Rania Nashar has achieved several ‘firsts’ at Samba Financial Group. She was the first female Chief Audit Executive; the first female Compliance Head of a bank in the Gulf Cooperation Council; and the first Saudi Arabian woman certified as an Anti-Money Laundering Officer.

Driven, ambitious and passionate, Rania had always envisioned herself in a leadership position. But receiving the call to lead Samba still left her in shock. “When the Chairman of the Board called me, I was speechless,” Rania recalls. “He said, ‘We’ve been discussing who should be the next CEO of Samba. It happens to be that the best option for CEO is a female, and it’s you.’”

Rania was appointed CEO in 2017, becoming Samba’s first female CEO and simultaneously, the first female CEO of a listed Saudi Arabian bank. That same year, Saudi Arabia overturned the ban on women driving. It was one of a steady stream of changes that the highly conservative country introduced to create opportunities for women.

In 2001, women were allowed to have their own identity cards (where previously they were listed on the cards of their male family members). In 2011, women were granted the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections. The following year, in 2012, female athletes were allowed to compete in the Olympics. In 2015, female candidates entered municipal elections for the first time, with 20 of them getting elected.

In 2016, Saudi Arabia announced its Vision 2030 program, a plan to create a thriving economy. Part of the vision includes providing equal opportunities for both men and women – a plan Rania sees herself as a part of. “I’m a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030,” she says.

“I have to not only prove to myself that a bank of Samba’s size can be run by a female CEO – and can achieve the best results in its history – I have to prove it for all the women in Saudi Arabia and in the world. I hope that I can be an honourable portrait for Saudi women.”

During her time as Samba CEO, Rania has certainly proved her capability. In 2018, Samba achieved record profits of US$1.47 billion – a 10 per cent increase from the previous year. Furthermore, Rania says it was the highest profit the bank has had since its inception. “It gives me a lot of confidence,” she affirms. Adding further notches to her financial prowess, Forbes magazine listed Rania as one of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women and Forbes Middle East named her one of Most Influential Women in 2018.

While welcomed, Rania says the accolades put her in the spotlight a whole lot more. “This puts even more pressure on me to keep raising the bar to prove to everyone that a female can make it,” she says.

 

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, focuses on three main areas. The first is ‘Creating a vibrant society’, which aims to enhance the country’s cultural heritage.

The second is to create a ‘thriving economy’, which centres on creating economic opportunities and diversifying away from the country’s dependence on oil. The third centres around creating a transparent and accountable government.

Key goals include:

  • Lowering the unemployment rate
    from 11.6% to 7%
  • Increasing SME contribution to the
    GDP from 20% to 35%
  • Increasing women’s participation in
    the workforce from 22% to 30%
  • Raising the share of non-oil exports
    in non-oil GDP from 16% to 50%

The joy of banking

Growing up, Rania was always interested in physics and maths but pursuing these fields was a challenge. “Back in 1992, there were no options for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) – where my passion was,” she explains. “So, I decided to study computer science.”

Computer science and IT served as a gateway into another one of Rania’s interests – banking. She says she was inspired by her father, who works as a banker and regulator. “Banking was always at the back of my mind as an industry that is really fun. Now I understand how challenging it is,” Rania laughs. “I was inspired by how the industry aligns with the way my brain is structured. It’s full of science, trends, logistics, things like that. It has always been my passion to be in the financial industry but with a twist, so that’s why I studied IT.”

Joining Samba was an easy decision for Rania as it had good policies for women. “Back in the 1990s, it was the only bank with equal payment,” she explains. “There was no gender bias and there were females handling middle management and senior positions. So, when I was considering where I should start my career, it inspired me to think ‘Okay, when I go into this place, if I prove myself, I will definitely have an office on the ninth floor – the executive floor.’”

Samba Financial Group is the third largest bank by assets in Saudi Arabia. Its origins date back to 1955 when US-based Citibank opened a branch in Jeddah. In 1980, the bank was renamed the Saudi American Bank (40 per cent owned by Citibank and the majority stake owned by Saudi Arabia).

The name ‘Samba’ came from a combination of Saudi American Bank. In 2003, when Citibank decided to divest its interests in the company, the bank was officially named Samba Financial Group. Today, Samba has branches in the Middle East and South Asia, offering a wealth of private and company-wide bank services.

Reinforcing gender equality

Rania recalls the amount of support she received when she became CEO. “It was surprising to be supported not only by my male subordinates but even by the community. The whole country was really happy with that appointment.” Rania adds that the response to her position was positive and overwhelming.

For the first six months, she was highly sought after to attend events to keep inspiring both men and women. “It’s not only about being female but also being a local product; someone who has studied in Saudi schools,” Rania says. “Yes, I did my post-grad in the US, but it was more about being a local who had made it.

“With all the transformation going on it’s becoming easier for both males and females to move forward. And despite all the responsibilities, I was proving to everyone that I was the right selection. If the Board and Chairman entrusted me with this, and I proved this, then any man or woman can do it.”

Having helmed the business for more than two years now, Rania is continuing its emphasis on gender diversity. “I tell my team that when it comes to males and females, we’re equal in everything in life, with the exception that only women deliver babies.” As a result, Rania ensures diversification happens across the board. “We have equal pay and give equal opportunities. When we select for a certain position, it’s based on qualifications and efficiency. It has nothing to do with the gender.”

Further, Rania looks to mentor other women in the organisation, particularly those who have been with the business for more than five years. “By that time they’re in their late twenties or early thirties, which is when they might start establishing their own families. So I always tell them, ‘You can take a pause in your career.

You can stay stagnant without getting promoted because now it’s time to take care of your family. But you never quit.’ The moment they quit, it will set them back a few steps. But if they pause then continue in their career, they will feel better about themselves. They can occupy more leadership positions later because they never quit.”

Rania is also proud to have appointed the first woman in charge of Samba Ladies Banking. “We keep inspiring females here. We support them to ensure our environment provides equal opportunities for both males and females.”

An open mind

When it comes to leadership, Rania believes in teamwork but forgoes the idea of an ‘open door’. “I don’t have an open-door policy, it’s more of an open-mind policy,” she states. Throughout her career, Rania has seen several senior executives implement an open-door policy. She found that many would listen to employees but nothing would be done afterwards. Thus, she has always opted for the open-mind approach.

“Keep communicating, keep learning new things every day and try to do as much as you can to turn any challenge into an opportunity.”

“Sometimes you have an elevator talk with a junior employee who gives you an idea that is out of the park. I immediately call them into my office and this idea turns into a new product or service. I keep communicating with everyone; encouraging them to communicate directly with me and with their supervisors, because this form of communication inspires confidence. It creates trust among the employees and helps the bank get more ideas to expand.”

A force for good

Rania has taken part in several initiatives at Samba. She was involved in the launch of the company’s anti-money laundering policy between 2004 and 2005. The initiative was created during a particularly difficult period in the bank’s history. Citibank had recently divested its stake in the company and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks put Saudi Arabia under a lot of scrutiny. “It was a bit challenging for the bank to prove that we had the best controls and systems. That we are doing all the transaction monitoring and complying with the best practices when it came to anti-money laundering and combating terrorism financing.”

Since then, the company has introduced training initiatives for staff and different systems to monitor clients’ transactions and behaviours. It also created an Investigation Unit. “We were the first to report
some suspicious activities to the Saudi Arabia Financial Investigation Unit,” Rania says. “We keep getting positive feedback from authorities – whether it’s from the Central Bank (SAMA), the Financial Intelligence Unit or the Ministry of Interior – that we have some of best reports.”

With these controls in place, Samba has elevated its position in the financial industry. “We’ve been chosen
by the authorities here to represent the financial industry whenever there is a senior official visit, international visit or an assessment on the country regarding terrorism financing and combating money laundering,” Rania says.

She has also been involved in a housing initiative Samba launched for those in need in Saudi Arabia. “We started by first buying ready-made buildings and fully furnishing them. Then, through the partnerships we have with some charitable organisations, we hand over the units to the needy.”

After its initial success, the company decided to have more governance over the initiative. Following an agreement with the Ministry of Housing, Samba decided to bring needy families into a small percentage of houses built by the Ministry in middle-class communities.

“The way that we work with our corporate social responsibility program, and mainly in housing, is that we make sure it has sense and sustainability,” Rania says. “We don’t just donate money; it’s more about ensuring that whatever we spend, it adds to the sustainability of that initiative and creates a social impact. We have handed over about 250 units and almost 2,000 individuals are benefiting from that.”

 

Leading ladies

Rania Nashar joins these four other women from Saudi Arabia who made it onto Forbes Middle East’s Most Influential Women list:

  1. Lubna Al Olayan, CEO, Olayan Financing
  2. Nabilah Al-Tunisi, Chief Engineer, Saudi Aramaco
  3. Latifa Homoud Alsabhan, CFO, Arab National Bank
  4. Sumaya Al-Nasser, Founder, Sumaya 369

A mighty vision

When the Vision 2030 plan was announced, Samba’s senior management team revisited the bank’s strategy. The team worked to align Samba’s strategic objectives to the vision. “We have started to reorganise ourselves,” Rania says. “Our bank was always perceived as a corporate or high-net-worth-individual bank. But now we’ve started to expand into the micro, and small and medium enterprise (MSME) sectors. We have also signed some agreements with Kafalah, the government agency in charge of MSMEs, and we have doubled that business in just one year’s time.”

Rania highlights that Saudi Arabia is undergoing one of the most transformative changes in its history, which presents several prospects for Samba. “This change is bringing challenges – as well as opportunities – and we understand that we have to proactively overcome these,” she says.

“Our strategy is basically to continue growing our business and aligning ourselves with the national agenda. We will continue to focus on growing our credit portfolio as well as working on the mortgage and increasing home ownership. We will continue to be innovative and explore new ideas for our customers. And we will continue to groom Saudi youngsters towards growth and employment opportunities.”

In light of her personal and professional achievements, Rania believes women who have big business goals in mind should always work on improving themselves. “Keep communicating, keep learning new things each day and try to do as much as you can to turn any challenge into an opportunity. I believe women are the best at doing this. If we take a look at our mothers and grandmothers, they took whatever they had and tried to make the best of it.

They might have cooked various meals with limited ingredients or had to take care of the kids while they were working. With Vision 2030 and its programs, so many jobs have been created. Women need to seize any opportunity. I believe that young women should find any opportunity to work, despite how small or big the job is.”