Shaping Women Leaders in Saudi Arabia

Exclusive Interview with Esraa Al Sharief
Chief People Officer of IKEA Saudi and Bahrain

Meet Esraa Al Sharief, Chief People Officer of IKEA Saudi and Bahrain 


In this exclusive interview, we had the pleasure of speaking with Esraa Al Sharief, one of the most prominent leaders and influential figures in Saudi Arabia. Esraa has over 14 years of experience, Esraa has played a vital role in creating multiple successful outcomes through her expertise in organizational transformations and change management initiatives.

Throughout her career, she has worked in various industries, including banking, real-estate, education, tourism, and retail, which has allowed her to develop strong strategic skill. In 2022, she became the first and youngest female to ever be in top management within IKEA Saudi & Bahrain as the Chief People Officer.

In 2023, Esraa was recognized and awarded by the Economic Times as one of the top 50 most Iconic and Influential HR Leaders in the Middle East. She is also passionate about coaching executives, female leaders, and young people and is currently undergoing accreditation from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) to extend her knowledge and experiences in the most effective way.

Question: How has the role of women in leadership evolved in Saudi Arabia?

Answer: Women have always been an area of focus in Saudi Arabia, however, with Saudi’s vision and especially in the past 5 years, there has been a huge evolution in women’s advancement and closing gender gap, recent studies have shown that Saudi have ranked top 5 countries globally to succeed in closing the gap.

Today, Saudi Arabia will send its first female astronaut to space Rayyanah Barnawi this year, this is something I always believed will happen but the speed of growth, and implementation is magnificent! I have a strong belief that men and women are given an equal opportunity to have a seat at the same table in every sector, and in every industry.

We are already witnessing great progress towards equity, exemplified by HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar KSA Ambassador to the USA, HRH is the first woman in the country’s history to serve in this role. Haifa Al-Jedea’s appointment as an ambassador and head of the Saudi mission to the EU and the European Atomic Energy Community, and H.E. Adwa Al-Arifi appointed as an Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Sports, and the first female committee member at the Saudi Arabia Football Federation. Additionally, the youth of Saudi women are being recognized locally and globally as a driving force for advancement in multiple areas such as artificial intelligence, science, fashion, sports, entrepreneurship, and many many more.

Our country is leading by example and paving the way towards normalization of gender-equity; which will inspire and encourage further progress by the private sector and other entities. Saudi women have put their positive mark globally which wasn’t possible without the empowerment of our beloved country. I am extremely proud to be a Saudi woman; being part of this era, and witnessing this magnificent evolution.

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To all women, I would like to emphasize that the sky is the limit and that opportunities are everywhere. There is no limit to what you can achieve. You are capable of great things, and with the right mindset, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. So, believe in yourself, work hard, and never give up on your dreams.

— Esraa Al Sharief

Question: Can you discuss any initiatives or programs you have been a part of that support women’s advancement and leadership development in Saudi Arabia?

Answer: Its part of my role to ensure that the management team and I partner to create an environment that welcomes and encourages gender equity by creating equal job opportunities, ensuring career growth is accessible for all genders, adjusting policies for a better engagement and wellbeing. Alongside these initiatives, we have delivered various leadership programs from top notch and global centers for both genders to allow them to have an equal chance to become senior leaders in the near future; and we are proud to share that up to date our female trainees were 34% from the overall participants.

Of course, our aim is to increase the % of potential female leaders, and we are exploring all aspects to achieve our aspiration and connecting it with the Saudi Vision. Throughout my career, I have been engaged in various relevant topics, such as leading committees that focuses on women advancement that looked over creating the right opportunities for females, providing them with the right skills, tools and resources needed, and introducing policies that ensured a healthy work/life balance to all women.

I personally have a huge passion to empower and coach females, hence, 70% of the individuals I coach are females; they have huge ambitious to grow, make a difference and create a positive mark. To me, this is what I enjoy the most, as it gives me absolute pleasure to see women excel and achieve all they aspire to become.

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This is the era of coexistence. I cannot imagine having one gender more dominant than the other since we both empower each other; we need both genders to grow, and truly make a difference – in fact, we need to add more aspects of diversity and inclusion to this equation for a better future.

— Esraa Al Sharief

Question: In your opinion, what are the benefits of having more women in leadership positions in both the private and public sectors?

Answer: Women’s natural ability to empathize and connect with others is a valuable asset in the workplace. It allows them to build strong relationships with colleagues, clients, and customers, and create a positive and collaborative work environment. In addition to their empathetic nature, women are often skilled multitaskers. Juggling multiple responsibilities is a common experience for many women, and they have learned how to manage their time and prioritize tasks effectively.

This ability to multitask and stay focused under pressure can be a huge advantage in many professional settings, as they are built to be caregivers, wives, sisters, and mothers. This skill grows with them, and all women may not even realize they have it. Even though focusing on women’s empowerment is essential for growth, and inclusivity, it’s important to strive for a balance between male and female empowerment to embrace coexistence.

Women Leadership and Empowerment

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Women empowerment in organizations begins with recognizing the important roles women play in any organization’s success. Focusing on building awareness and supporting the evaluation of systems and process which ultimately lead to a change in culture….one that recognizes talent and achievements regardless of a leader’s gender.

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