Ahead of Diversity

Businesses across the world are looking for new ways to ensure there is diversity in their boardrooms and leadership teams. In jurisdictions like Saudi Arabia there are unique challenges to overcome.



With women making up nearly 10% of its workforce and with a clear determination to promote the progression of women in the workplace, Saudi Aramco is, nevertheless, adopting a “gradual and sensitive” approach to pushing forward the diversity agenda, says General Counsel, David Kultgen.

These are years of massive transformation for Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company and the lynchpin of the Saudi Arabian economy.

Overseeing and managing the world’s biggest proven reserves of oil and the fourth biggest reserves of natural gas, Saudi Aramco accounts – through the taxes, royalties and dividends it pays – for more than 90% of the Saudi Government’s income. As such, it is unquestionably the main economic driving force in the Kingdom with an important role in implementing the Kingdom’s economic policy.

How it fulfils that role has been the focus of much thought in recent years, says David Kultgen, the company’s General Counsel and secretary to the Saudi Aramco Board.

“Shortly after I took up my current post in 2010 our corporate management team engaged McKinsey to help us assess where we were as a company and where we needed to get to continue to fulfil our core mandate of overseeing and developing the Kingdom’s hydrocarbon resources, while at the same time contributing to the national agenda of economic diversification and job creation.”

The product of that exercise was the company’s “Accelerated Transformation Program” – a ten- to 20-year initiative designed to transform not only the structure of the company but also the impact it can have on reshaping the wider economy and addressing a range of pressing economic and social issues.

“The focus was on what we need to do as a company to perform our central role producing and distributing the kingdom’s oil and gas,” he says.

“But we also looked at what we need to do to be a catalyst for, and a driver of, job creation in a society with a very young population and a very large unemployment rate. In other words what we can do to help diversify the economy away from almost total dependence on oil and gas.”

The plan is to transform Saudi Aramco into a fully integrated and truly global energy and chemicals enterprise.

It involves further strengthening its upstream oil and gas business, setting up a new chemicals business capable of competing with the top four or five global players in the sector, and expanding and integrating the existing refining and marketing business with chemicals to make it more global. The company will also play a major role in developing the Kingdom’s power sector and will significantly increase its investment in oil, gas and chemicals-related R&D.

But there’s another critical part of the plan too, he says. “We are trying to address the systemic problem of how to plan and budget effectively, become more agile in our decision making and develop our young talent for the future.”

It’s a huge agenda and has inevitably had a significant impact on David’s own in-house legal team, which has nearly tripled in size since 2010 as the demand for legal services has increased. With the balance of external and internal legal spending shifting from 50/50 in 2001/2 to 90/10 in 2010/11, a key goal was to build up the law organization’s in-house capabilities.

By the end of this year, the headquarters legal team in Dhahran will have grown from 29 lawyers and 15 support staff in 2011 to 64 lawyers and 55 support staff, with a further 15 lawyers located in Houston, The Hague and Beijing. Eight separate practice areas have been created, along with a “Saudi practice” made up of locally trained, Arabic-speaking lawyers and a paralegal group of both English and Arabic language speakers.

If it sounds like an international law firm within a company, that’s not surprising, admits David. “I’ve been told by more than one external counsel that we are now the biggest law firm in Saudi Arabia, outside the government itself.”

Offering real opportunities to women

But the make-up of the team is particularly striking.

Working in a fully integrated workplace, the Dhahran office has seen the number of women lawyers grow from one in 2010 to seven today, while the number of women support staff has grown from 13 to 33.

Elsewhere, 40% of the Houston legal team and half of the lawyers in Beijing are women. An all-woman Hague law organisation office is led by a Saudi lawyer, Deema Hassan, who was the first Saudi woman to graduate from Saudi Aramco’s sponsored Law Program, recruiting young professionals from within the company and sending them to the United States to secure JD degrees.

The increasing presence of women is not confined to Saudi Aramco’s legal team – it’s a balance now common across many parts of the company, and overall just short of 10% of the group’s 62,000 employees are women.

And it’s not a new thing. The company took on its first female employee in 1964 and the numbers have been building steadily over the years.

The 1970s saw a significant increase, for two reasons.

“At that time, the company was still American-owned and managed. But the Kingdom also started educating women in earnest at about that time, both in secondary school and at university level, creating a whole new segment of potentially employable people that just wasn’t being tapped,” David says.

“So the decision to target women recruits and support their development was a values and responsibility driven thing. It started on a very small scale and has evolved steadily since then.

“Over the last ten to 15 years women have become increasingly a part of our workplace – at all levels within the company, including leadership positions – and today we have more talented and capable women at Saudi Aramco than ever before,” he says.

“But we’ve taken a gradual and sensitive approach to this. There is still a segment of society here that regards female employment as not a good thing and local labour regulations still stipulate that workplaces should be segmented. Outside Aramco, the medical professions, women’s universities and some of the international law firms and banks operating here, actively recruiting and developing talented women, is not yet widespread practice.” 

Promoting change – internally

Today Saudi Aramco is measuring the impact of this much greater gender diversity through surveys, focus groups and extensive development programmes.

Its Women in Business programme, now in its fifth year, focuses on women’s development and how they can succeed in the workplace early in their careers. Nearly 900 women (or 61% of women in the workforce with less than ten years’ service) have gone through the programme. The “Women in Leadership” programme – now in its fourth year – targets women, both Saudi and expatriate, who are currently in, or who are likely to reach, leadership roles in the company. Nearly 60 women have taken part to date.

2014 saw the staging of Saudi Aramco’s first board-sponsored “Women in the Workforce Forum”, designed to inspire, celebrate success and gather insights for further initiatives. The forum was attended by 300 men and women actively involved in developing the company’s diversity agenda. These formal programmes and initiatives are also backed up by a well-established system of mentoring and coaching.

“It’s a work-in-progress but we are doing as much as we can to identify, recruit and retain talented women, including leaders, and to give them the experience they need to progress. Our head of and most senior female executive is Huda Ghoson and it’s no coincidence that we have a woman in this role. It’s one reason why there is so much energy and commitment behind our diversity programme.”

He admits that it is easier to promote this agenda in some areas of the business than others. “We have a number of clear challenges in certain areas – for instance in giving female petroleum engineers and geologists experience in the field. Drilling sites and production facilities, most in very remote desert locations, just aren’t set up to accommodate a mixed workforce at the moment.”

But, as he has seen in his own department, there are inventive ways to expand opportunities at a time when more and more women are emerging from university, hungry for opportunities. The paralegal team is a case in point. “We’re finding a lot of Saudi women with a degree in, say, English Language or Literature, are very good recruits for our paralegal team.” 

Thought leadership

Saudi Aramco is also positioning itself within the country as a thought leader on diversity – again moving sensitively on this issue.

Outreach programmes in schools and leading universities promote the approach the company is taking to diversity and the opportunities on offer to women recruits. Development programmes for women have been run through the Saudi Chamber of Commerce at 18 universities across the Kingdom. Now it is planning to start even earlier, offering after-school classes in science, technology, engineering and maths – the so-called STEM subjects – for 8th and 9th grade girls.

With the help of McKinsey again, the company is running a research and benchmarking project to boost its thought leadership in this area and to come up with recommendations on how to tackle the specific issues faced by working women across the Middle East.

David says that outreach programmes and events are popular and always well attended. The company’s influence on approaches to diversity is also being felt in new areas of society. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was developed by Saudi Aramco is modelled on the Saudi Aramco approach to workplace diversity – with mixed faculties and classes.

And David believes the business community can play a pivotal role in gradually changing attitudes. “Remember there is a very vocal segment of the female population advocating change. Some of them are prominent in the business community. They are probably in the best position to bring about that change.”

Mostly it’s a case of trying to bring society slowly along to where business is already, he says.

“How fast that change will come is hard to say – circumstances for working women are very different across the Middle East, even within the six countries that make up the Gulf Co-operation Council.

“Business can play an important role by creating much-needed jobs and opportunities for people and by demonstrating that change can bring real benefits to society without undermining its culture and its traditions.

“When people see the sort of benefits to be gained, it may be easier to secure change.”


Businesses are playing a significant role in offering opportunities for professional women in Saudi Arabia that only a few years ago would have seemed impossible. But for A&O’s associated office in the Kingdom it was all about recruiting the best trainee lawyers – and they just happened to come from a female-only law college.

When Mashael AlShebaiky, Rawan Rahbini, Waad AlQuraini, and Leen Zaza (currently associates in Riyadh) joined our associated Riyadh office a trainee associates in 2012, female graduates of law schools were not granted licenses to practice law. Since that was changed in 2013, a number of female lawyers have been licensed, three of whom work for our associate law firm in the Kingdom, the Zeyad S. Khoshaim Law Firm.

Managing partner, Zeyad Khoshaim, has been at the forefront of helping female lawyers – both Saudi and international – progress in the profession within the country.

Recruiting lawyers with the potential to fit quickly into an international law firm had, in the past, often been a question of working with overseas universities and contacts or relying on international head-hunters. There just wasn’t the supply of locally trained lawyers with the right skills, experience or language capabilities to hire.

The defining moment came when Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan University launched a new law degree course aimed exclusively at females.

Importantly, the course is taught in English, which is essential for any prospective lawyer wanting to work in an international law firm. As a requirement of their studies, students have to complete a seven-month internship in a law firm, giving them a real taste of what is demanded of a commercial lawyer.

Seeing that the quality and rigour of the course and its more international outlook   was attracting very high calibre students, Zeyad quickly decided that A&O’s associated office should be one of the first to partner with the university and offer internships to top students. Since then, many have interned with the firm, some staying, some moving on to study further or work elsewhere.

Zeyad says he and fellow partners, Julian Johansen and Johannes Bruski, did not set out with a deliberate policy to hire female lawyers. “It just so happens that we noticed that graduates from this University were some of the best young lawyers in Saudi Arabia and they happen to be female,” he says.

“But, as time has gone on, we have found that those firms that have a deliberate policy not to employ female lawyers are actually being hurt. They have cut themselves out of a great opportunity to work with, assess and hire these excellent lawyers.”

Making sure the firm can continue to attract and recruit the best graduates from Prince Sultan University has now become a priority. “The best way to convince these young graduates to come and join us is by making it clear we will support their growth within a highly integrated, international and professional firm. You have to involve them in transactions and have them develop in the same way a trainee joining any A&O office would. We can do this by creating the right environment, with the right policies and behaviours.”

Zeyad says that A&O’s “one firm” ethos helps in the training of lawyers in the Kingdom. “What is so great about A&O is that partners and associates outside of Riyadh are as interested in growing the Riyadh office as we are.”

However, there are other structural challenges as well. Local regulations stipulate that female employees must have separate entrances and separate work areas, for example. Female lawyers cannot visit all parts of key ministries and other government buildings. Certain clients do not have the appropriate facilities either.

As a result, smaller local law firms often take the view that they cannot afford to cater for a mixed workforce.

“The deck is pretty much stacked against female lawyers,” says Zeyad.

“But over time they’ve proved that they are as good as any other lawyer and most of the international affiliated law firms are now competing fiercely to recruit the best. For local firms, however, recruiting women remains very much the exception, rather than the rule.”

Pressure for local firms to change their approach could intensify, however, he believes. The cohort on the Prince Sultan course has grown from 20 to 80 or 90 students and two other universities have since launched female law courses. Saudi Arabia is a youthful society but employment opportunities in many sectors are scarce. Without gradual change, however, many young people – male and female – will miss the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

A diverse team

A&O’s associated Saudi office has quadrupled in size since the association with Zeyad S. Khoshaim Law Firm was sealed in 2013, in compliance with local laws which forbid international firms from establishing a presence independently, so they must work with an associate firm.

The practice is now recognised as one of the top firms in the Kingdom, with IFLR 2014 (Saudi Arabia) describing it as: “one of the leading and busiest practices in the country, particularly in banking and finance.”

Of a total of 35 partners, lawyers and staff, 11 are female, including four associates, with a further four trainees having arrived in September.

Zeyad, who himself trained in the U.S. and worked in New York before returning to Saudi Arabia, stresses that the approach to hiring female lawyers chimes with the overall culture of the firm, which enthusiastically embraces diversity. With a staff drawn from Saudi Arabia, and across the U.S., Europe and Asia, the Riyadh office  is international in make-up and outlook and this has clear benefits, he says.

“I think it will surprise many around the A&O network just how diverse our office is. We believe that a diverse group creates better results. People who come with different viewpoints usually find more interesting ways to solve problems, especially for a new office. As a relatively new office; we have a kind of start-up feel which deals with the growing pains of a start-up. Given that we started the firm together, I believe that our diversity helped us in overcoming the challenges that we faced. We  are growing strongly now and everybody is very invested in the business.”

Across the world A&O has introduced its 20:20 vision to ensure that 20% of partners are women by 2020. Currently the figure is 17%. The firm recognises that different offices in different jurisdictions face individual challenges in making it a reality. A number of other offices in the network have already surpassed 20% and continue to stretch themselves while, with support, others are working toward the goal.

Zeyad is aware of the local challenges he faces in meeting A&O’s 20:20 vision but feels that having the vision is helpful. . “I fully support our 20:20 goals, and actually use these to showcase that we are an environment where you, as the best of the best from any schools you graduate from, can prosper. It adds to the discussions we are having here about how we develop the office and our people.”

Diversity personified

Leen Zaza, one of the first female associates to join the associated Riyadh office, personifies the diversity that Zeyad feels so strongly about.

With a Canadian mother and a Syrian father, her family moved to Riyadh when she was a child. She studied at a local English school and then completed both her LLB and LLM at the University of Bristol, in the UK, coming back between the two degree courses to intern at another international firm in the Kingdom.

On completing her studies she returned to the Kingdom and joined A&O’s associated office in Riyadh. She has since passed both the New York Bar and the Multistate Professional Responsibility exams.

Few of the challenges Leen sees in working in Riyadh are to do with her gender and she sees all of them as opportunities.

It is a sign of how the business sector is increasingly in the vanguard of change, says Leen.

“There is an increasing number of women working in the law, in banking and in commerce these days. It’s more and more common to see women as part of deal teams, for example. It’s nice to be a part of something that is changing,” she says.

Being part of a relatively small team means more responsibility at an earlier stage in her career, for instance – she welcomes that.

Working in a jurisdiction where the legal system is still developing means more regulatory than commercial work, perhaps, but she feels part of a group of people that is helping to shape the market. “I’m driven by opportunities” she says.

But what are the challenges in being a female lawyer here?

“Before I did my internship I actually had no idea I could work here as a lawyer, and of course, in those days it still wasn’t possible for females to get licensed. That only happened a couple of years ago, which gives you an idea of how challenging it can be, but also how rapidly things are moving forward.”

Some clients have, at first, struggled with the idea of working with a female lawyer, she admits. On occasions it has been assumed she is a secretary rather than a legal associate with the authority, knowledge and skills to work on deals.

“But, once you go ahead and do what you are there to do, it’s very satisfying to see perceptions change and it’s great to feel you are playing a part in changing those attitudes.”

She pays tribute to Zeyad and his fellow partners.

“The partners have gone to great lengths to make sure that, with everyone we deal with, the female lawyers are as integral to the team as the male lawyers. I find it very heart-warming to be part of a team where the female lawyers are encouraged to be right at the forefront of our work with clients, rather than being expected to sit back and let someone else do the work.”

Could changes in the business world help to speed change elsewhere in Saudi society?

“When I look at our office I think this is great, because if every other office were to do what we are doing, change would happen a lot faster than people expect,” she says.

“It will be interesting to see just how quickly wider society catches up with the business world,” she muses, adding: “but that’s a question I really don’t know the answer to.”


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