There is no doubting the transformation sweeping Saudi Arabia. Powered by Vision 2030, the Kingdom is undergoing massive change at every level.
It is a transformation impacting not only the economy as it ushers in a new era of diversification and growth – attracting foreign investment, and creating opportunities across multiple sectors – but culture and society too.
And this is especially true for women.
“Socially and culturally, Vision 2030 has been instrumental in promoting gender equality and empowering women in the workplace,” says Reema Aref, one of the Kingdom’s first female lawyers and a Partner and Law Leader at EY Saudi Arabia.
“Reforms such as allowing women to drive, travel without a male guardian's permission, and participate in various sectors have been particularly significant. Moreover, the implementation of the anti-harassment law has provided essential protection for women in the workplace, fostering a safer and more inclusive environment.”
For Reema – who specialises in corporate and commercial law including Tax law and whose role is to provide innovative and impactful legal solutions to business clients – it is an especially exciting time.
The country’s commitment to gender diversity and inclusion has created a fertile ground for women to thrive in both the legal and business profession, and as more women break barriers and take on leadership roles, there is what Reema describes as a “palpable sense of positive change and progress in the air”.
“It fills me with hope and inspiration to witness the tremendous possibilities that lie ahead," she tells Business Chief.
Leading the charge for change
To understand just how impactful transformation has been, you need to look back 10 years when there were just 10 licensed female lawyers in the Kingdom. A decade on, and there are 1,000, with women now representing 12% of Saudi licensed lawyers.
A trained lawyer with more a decade of legal experience, Reema is part of the movement that has inspired such change; and as the first EY Partner & Law Leader in Saudi, she has been at the forefront of driving positive change for women both in the legal field and in leadership more generally.
“Pursuing a career in law was not an easy choice, especially as a woman where opportunities for female lawyers were scarce at that time, but I was determined to make a difference… to make a positive impact on society and to advocate for fairness and equality."
In the years since, the former legal corporate investigator for Saudi Aramco has witnessed the transformation of the workplace, where more women are breaking barriers and stepping into leadership roles with confidence and competence.
“Women are now leading important initiatives, making critical decisions, and contributing their unique perspectives to shape the legal and business landscape. This shift has enriched the professions, and I am excited to see more women making their mark in various sectors.”
Empowering women and promoting positive change in the region is a cause very close to Reema’s heart. And it’s one that makes up a large part of her role as a Partner at EY – where she serves as a mentor, role model, leader, and a catalyst for change and actively supports initiatives that encourage gender diversity and women’s leadership.
“My goal is to create an inclusive and empowering environment where everyone can reach their full potential. I strive to foster a culture of continuous learning and growth, where our team members are inspired to push boundaries and excel in their careers.”
Reema has been leading a twelve-strong team of diverse professional lawyers since January 2023, when the EY’s MENA practice – which has been operating in the Middle East for 100 years growing to 8,000 people across 26 offices and 15 countries – expanded its regional law offering with a Saudi legal practice.
New corporate laws changing the Saudi business landscape
The setting up of a dedicated practice just as the Kingdom’s new corporate law kicked in is no coincidence – with demand for expertise in navigating the new business laws especially high.
“EY Law provides companies with a one-stop-shop to help them anticipate and navigate the increasingly complex legal environments of both the local and global economies”
Reema explains how businesses have both local and global legislation to consider when organising each aspect of their operation model – everything from HR with labour and employment law to digital law to ensure compliance in an ever-changing technology landscape.
And the introduction of new laws in the corporate sector has brought about “substantial changes in how businesses operate,” says Reema – with the new Company Law and Procurement Law especially significant.
The recently enacted business laws are expected to play a big role in encouraging foreign investment and boosting the private sector – which is fundamental to the Kingdom’s long-term vision.
“Foreign investors want more flexibility and a more relaxed regulatory environment facilitating their entry into Saudi, which currently offers one of the most attractive markets globally,” Reema tells Business Chief.
“The aim of the new laws is to create an investment-friendly environment that supports the growth of the private sector and encourages private initiatives – mainly by enhancing governance and transparency while allowing the level of structural flexibility needed by corporations to adapt to the larger and more specific demands of the modern business enterprise.”
While adapting to the changes can be a challenge for some clients, the laws aim to “enhance transparency, facilitate business operations, and promote fair competition” – not to mention opening up new avenues for growth and innovation.
Describing the continuously evolving legal and business landscape as “dynamic”, Reema says the government’s dedication to swift legal reforms reflects the determination to build a vibrant and inclusive society.
For women, in particular, the pace of change has been nothing short of “remarkable” and Reema wakes up each morning with a sense of purpose – armed with the drive to be a role model, a trailblazer and a source of inspiration for everyone around her including her own children.
“I want others to know that they have the power to make a difference in the world and that challenges are opportunities for growth and transformation.”
EY MENA celebrates 100 years
EY has been operating in the Middle East and North Africa region since 1923 and over the past 100 years, has grown to more than 8,000 professionals united across 26 offices and 15 countries – all sharing the same values and unwavering commitment to quality. EY Global revenue increased by 14% to nearly US$50 billion, with the EMEIA region – inclusive of MENA, Europe, India and Africa – rising by US$1.2 billion to US$18.3 billion, marking 37% of the group’s total.
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