Saudi Businesswoman Lubna Olayan Discusses a Vision for the Rising Arab Generation at AUC
March 14, 2018, Cairo – The American University in Cairo (AUC) hosted Lubna S. Olayan, CEO and deputy chairman of Olayan Financing Company as the guest speaker of the Nadia Younes Memorial lecture. Olayan, in 2004, became the first woman to join the board of a publicly listed Saudi company when she was elected to the board of directors of Saudi Hollandi Bank (now Alawwal Bank), where she currently serves as vice chair. In addition, she chairs the UK-based Alfanar, the first venture philanthropy organization working exclusively in the Arab world. Olayan discussed: “A Vision for the Rising Arab Generation”, tackling the main challenges that face the Arab generation, the opportunities that lie ahead for the Arab youth and the action that needs to be taken.
The lecture is part of the Nadia Younes Memorial Fund, which was established in honor and memory of Nadia Younes, who was tragically killed in the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, while she was serving as chief of staff to Sérgio Vieira de Mello. In addition to the annual series, the fund has helped establish the Nadia Younes Conference Room, which serves Cairo International Model United Nations members, and the Nadia Younes Award for Public and Humanitarian Service.
Paying tribute to Nadia Younes, Olayan said, “She combined a great intellect and a passion for our region, a passion that I truly share. I am also struck by her keen interest in many other challenged regions around the world.”
In welcoming Olayan and honoring the memory of Nadia Younes, AUC President, Francis J. Ricciardone, remarked how Younes’s commitment to serving the global community bodies, which is similar to AUC’s ideas, stands as an example to inspire the upcoming young leaders.
Olayan was welcomed as well by the Younes family and student Omar Zaki, the recipient of the Nadia Younes Award for Public and Humanitarian Service. She said: “It is also a privilege for me to be here at AUC, a true center of excellence,” said Olayan, “AUC’s role is important not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world.”
Using alarming statistics, Olayan highlighted the challenges that face the Arab world: “85 million Arabs are illiterate, 150 million Arabs- almost a quarter of the Arab population-live in poverty, and 1 in 10 live in acute poverty, that’s an increase of 80 per cent since 2007. Fifty per cent of the world refugees are Arabs.” Olayan referred also to the patent registration in the Arab world as a useful indication of success, remarking on the stark difference between a population of 422 million Arabs registering 8400 patents, “in comparison to Korea, with 52 million people, it has registered more than 82,500 patents.”
Olayan also addressed many challenges that have faced the Arab countries, like the negative effects of colonization, high unemployment rates, in addition to the high economic inequality. “We can spend hours debating how we got here,” she said, but “what is now needed is, action.”
As a business woman, Olayan shared the lessons learned with the audience and ways to utilize resources of the region.
Olayan used Singapore as an example of a country that suffered from colonization, poverty, limited natural resources and high population growth among other challenges, but managed to turn its fate around and go from a third world country to a true player in the global knowledge economy in 40 years. “The government in Singapore invested time and money,” she said, “with zero tolerance for corruption.” She highlighted that with the right vision and approach, the same can be achieved in the Arab world with a commitment to human capital and to high quality education.
She highlighted that some Gulf countries adopted a similar model, diversifying their economy, boosting Research and Development and targeting education, pointing out that Dubai was first and probably the most enthusiastic under the leadership of Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashed, and highlighting that in 2016 Saudi Arabia announced one of the boldest efforts to reform under the umbrella of Vision 2030.
Yet one of the areas of struggle she still sees in the Arab world is education. Olayan stressed on the need to invest heavily in the education of the Arab youth, as they are the true agents of change.
Mentioning her visit to Cairo, Olayan, accompanied by other members of the board of Alfanar, the Arab world first venture philanthropy organization, said: “we have spent the last two days visiting some of our great investments in Egypt. But as an NGO, our biggest problem is fund raising. Tax benefits in the West encourage greater giving, but incentives in our region are weak. I know of cases where people in the Arab world have turned down funding requests from charities, saying they’d already paid their full zakat allocation, even though they could easily afford to donate more.
We all know that the private sector is more efficient in running investments. This is at the heart of the PPP and privatization programs of many of our governments. Greater cooperation between governments and the private sector would provide a huge boost for our social welfare programs,
What better way to start than by focusing on social impact?”
Olayan argued that we could encourage companies to allocate a percentage of their zakat payment to meet agreed social needs in health, education or housing that fall in the categories of zakat, “Some governments even match corporate and individual donations, to further encourage philanthropy. The Singapore Government, for example, more than doubles a contribution. This results in social support programs being better supported, more targeted and more impactful. It certainly gives a better return on investment.”
Investing in Research and Development was also one of the key points in Olayan’s talk. “There is no question that the investment made to establish, nurture and sustain centers of excellence gives a great return, benefiting us all.” She also discussed the need for more centers of excellence across the Arab world founded and funded by Arabs. She said, “Centers of excellence also provide equal opportunities in maths, science, and technology not just for men but for women too.” She stressed on the need to integrate women into the business and political arena, not just because it is the right thing to do, as after all no country can afford to exclude half of its population, “But also because it’s in all our interest to do so. Studies have shown greater and more rapid development of countries when females play a role in the workforce …and increased profitability when they enter the boardroom.”
“For my part I remain optimistic,” she concluded, We can educate our youth and prepare them for the job market and at the same time educate them to value a society where mutual respect and tolerance exist amongst all citizens, residents and visitors, regardless of social class, religion or gender.”