Interview with successful Saudi businesswoman and role model, Muna Abu Sulayman

muna-abu-sulyman1It is a real honor for me to be able to ask some candid questions to Muna Abu Sulayman. She is not only a successful Saudi businesswoman but a beautiful role model for Saudi women as well as women the world over. In addition to her responsible position as Executive Director of Kingdom Foundation and reporting to HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, she is also a media personality, UN Goodwill Ambassador and Young Global Leader. And she also manages her diverse careers as a single working mother.

Muna has kindly allowed me to ask her questions to share with readers towards fostering better understanding and relations and additional insights into the life and experiences of a unique Saudi mother and businesswoman.

To begin with Muna, one does not hear too much publicly about single working mothers in Saudi Arabia. How many children do you have? What were their ages when you divorced? Please share how do you manage to juggle your high profile positions and motherhood?

My girls are 15 and 9. So they are now old enough to take care of themselves and each other. So my job as a care giver is less direction and mostly about follow up.but parenting does take up a significant amount of time. It is from the little things like teaching them good manners, social rules, personal bounderies while also trying to ensure that they reach their potential.

It used to be harder, as we had to find for them all the needed extra curricular activites. Now, they go to schools that have a lot of activities and we no longer have to spend time and money on tutors for art, tennis and so forth…

While they were younger I had only jobs that were either governmental or part time, as I did not want to be too busy or too tired for them. I failed at times, taking on too much, and when I felt stressed out, I would step back.

I am also greatful to the great support net that I have both from my parents, and sisters. They really stepped in when I most needed it.

Have you ever experienced any stigmas or biases against you because of being a Saudi divorcee and single parent? And if so, how have you overcome any of the biases some individuals may hold?

Well, I think there is stigma about divorce in almost all cultures, because there is a break up of a family.

But I think it really depends on how a family handles it. In mine, the divorce was treated as an unfortunate incident.  But one that is not really life was not seen as a catastrophe by anyone close to me. So, I did not feel like my life changed, or that my family now controlled me. So I was very lucky in having very wise parents, who treated me as an adult.

I guess I deal with so many professional people and have mostly old friends, that I did not feel much biases.

Do you believe Saudi society is becoming more accepting of divorce?

Unfortunately, it is. Which means that we are seeing it now used as a first resort in many instances.

Marriage and divorce are not light matters. There should not be a stigma, but at the same time

It should not be seen as easily breakable work contract…

Was it an issue for you to obtain custody of your children?

My divorce was mostly amicable so we did not go to court. We share custody of the kids through arrangement. But I don’t have any legal paper giving me those rights…and I am not sure how to go about getting them. So far, it has worked, but I does bother me that if I go to get them legally, it might antagonize my ex husband and then, I could jeopardize what I have.

Some divorced women probably feel like they are so alone since the topic is not widely or openly discussed in Saudi Arabia. What advice can you offer them towards garnering support; towards being a single parent; towards building a viable career for themselves while not sacrificing quality with their children?

I cant have a general advice to all women, as the socioeconomic situation differs greatly for many of them. I do think that while you are married, and if you feel that you are on a rock ground, that you need to make sure that you have employable skills….Take courses in English, computer usage, soft work skills if you are not working already.

Also, islam gave us the right to save our income. If you can do that, then do it. Even if it means pinching a bit. It is important to have some sort of nest egg for your exclusive use, as not many men actually give alimony (or Nafka) to the women, and many don’t even give adequate child support.

It is a fact, the poorest segment in western society is single mothers. Some of that problem can mitigated by having a strong economical net, or family support.


Please share how you became the Executive Director of the Kingdom Foundation? What is your most enjoyable aspect of this position? And what is the most challenging aspect of this position and why?

I love what I do. I love looking at the best way to leverage HRHalwaleed bin Talal’s money to ensure that it is used in the best possible way. There are many challenging aspects of the job. HRH took a chance on me, as I had to learn a lot of the HR and administrative skills on the job in the first 6 months. But, perhaps the most challenging Is making sure that my employees are doing their best, and that they are also being mentored to reach their potential.

I’m sure that many other Saudi women also inspire to obtain prestigious positions with Kingdom Holdings or other known organizations. What advice can you give to them?

My advice to anyone who wants to work in a prestigious position with any company, not just our foundation, is that they should love what they do. I think many people end up doing a job that they don’t really care about or even hate, just because it is there, and they end up slowly killing themselves..

And what about the expat women who come to the Kingdom. Perhaps they arrived in Saudi Arabia as a dependent spouse but had had their own fulfilling career. What tips can you give to them on how they can find viable and meaningful employment?

Finding a job for an expat is more difficult now a days as there is a saudization effort going full ahead, and also an great increase of well educated and professional Saudi women coming back from abroad.

My advice is that if you happen to work for a Saudi company, that you need to be respectful of the Saudis. Sometimes brilliant Expats are stonewalled because they were too eager to help improve how things are run and don’t know the political undercurrents that are going on. Additionally, you really need to know how things get done. Those cups of tea that you keep having, have a purpose, they are establishing a bond

Also, try to learn Arabic esp. if you are going to work with locals grass root organizations or small retailers. It gives you an edge when you are dealing with locals, and it shows respect of the culture. Or, at least have a team member who can speak Arabic fluently. Many people at the lower echelons of the organization feel a bit threatened when it is that if It is a team of foreigners coming in to tell them how to do their jobs..


How did you become a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for Saudi Arabia? What does this position mean to you? What are the most important aspects in representing Saudi Arabia? Does being known as a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for Saudi Arabia place extra pressure on you? And if so, how do you manage it? Do you feel like you always need to be “on” as a result?

The UNDP post is one that I am most proud of . I do feel that if used properly, it shows how we can start to influence and have candid discussion on international levels.

You are supposed to be always on as a public figure. It does get draining….but, and I am being honest, I have had too many off days….esp. when you are working over time , or the kids are tired, or you are tired…, one tries to manage it as best as one could. But after all, I am human being..and I don’t have a staff of stylists, and support from the industry to help me with my public face…it all depends on me to deliver.

Do you think Saudi Arabia is portrayed accurately and fairly in the global media? And the whole world always seems fascinated and mesmirized by the veiled Saudi woman. Do you think Saudi women in particular are portrayed accurately and fairly in the media? How can Saudi Arabia be better represented globally? What aspects of Saudi culture, customs, traditions or law do you believe need further understanding and promotion by the global media?

That which you don’t know, attracts attention. Veiled woman are an anomaly in the world, a rare breed that seems antithetical to progress and women rights. I personally am not veiled, neither do I believe in the veil as an Islamic cover. However, I do respect it is cultural roots. If a woman chooses to be covered, as many do, I can not value judge her when it does not affect me. Also, the veil has an orientalist connotations of Eastern females over sexualization in western culture. It goes back to how women were viewed from the time of the crusades as the west and east started to interact closely. That compartmentalization of a women being viewed as sexualized and exotic has influenced how we are seen to this day in the west. However, now a days, the added twist is that we are also seen as terrorists…that makes the whole female issue a complicated image that can not be deciphered in 30 second sound bites that we view on TV.

The global media is not interested in portraying the real face of Saudi Arabia. It is interested in promoting a stereotypes for various economical and political reasons. I think it is about time we stop waiting for “the other” to show our real face ,warts and all. We need to actually take control and influence the message and images that comes out of our region.

I admit that we do have major problems in each country. However , for me it is more than females vs. males., more than a question of employment. It is a question of how authoritarian regimes while encouraging progress have actually stemmed it except for its most superficial sense. We need to develop our own view of human rights that are based on Islam and we need to actually apply it.

As for the second part of your question. By reason, tradition and culture evolves. Saudi Arabia has changed. But change and evolution take time…any anthropologist knows this. So we have to be patient while we see where the progress goes….

I understand you are also planning a new business venture. Can you please share what this venture is and your goals and hopes.

I am starting a Hijab fashion business. I do hope to start employing women and other disadvantaged groups to help produce my product. This way, we can encourage economic revitalization for some groups.

Where do you hope to see yourself in five years time?

A business woman working on social entrepernueralship ventures, and human rights.

And where would you like to see the Saudi woman in five years time? What changes would you like to see take place which specifically impact on the Saudi women?

I would like to see the legal structure progress in a way that allows women to work, live their lives without fear. That the beliefe that justice will prevail (esp. in matters of personal law) is something that is taken for granted by our daughters.

The legal system is too complicated and foreboding for most women, and they don’t take refuge in the letter of the law…I do hope that changes as process and procdure and more women friendly courts are created .

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions and provide readers of my blog some additional insights and understanding of Saudi women. You are indeed a superb example of a successful Saudi woman and a wonderful role model not only for KSA but for women everywhere!


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