'Agents of Change': Lubna Olayan on the Future of Arab Generations

For too many of the nation’s youth, educational opportunities are scarce -- and that’s a big problem, said Lubna S. Olayan, CEO and deputy chairman of Olayan Financing Company, speaking at AUC as part of the Nadia Younes Memorial Lecture.

“If we deny a person opportunity, they become vulnerable to extremism,” Olayan said.

Speaking to a packed audience, the Saudi businesswoman relayed a message that revolved around a vision for the rising Arab generation, focusing on education, which she says has been neglected for too long. “We have paid too little attention to matching our educational system and the skills demanded by the market,” said Olayan. "We are at the very risk of a lost generation.”

The statistics back her up. Egypt's unemployment rate is improving, but still hovering around 11 percent, with a large majority of those unemployed being young people. According to Olayan, one in five Arabs is illiterate, 50 percent of the world’s refugees are Arabs, and a quarter of the Arab population is in poverty.

Yet the future does not need to be bleak, Olayan assured the crowd, highlighting a population increase of 25 percent throughout the Arab world in the last decade. If countries place a large emphasis on educating this surge of young people, those dire statistics may begin to reverse. “Young people are literally the future; they are the agents of change,” Olayan said. “Only through them can we build a kind of economy and society that can thrive in the 21st century. That’s why education is so important.”

"Young people are literally the future; they are the agents of change. Only through them can we build a kind of economy and society that can thrive in the 21st century. That’s why education is so important."

Olayan highlighted the importance of battling gender inequality, a task she’s made part of her own mission. Olayan herself was the first woman to work for what was once her father’s company. As CEO, less than 20 years later, she has directed the multinational conglomerate through significant expansion, all the while hiring women at all ranks -- a rarity in the Saudi private sector. In 2017, Forbes named Olayan among both the Top 10 Most Powerful Women in Finance as well as the World's 100 Most Powerful Women.  

Audience members found her a suitable tribute to the late Nadia Younes, also a prominent female figure in the Middle East, whose life was dedicated to humanitarian efforts.

“I thought her speech was very inspiring. It gave me hope for the future of this region,” said AUC alumnus Karim Mourtada, 23. “A lot of what she said really spoke to me and was truly logical, especially what she said about [research and development]. I feel like it’s important for us to stop importing everything from the West and start creating our own. This form of dependence stems directly from colonialism, and we need to get rid of this once and for all.”

Olayan did touch on externalities that have created challenges for Arab countries, including the negative effects of colonialism.

Ultimately, however, she pushed for a prevailing sense of optimism not rooted in past injustices, but focused on a successful future. “We can spend hours debating how we got here,” she said, but “what is now needed is action," she said.

 “We can spend hours debating how we got here,” she said, but “what is now needed is action."

Mai Ateek, Hana Awadalla, Nada Rizk, Nadine Taalab and Malak Abdelkhalek all contributed reporting to this story.