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Exclusive interview: Saudi businesswoman Muna AbuSulayman

Exclusive interview: Saudi businesswoman Muna AbuSulayman

AbuSulayman talks philanthropy, diversification and the benefits of social media

There is not a lot that Muna AbuSulayman does not do.

The Saudi entrepreneur, philanthropist, humanitarian, businesswoman, media personality, consultant, lecturer, fashion designer and campaigner for a range of social issues is a one-woman whirlwind, dedicated to – as she puts it – “being a part of positive human life”.

Pinning down her job title at any particular time can be tricky, or at least a lengthy affair, especially when you add in her various past successes.

“My main focus is consulting for philanthropy organisations,” she explains as we talk ahead of her speech at the Young Presidents Organisation’s YPO Edge event in Dubai.

But in truth that is just the tip of the iceberg.

AbuSulayman is indeed an ‘international development and strategic philanthropy expert’, but she also works with the United Nations, with various governments and numerous charities and owns her own clothing and fashion business – recently signing a partnership with modest fashion e-commerce site Haute-Elan.com.

She was also the first Saudi woman to be appointed United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador, was the founding secretary general of the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation – previously known as the Kingdom Foundation – and one of the co-founding hosts of MBC television show Kalam Noua’em.

Perhaps her overarching notion of “being part of positive human life” is one that we should adhere to, rather than assigning a definitive designation.

Her presence at the YPO Edge event ties in nicely with this idea. The two-day summit for YPO members took place in Dubai in March, bringing together some of the world’s brightest business leaders to share information, ideas and opportunities.

“Every year YPO Edge has really great speakers, and really great networking” enthuses AbuSulayman. “There’s a nice mix of people who are some of the best in the business, and they are giving us some great information.

“Not many events focus on ideas, but this one does and it comes at a really important time.”

Explaining herself further, she highlights recent events in her home country, where the drop in oil prices, slow progress of diversification and ongoing conflicts against ISIL and in Yemen have put pressure on resources and morale.

“We’re coming into a difficult two years in Saudi Arabia, and getting the rest of the world’s perspective will be very important,” AbuSulayman says.

“There are political implications with what’s going on and it’s all very unpredictable. There will be ramifications, which is why it’s important to share ideas from around the world.

“Saudi Arabia has got to look forward to new business opportunities, consider new trends and that’s where these events can be so beneficial.

“There’s an understanding of how the government works when things aren’t going so well. They are looking for people who have gone through things in the rest of the world and how they managed to find opportunities outside their core businesses.”

Read:
Saudi eyes US-style green card system as it looks to boost non-oil revenues

A big part of the solution for Saudi Arabia and its regional neighbours is diversification through entrepreneurship, something AbuSulayman believes the nations’ leaders are laying the groundwork for.

“In the GCC, there has been a concerted effort to build up entrepreneurs,” she asserts.

“There has been a big push to promote them and help them. It has not worked so well in some industrial sectors, so it’s not as developed as it could be in certain areas. But at least there is a push for youth to think about it.

“Now we are ready to reap the benefits. Entrepreneurship helps the country you’re in wherever you are; whether it’s formal or informal entrepreneurship. Governments weren’t paying enough attention to small and medium sized enterprises before, but now is the time for them to shine. Economies need them.”

Read: Top 10 entrepreneurs in the Middle East

AbuSulayman’s own entrepreneurial endeavours have led her to prominence in the humanitarian sector; the source of her passion. As our conversation turns towards the topic it is clear that her she feels duty-bound to drive humanitarian efforts not just in the region, but further afield. Although she admits it will take time to see a major change.

“In 2007 we had four humanitarian crises, now we have 11,” she says. “The amount of people we have to help is huge and there’s a big gap between what needs to be done and what’s being delivered.

“What kind of world do we want to create in 10 to 15 years’ time? A lot of scarcity is happening and it’s pushing more people into desperate situations. How can we, all around the world, deal with these issues more effectively?

“It’s going to take some time to make these things part of humanity. It’s like climate change. It took 30 years to get to where we are now. It all takes time.

“When we were thinking about the World Humanitarian Summit [a UN initiative due to take place in Istanbul in May] we thought it would be the end point of where we’re trying to get to. But we then realised it will take time to get there and that the summit will be more of a starting point in some ways. It will be a point at which to push the world into a new era of understanding and action.”

One way AbuSulayman aims to encourage this new era is through social media.

Muna

With almost 1.3m Facebook likes, 295,000 Twitter followers and 75,600 Instagram followers, she certainly has a lot of reach. And she believes that the immediate, interactive and global nature of platforms will eventually translate into direct action on humanitarian issues.

“It’s not translating into action yet, and that has to be the next big step,” she says.

“Now people are just clicking ‘like’ or treating it like a digital newspaper. But how can you actually get people to act on social media? In terms of philanthropy, emails still get you more donations. It will change, but it hasn’t happened yet. In a few years it will change and there will be much more action through social media.”

Read: Social platforms have changed TV and radio, say media bosses

AbuSulayman is evidently a fan of social media, and is a big advocate for its knowledge-sharing potential.

“I love it because I love information,” she admits. “I want information to reach as many people as possible and social media is a great way to do this. Wrong information can get out there too, so you have to be careful. But overall, it’s an amazing way to learn things yourself and help inform other people.”

Given her love for information, it is no surprise that she is currently concentrating on passing on her knowledge to companies looking to expand their social offering.

As a philanthropy consultant she helps businesses plan, craft and develop their corporate social responsibility initiatives, as well as the company’s main message.

“I help them discover how they turn their CSR into effective campaigns that reflect their DNA,” she explains.

But she admits that her heart is with her work for the United Nations; specifically the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit.

She continues: “I’m excited to see how we can work towards a global effort to solving so many humanitarian problems.

“It’s heartbreaking being in the field. One of the most important things is that we don’t want to have a lost generation. We want to move forwards into a world with less pain. This is my life and my work is about not having a lost generation.

“The ramifications of now will last for 50 years. With the loss of education people being are drawn into extremist organisations. What’s the world going to be like in next 50 years?

“We can all play a part in the future and I try to position myself to be part of a positive global life.”

With her stellar reputation, proven track record and huge following on social media, it is a fairly safe bet to say that her positive attitude will rub off on a significant number of people.

Perhaps convincing her Facebook and Twitter followers to shift from discussion to action might not take such a long time after all.

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