Saudi Success: Education, Ambition and a Little Rebellion

You likely know that women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive. You may also have recently heard that for the first time two Saudi women competed in the Olympics. But, when was the last time you heard or read about highly successful professional or business women in the country – about women who have figured out how to compete at the highest international level – not in sports – but in the critical arena of economic development?

Right now you may be asking: What? Wait a minute, women work in Saudi Arabia?

Oh yes, absolutely. Not only do they work but also many contribute at the very highest levels of their economies.

Meet one of them, Dr. Manar Al Moneef, Managing Director Imagination Breakthrough, Middle East at GE, with whom we had the recent privilege to connect.

The first thing you are struck by when you meet Dr. Manar is the unlikely combination of a fresh, fun yet very direct approach coupled with extremely high intelligence, a strong independent streak and keen observations about education, health care and the future.

Self-described as an outside the box thinker and with a streak of rebellion, Dr. Manar is, at heart, an artist who has a Ph.D., in Molecular Oncology and Genetics. Her journey to success has taken taken many paths and a few unexpected turns.

I asked Dr. Manar about how she got from an interest and passion for art to Molecular Oncology, she said, “ My career is completely different from what I thought it would be, I felt compelled to make the choices I did.” Although she loves art, she could not ignore her observations and conclusions about the growing population of Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom’s evolving needs for health care.  Driven by a desire to contribute to the future well being of her nation, she pursued a medical education and an early career as a practicing physician and researcher.

She was derided by many for her decisions to pursue this course of study and professional path, repeatedly told “no-one will want you [want to marry you] if you do this” and only “losers” go the UK to study. She put in countless hours into her education and early positions reading everything she could put her hands on and getting involved in some of the most difficult medical challenges she could insert herself into. She described it simply, “God puts you on earth for a purpose – this has been mine.”

When she started working, Dr. Manar was rejected and continually shut out by an early boss. She tried to curtail her assertive approach, covering her hair, wearing long skirts and pleading, “Please just let me do the work.” Although even that failed to gain her acceptance, she was fortunate to come to the attention of the governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) who offered her a position. At SAGIA, she contributed in a variety of roles ending her five year stint as their Director General of Health Care & Life Sciences. In this role, she provided strategic and technical consulting in health care and life science businesses and led strategy-driven revenue models. It was during her tenure at SAIGA, that she once insisted on addressing a group of male conference attendees directly facing them versus, as she had been instructed, from behind a screen. She offered anyone who did not wish to look at her with an alternative – they could turn their chair around.

While at SAIGA, Dr. Manar continued to pursue her education applying for and receiving a scholarship from the Harvard Business School.  Just over a year ago, she was rewarded for her experience, success and advanced business education with an offer of a broader regional role at General Electric. At GE she focuses on innovative ways to bring and advance health care in the Middle East.

As I continued to probe Dr. Manar about her success and her advice for women in the Middle East and even globally, she had these insights to share:

  • The greatest obstacles to a woman’s success are within her – the key to success is self-confidence.
  • Do a lot of observing and studying before you talk but ultimately have the courage to say what you think.
  • Be focused, challenge yourself and keep learning. If you identify future markets and needs there will always be opportunities for you.

I ended our meeting with a question about what Dr. Manar ultimately wanted in her career. She described a very vivid picture of a small seaside art studio and café with bright flowers…

Rania Habiby Anderson

Rania Habiby Anderson

Founder & President

Expert on the advancement of business women. International speaker and author. Executive coach. Former corporate leader. Angel investor. Author of UNDETERRED: The Six Success Habits of Women in Emerging Economies.