400 volunteers that were part of the organizing committee, so we actually did break the 4000 record but because of the strict rules that Guinness had, they couldn’t be counted.
The event mainly consisted of Saudi women but were also attended by a number of international communities, which was fantastic.
We had the support of all of the embassies, many of whom flew out from Riyadh. It took place in Jeddah at the Ministry of Education Stadium and we had student volunteers from Dar Al Hekma College, Effat University and the King Abdul Aziz University. We also had the Zahra Breast Cancer Foundation volunteers supporting us.
INN Live: The Mount Everest Campaign was your idea?
Princess Reema: I’m part of the Zahra Breast Cancer foundation. In our board meetings, we try to think of creative & innovative ways to create an awareness about breast cancer and also to tell people that we are a resource to the community. This was indeed one of my ideas and it was agreed upon by the whole board of Zahra.
The idea served two mechanisms – 1: To unify women and 2: to let them know that we can stand shoulder to shoulder and support each other in what is a very difficult subject to discuss.Saudi is a private nation. We don’t want to talk about our body parts. So how do you gather women and speak to them about a subject that they are uncomfortable about? You bring them all together in order to try to break the stigma. That’s what we were trying to do.
INN Live: Tell us about the Mount Everest campaign.
Princess Reema: Our first campaign showed that women can stand shoulder to shoulder. So if we stood, it was now time to move – thus the concept of moving, physical fitness and health. We wanted to tell people that movement and physical fitness is very important for a healthy lifestyle. So the idea came from there.
When a woman is told she is diagnosed with cancer, she or any individual would feel its insurmountable. So the concept of something being insurmountable, something that you have to strive for to get over, that is daunting and large , all that brought to mind the idea of climbing a mountain and the largest mountain of course is Mt Everest.
So as a symbol of health and fitness, we conceptualized gathering women that were ready to be trained to be physically fit and show that if WE can conquer Everest , then YOU can conquer Breast Cancer.
So what we asked was that during the 2 weeks that we are climbing the Everest, please walk 10-15 min a day and tell us about it. Tell us where you went and tell us what you did, how long you walked, who you walked with. We were able to populate our facebook page and twitter page while doing that. We were receiving messages not only from Saudi but from all over the world, which was amazing!
What we realized on the way up the Everest is that the symptoms you feel of altitude sickness are very similar to the symptoms that a woman feels when she goes through radiation and chemotherapy – shortness of breath, exhaustion, lack of appetite, feeling extreme emotions. So what we were actually doing is paying a tribute to these women.
INN Live: Did you personally have an experience of having someone close to you being diagnosed with breast cancer?
Princess Reema: Absolutely. 2 days after my mother asked if I would like to join the Zahra Breast Cancer Foundation, of which she is Chairwoman, I got a call from a very good friend of mine who is the same age as me, has children the same age as mine. We grew up in the US together and we moved back to Saudi together. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Almost steamrolling after her, there were others being diagnosed – it was an aunt on my mother’s side, 3 on my father’s side. A cousin from here, a friend from there. It was then I thought - this is a sign that this is something I really need to be involved with. I felt that I have to be a part of something that will spread the word among people and have them aware. This is a disease, which if you catch in the early stages, is curable.
So it’s really important for us, to get people talking about breast cancer and remove the stigma about it, and educate women on early detection, self check etc. This is something that Zahra is really active about.We have medical groups and awareness groups within Zahra. We have directories, we give people information, we educate them, counsel them.
INN Live: What is your objective in life?
Princess Reema: My objective is to facilitate things for other people. Within my role with Zahra, I feel obliged to create these events to allow people to know about breast cancer. With my role here at Harvey Nichols and Alfa, it is my obligation to create job opportunities and let women know that there are career opportunities.
It is not just me singularly, if you look at Saudi today, there are so many amazing business women and so many networking opportunities for women. What is also interesting is that we are a word of mouth society. We are not a mass advertising society, we are mass consumers. If I trust you, I will tell you about something that I found wonderful. If you trust me, you will tell me about it. So it’s very much of a personal interconnected network.
So what makes what we do, so much more exciting and valid, is this silent wave of change, it’s the silent wave of movement and that’s fascinating to be a part of. It makes me hopeful every morning, to know that the nation that my daughter is being raised in, is going to be a nation of opportunity. That’s why I’m very happy to do what I do and honestly all I do, is that I come to work.
INN Live: Do you have a mentor? Someone who really inspires you, a role model?
Princess Reema: I would say I have a series of mentors. First I would mention my mother – my mother is an example in that she managed to balance the responsibilities of her home and the life that she led very well and I try to raise my children, the way she raised us. She always had time for us. I hope that I can take even a fraction of that and be able to apply it to my life.
My other 2 inspirational role models are my aunt Sarah al Faisal and Lulu al Faisal. Sarah al Faisal was the founder of a girls’ school – Al Tarbiya Al Islamiya,here in Saudi Arabia. She’s a woman of infinite dignity and grace, a patron in Education and a motivation to women of Saudi. My other aunt Lulu al Faisal, is the Chairwoman of the Effat University in Jeddah.
All three of them stem from one individual who is my ultimate idol, my grandmother late Effat Al-Thunayan . Her mission was to promote women’s education, to be a self sustaining individual in one’s community. She founded an organization called the Nahda Women’s Foundation and Dar Al-Hanan school in Jeddah.
INN Live: Can you tell us what keeps your positivity going?
Princess Reema: What keeps my positivity going is the fact that when I look around, I see some phenomenal women in Saudi Arabia, regardless of which city you go to.
Equally inspiring is the fact that we live in the era of King Abdallah, a champion of a balanced and healthy modern Saudi society where men and women have opportunities that needn’t be the same but they are open and they are wide.
For people to be satisfied, it doesn’t mean that you give them everything but that you give them the chance that they ‘could be’ or they ‘could do’. Today, we have this ‘Could be, Could do spirit’ in Saudi where you wake up and, you could do it. What would you like to do? There are people out there to help you. Whether it is NGOs or Charities or Entrepreneurial Organizations, there are so many people out there today whose mission is to help somebody else be what they want to be and I find that very inspiring.
I feel that the younger generation isn’t a generation that is about self success but about communal success and I truly feel that there is now a sense of community. It’s exciting and honestly that makes me feel very proud to be Saudi.
INN Live: You are basically a very successful businesswoman. You have a clothing line, the spa Yibreen, you were among the Top 20 Arab businesswomen in 2008. What is your biggest ambition, and where are you on that ?
Princess Reema: When you look at each of those accomplishments, the most important thing to realize is that none of them were individual efforts. In Yibreen, I have 2 business partners and out of absolute humility from both of them, they did not put their names when we won the top businesswoman award. So it really was myself, Al Bandari Al Faisal & Nouf Mohamad Abdalla, who are the 3 partners of Yibreen that won that award. I just accepted it on all of our behalf.
Regarding the success that we have had at Harvey Nichols, it is absolutely team effort and a group success of which I’m very proud to be part of .
My biggest ambition from a business point of view would be, 5 years from now, when we look back at what we have achieved, it should not merely be as a retail organization but as an organization that has the best practices and the best environment for employees. We are sincerely trying to move forward in creating that environment.
A recent survey showed us that women mainly face two problems when coming to work – Transportation and Daycare facilities for their children. So we are going to be the first department store that has an onsite daycare facility for the children of its employees – male or female. It launches at the end of the month, Insha-Allah and I am very proud of this accomplishment.
Another thing we are trying to do is – training for all our staff, to allow them to develop career trajectories and career paths. Today, you may have started as a sales girl but tomorrow you could be a store manager or a department manager. We really do try to bring dignity to the roles that we are offering as positions.
So when I look back, that’s how I want to measure my success – to see people that I trained or people that worked here grow out and become top in their positions at other places, to have that kind of a footprint, to also have some of our other visual merchandisers go out and create their own companies. I would love to be a foundation for multiple careers for a future generation of retailers and that’s how I measure my success.
INN Live: What is your style of working? Hands on/micro-manage/work on the big picture and then delegate?
Princess Reema: My role as CEO of Alfa, involves growing the investments that we have or the projects that we work on. I research, I go out, I interact, I look for projects that I can bring to the Kingdom, that may fit our portfolio.
I work with the Business Development team, we do the brainstorming, the financial capability, feasibility and once we develop that project, we hand it over to our Retail Department and our Retail Director then takes that and launches the project.
I don’t believe in micro managing people but I believe in being present and available for them. At the end of the day, I’m here to be a resource to them to facilitate things. With our senior staff, our brainstorming is weekly and with various divisions, I do sit with them, I’m constantly present.
I’m always either in the operations office, or the marketing office or the retail office or we’re all together in the meeting room. I don’t believe in being static, I can’t be static. It’s not my nature, not to move. So I prefer to move from individual office to office than be in the meeting room and have everybody come to me.
I think you interact and engage with your staff better that way and I also think it’s important for people to know that you are present. If you are not present in the business you are running, the business is not going to run itself.
INN Live: What are your clothing style preferences?
Princess Reema: My interest in retail is more from the business side than the fashion side. I personally choose comfortable elegance, over stylish fashion. I am always on the move and travel for work a lot.
I am never going to be a trend setter. So when people are looking for style advice, I assure you they don’t come to me (laughs).
INN Live: What do you do when you have a minute to yourself ?
Princess Reema: I would spend it with my kids or my friends. I enjoy being social, I enjoy my family and friends very much. I travel a lot for work, so when I have the time to be with them, I really do enjoy it.
INN Live: Do you think women in Saudi are mistreated or oppressed?
HRH Princess Reema: From the women I know, some of them have phenomenal lives and have seized opportunities, some of them have missed opportunities and some of them are not aware of their opportunities.
I would like the women who have seized opportunities to look around and try to help someone that might not be aware of it.
I would love for the women who have been afraid to venture out and take an opportunity to feel the courage to do it.
For the women who don’t know they have opportunities, I think it’s the obligation of all of our society to let them know that should they choose to be something, then it’s a possibility.
Every woman has to have the right to do what suits her and what makes her soul satisfied and what fits in with what she is comfortable with in her community.
INN Live: We hear about Saudi women gaining more rights. More reforms are happening, slowly but there is progress. What do you think is the greatest need of the hour for Saudi women and what’s being done about it ?
Princess Reema: I would say, Number 1, the dissemination of information -Women need to be informed about the opportunities that are available for them, whether they be legal or social or work opportunities. Number 2, the transportation issue. Here in the office, we would like to employ more women, but they can’t necessarily be able to get here for work. Even if we pay them a stipend to have a driver, the logistics for them to get here from home, paying the driver, the whole motion of getting to work is not worth it to them for an entry level salary.
INN Live: Do you think women will be able to drive soon?
HRH Princess Reema: I think so. I see it coming, when it will happen. I have no idea, but I think it will be a positive move.
INN Live: So, would you accept a role in the government, if you were offered one?
Princess Reema: No. I like the fact that I can be private. Being the daughter and grand daughter of somebody in a very public position, the time that you can be private, be yourself is very limited.
I appreciate and respect the time that every single individual has given to their country but I feel I can contribute better outside of the government, through charitable activities, through a business community, where I can create opportunities and then ultimately go home and be private. My privacy is very important to me.
INN Live: There are thousands of young Saudi women out there, who’d like to be in your shoes. But tell us really, is it tough being a Royal?
Princess Reema: I think every person faces a challenge every day regardless of the family they were born into. Across the world, whether you are from the Royal family or not, I think there should be a level of courtesy that all individuals should behave with and interact with.
I hope to be able to represent my family well in a dignified light with the way I work and behave in the best way that I can, by being a good member of the society, a good mother to my children and by trying to give back to the community.
At the end of the day, it’s a privilege that I was born into, it was not something I created or invented. I always view it as a privilege, its words on paper. I have to do honor to the people that came before me in my family.
INN Live: What has been the single most significant or defining moment in your life?
Princess Reema: We recently went up to Mt Everest as part of the breast campaign initiative and one of the most profound moments in my life was when I was walking up that mountain.
We were walking for 8 hours, sometimes 12 hours a day. We were in all sorts of harsh weather conditions, sometimes it was very grassy, or very rocky, at times it was freezing cold, it was raining, it was snowing . We really faced the ‘elements’ as you say.
We saw parts of nature that I never thought I would ever be exposed to. There was a profound solitude while walking up that mountain, because your focus is constantly on breathing, on taking the next step.
You are constantly looking down to avoid obstacles and trying to make sure you are hydrated. You are not drinking water or eating food for enjoyment, you are just trying to survive. You are trying to get from point A to point B and it is stark and simple and so far removed from anything I have ever done in my life.
That sense of solitude and isolation really made me realize how insignificant I am in this world. I was just a person trying to get up a mountain to make it home. When you look around it makes you wonder, what do you need in your life and what can you really not live without – for me, that would be my children and my family.
That was a moment of profound clarity on multiple levels for me. Who am I, what do I want in my life, what do I need for my soul to be satisfied. It was interesting and overwhelming for each of us on that journey and each of us came to a different realization going up that mountain. I realized I don’t have to do what I’m doing but I want to do it and I like to do it. So if I’m going to do it, I really should focus and do it well.
INN Live: Are there any other causes close to your heart?
Princess Reema: I’m not a feminist but a feminine-ist, as in I believe in expanding opportunities for women. I don’t believe that a woman has to do everything a man does, however I do believe that a woman has very many skills that are undervalued and I would love to be part of a generation that saw a multitude of women’s skills be qualified as more valuable.
INN Live: What message would you like to give to our readers?
Princess Reema: “Every life has obstacles and opportunities. Not every opportunity is something that will get you where you need to go but it’s a step. It’s important to accept the opportunities that come your way and be able to use them to get to where you would like to go.
In your journey of life, you can either bang your head against the 3 walls around you or choose the doorway in front of you. Sometimes you might have to hop through a window, but choose the opening rather than bang your head on the wall. Make a step forward, open the door.”