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Saudi Thoraya Obaid… The first Arab woman to head the UN agency

By : Marwa Mahmoud

Member of the Saudi Shura Council and the first Arab woman to head a United Nations agency, after assuming the position of Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund and the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. She is Thoraya Obaid

Birth and upbringing

Thuraya Ahmed Obaid was born in Baghdad on March 2, 1945 to Hijazi parents from Madinah. Her father, Ahmed Obaid Muhammad Obaid, was a journalist and one of the most prominent intellectuals of the Hijaz. She was raised in Cairo.

Study and future formation

She received her first lessons in the (Kotaab) elementary school, and then her father sent her in 1951 to the internal department of the American College for Girls in Cairo. She finished her primary, intermediate and secondary education in 1962, and when she reached seventeen years of age her father sent her to the United States of America for university study, and she received a scholarship.

The student was told at the time that she would be the only Saudi girl to receive a scholarship for America, and her success or failure will determine the fate of allocating grants to Saudi female students.

She received a BA in English Literature with a degree in Sociology from Mills College in Oakland, California, in 1966.

She continued her scholarship until she get masters and doctorate in 1974 from Wayne State University, in English major with a degree in cultural anthropology.

Jobs and responsibilities

After her graduation from university, Thoraya Obaid appointed as an Assistant Officer for Women’ Social Affairs   and Development at United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) between 1975 and 1981,

  After that she became a director of the Women and Development Program at the Committee between 1981 and 1986.

She chaired the supreme committee of the United Nations System Coordination Board.

Between 1996 and 1998, she represented the Secretary-General in the Fund of the UN Relief and Works Agency, and then appointed Director of the Division of Arab States and Europe at the UN Population Fund in New York between 1998 and 2000.

In 2001, she began her career as Executive Director of the UN Population Fund and Assistant Secretary-General of the UN until 2010.

In January 15, 2013, Thuraya Obaid appointed a member of the Shura Council from among the thirty women who were chosen for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia.

Awards and honors

Thoraya Obaid won many awards and honors, the most important of which was “The Grand Sash of Rising Sun” in 2011, which is the highest honor for non-citizens of Japan.

She received in 2011the New York School of Theology (Religious Study) award linked to Columbia University, in recognition of her work on the interaction between civilizations and religions, the first time that a Muslim has received this award.

Thuraya Ahmed was considered among the 100 Muslims who built the world civilization and culture, according to book named ‘Distinguished Muslims” that was published by Oxford Publishing.

She was included in the list of the 50 most powerful women in the Arab world, published by Forbes magazine in December 2004.