The appointment of Enass Al-Shahwan as the Kingdom’s ambassador to Sweden and Iceland, the third female to occupy the post in the history of Saudi Arabia, was only a step in the solid and ambitious program to empower women under the current leadership of the Kingdom.
Last April, Al-Shahwan was sworn in before the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia. She became the first Saudi woman within the diplomatic corps to become an ambassador and the third to hold the position, after Princess Rima bint Bandar bin Sultan (appointed as the Kingdom’s ambassador to the United States in 2019) and Amal Al-Mouallimi (ambassador to Norway in 2020).
In her first statement after taking office, Al Shahwan expressed her pride in the tremendous royal confidence and hopes to meet expectations. The ambassador asked for God’s help to perform her work with dedication and sincerity, serve the Kingdom’s interests, and strengthen the bilateral relations between the KSA and the two friendly countries, Sweden and Iceland.
LEADERS MENA magazine had a meeting with Mrs Enass Al-Shahwan, who has nearly 14 years of experience in diplomatic work, many achievements during her career, and multiple academic qualifications in her field.
Al Shahwan holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Australia; is a member of the first batch of the Future Leaders Program, launched by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2017; and holds a Certificate in Emerging Leadership from Harvard University. She joined the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2007 and held many positions, the latest as Advisor to the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for Political Affairs.
During her diplomatic career, Al Shahwan was the first woman to be a Department Manager at the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for Political and Economic Affairs. The new ambassador also handled some critical political files during her tenure, represented the Kingdom in many regional and international forums, and provided lectures and workshops in International Relations to some Ministry´s employees and other government sectors.
Al Shahwan’s appointment comes to consolidate the role of women during the era of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, an expression of the total royal confidence in their abilities to assume responsibility. The decision is part of the empowerment program running gradually since King Salman took power. On 12 December 2015, during the first year of his rule, women participated in municipal elections as voters and candidates for the first time in the Kingdom’s history. The results culminated in 21 women won seats in the municipal council elections.
Next, on 14 February 2018, the country allowed women to start private businesses and benefit from government services without a male guardian’s approval. Shortly after, on 24 June 2018, Saudi women began driving cars, a historic order issued by the Saudi monarch on 26 September 2017, which allowed women to obtain a driving license according to Sharia controls.
In translating the Saudi leadership’s directives to empower women in various fields, women started to assume some jobs previously reserved only for men, both in the government and private sectors. In this regard, Princess Rima bint Bandar became the Saudi ambassador to the United States on 23 February 2019, the first woman to hold such a position.
Last October, Saudi women achieved several historic gains, most notably Amal Yahya Al-Mouallimi, the Kingdom’s ambassador to Norway, to become the second female ambassador. Al-Mouallemy’s appointment came two days after King Salman issued a royal order appointing Hanan bint Abdul Rahim bin Mutlaq Al-Ahmadi, assistant to the Shura Council’speaker, the first woman to hold the position.
Now, to LEADERS MENA Interview with Mrs Enass bint Ahmed Al Shahwan, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Sweden and Iceland
Would you please tell our readers more about your career path until this great position?
I started my career in 2004 as a lecturer at Al-Faisal International Academy. Less than three years later, I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at that time a few ladies worked in the department with tremendous opportunities awaiting us. Shortly after that, I was posted to Canberra, Australia, to work at the Saudi Embassy. It was an enriching experience that contributed to developing my capabilities as a diplomat.
By the end of 2011, I came back to Riyadh and joined the Research and Studies Center at MOFA, and during that time, I was fortunate to participate in many special programs, both locally and abroad.
In 2017, I joined the Ministry’s Agency for Political and Economic Affairs where I handled a number of political files, and represented the Kingdom in many regional and international forums, such as the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. In the same year, the Ministry launched the Future Leaders Program, which provides intensive leadership training and the opportunity to work closely with high officials at the Ministry, I was fortunate to become a member of that program.
In 2018, I became West and Central Asia department director, and before being appointed as ambassador to Sweden and Iceland, I worked as a Political Advisor to his Excellency the Vice Minister Mr Waleed Alkhereiji.
Academically, I have a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from King Saud University and two master’s degrees – Information Systems and International Relations, from Australia.
After such a path, how did you receive this great news? How did it affect you?
When I first got the news, I was both excited and overwhelmed by the sense of the responsibility of becoming the first career woman diplomat appointed as ambassador. I am grateful for the support and encouragement my family and colleagues showed me.
Before we move on to the tasks of this high position, would you share your views on the current march of Saudi women and girls in light of the Kingdom’s remarkable achievements?
Under the guidance of His Majesty King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, we have come a long way in a short period of time. Saudi women are moving forward with confidence and competence, becoming the main contributor to the country’s prosperity and development.
Today, Saudi women hold notable positions, such as Assistant Chairman of the Shura Council, Vice-Ministers, and University Rectors. In diplomacy, we have the first Saudi woman ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, who is an inspiration to all of us as diplomats. We look forward to appointing more women to high positions in the near future.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia adopted several legislative reforms and introduced regulations and policies to advance and empower Saudi women in economic, social, and political fields, that led to international recognition of these reforms. The World Bank Group Women Business and the Law (WBL) ’s report, released last February, mentioned the economic inclusion reforms for women. It cited an increase in performance with scores at the top of the scale in mobility, workplace, pay, entrepreneurship, and pension. These historic reforms reflect the leadership’s support for females in all fields, embedded in the plans of the National Transformation Program and the ambitions of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.
And how are these points achieved in the Kingdom’s vision 2030 for Saudi women?
The empowerment of women is at the heart of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 with far-reaching social and economic goals.
Vision 2030 has focused on the full participation of Saudi women at all levels, investing their energies and enabling them to have the right opportunities to build their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy. To achieve that, the Vision developed executive programs and initiatives that inevitably strengthen women’s positions in decision-making posts and further their contribution to the development of our Kingdom.
With their enormous capabilities and willingness to achieve progress and prosperity at various levels, along with the continued support and empowerment of the Kingdom’s leadership, Saudi women will continue to attain new heights.
How do you view your most important diplomatic duties as ambassador?
Caring for Saudi citizens abroad, maintaining their interests, and protecting them are among the priorities of the Kingdom’s embassies under the guidance of wise leadership. Moreover, the primary mission of an ambassador is to strengthen relations between the Kingdom and the host country. Yes, the basis is political relations, but economic, cultural, scientific, and other relations are major tributaries for consolidating relations between the two countries and advancing them to broader horizons.
The employment of various forms of diplomacy, such as digital and public, has become a must to achieve the desired goals in the Kingdom’s foreign relations and the national brand that reflects the progress and prosperity the country has reached today. That requires a great deal of awareness, knowledge of the host country, and the formation of a vast network of relationships with all segments of society.
What do you wish to achieve for Arab women – Saudi women in particular?
Arab women, Saudi women included, have proven their stature in all fields. Their achievements are recognized internationally.
Women now play an increasingly important role in economic, social, and political spheres. In recent years, there has been a sequence of pioneering moments that put them under the spotlight globally. I am sure we can build on this momentum and achieve new heights.