3 Women to Watch

Rising stars of emerging markets in 2018



Russian Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina presents the new 2,000 rouble banknote in Moscow, Russia October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

There are currently 24 female heads of state or government around the world, putting women at the helm of 12.3% of the 195 countries recognized by the UN.

Contrast this to data compiled by Credit Suisse revealing that women held 14.7% of the world’s 3,000 largest companies’ corporate board seats in 2015—up 54% on 2010.

Though female business and political leaders are generally better represented in developed countries, the competition from emerging markets is stiff. From chairing stock exchanges to governing central banks, here are three women leading the way in both the public and private sectors in emerging markets.

Sarah Al-Suhaimi (Saudi Arabia)

There was much celebration in September when King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud announced that women would finally be able to drive “in accordance with the Islamic laws” as of June 23, 2018.

With one third of the female workforce unemployed, influential billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal, now under house arrest in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, had publicly advocated for such a move in 2016 as an “economic necessity” as much as anything. Given that Saudi families often spend upwards of USD1,000/month on foreign drivers, his analysis was on the money in more than one way.

This makes the breakneck rise of Sarah Al Suhaimi, the first female chairperson of Saudi’s only stock exchange, Tadawul, which is also the largest in the Middle East, all the more telling.

Barely 39 years old, Al-Suhaimi is the CEO of NCB Capital Company, investment arm of the National Commercial Bank, and since 2014 had been tipped to take over the country’s bourse. An accountant by training, she also previously oversaw USD12 billion as head of asset management at Samba Financial Group, another Saudi giant.

Her appointment could not have come at a more momentous time for the Kingdom.

While the country’s bourse was only opened up to foreigners in 2015—and incessant debates over whether the earth-shattering Aramco listing would be held in New York, London, or Hong Kong never once mentioned the home team—the country’s reformist leaders are depending on institutions such as the USD439 billion Tadawul to propel the country toward Vision 2030’s promised land.

The country’s ability to navigate the geopolitical shifts taking place in the Gulf over the past year will depend in large measure on Sarah Al-Suhaimi’s steady hand at the helm of the Tadawul.

Marina Silva (Brazil)

Brazilian Senator Marina Silva poses beside a banner of renowned environmentalist Chico Mendes in Brasilia, December 11, 2002. Silva was named as the new environment minister by [President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.]

Minister of the Environment under President Lula da Silva from 2003-2008, Marina Silva is now challenging her former political patron for the October 2018 presidential elections.

Silva grew up hunting and tapping rubber in the Amazon, and was allegedly illiterate until the age of 16. A former maid, longtime environmental activist, and devout Evangelical, Silva has broad popular appeal.

She has been a presidential contender twice before, first for the Green Party and second for the Socialists, the former senator received 19.33% of the vote in 2010 and 21.32% in 2014. Though Dilma Rousseff won both these elections, she was impeached in 2016 and replaced by Michel Temer, a sitting incumbent so wildly unpopular (approval rating: 3%) that he dares not run in 2018.

The real story is whether former President Lula will be allowed to run again. Polls have him ahead of Silva by 20%, but the corruption scandal that landed him a 10-year prison sentence in 2017 is still being appealed.

Should Lula’s conviction stand, the biggest challenge between Marina Silva and the presidency is the far-right former Army captain and Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, infamous for his sexist and homophobic tirades.

Relishing being dubbed the “Donald Trump of Brazil” and hazy on economic policy, the “pro-family” “law-and-order” candidate who was baptized in the River Jordan last year also appeals to the country’s growing evangelical base.

Bolsonaro is in second place with 16%, but Marina Silva would not have to make a terribly strong case to win the backing of former Lula supporters should the former president fail to win his appeal.

Though Silva’s career has been made on environmental and class-based issues, her candidacy as the first Afro-Brazilian to seriously contend for the highest office in the land would make her victory doubly symbolic.

Elvira Nabiullina (Central Bank of Russia)

Dubbed “Putin’s right hand woman” by the Economist, Elvira Nabiullina has been a beacon of stability in an otherwise turbulent Russian economic landscape since first joining the president’s staff as deputy economy minister in 2000. Becoming full minister in 2007, she was first made governor of the Central Bank in 2013.

Nominated by Putin to a second four-year term in April 2017, Nabiullina’s deft steering of the Russian economy through two recessions (2008-9 and 2014-7), the historic 2014 collapse in oil prices, and the crippling effects of US-led sanctions that same year gained her the trust of the president and the grudging respect of the international financial community.

After GDP shrank by 8% in 2009, Nabiullina’s moves to diversify sources of funding by allowing international securities depositories to start handling Russian bonds softened the blow of the oil collapse.

In the three-year recession since then, Russia’s longest this century, GDP only fell by 4%, despite a much larger drop in prices than in 2008.

This was also in part because of her decision to float the ruble rather than prop it up, leading it to fall 40% against the dollar in 2015 alone, but keeping crucial foreign reserves and capital from fleeing the country.

Moreover, by keeping interest rates high, the central bank reined in inflation on her watch to 7%. Though the devaluation of the ruble has caused wages to fall by 10% since 2014, it staved off a larger collapse and protected most of the gains made under Putin (under whose watch wages have tripled since 2000).

An over-dependence on oil was not the only thing threatening the Russian financial system; the bevy of unscrupulous lenders, financial “banditry” as Vladimir called them, were also endangering the country’s financial infrastructure.

In response, Nabiullina was also given carte blanche by Putin to pursue once untouchable lenders. Between 2014-6, she rescinded the banking license of over 276 institutions and put another 28 on the regulator’s financial rehabilitation program.

Moving aggressively to shore up the country’s vulnerable lending system, in September she nationalized two major banks, Otkritie and B&N Bank, in the span of three weeks. While this set off fears of deep underlying structural weaknesses, the central bank claimed it saved the sector from a much larger domino effect.

Whatever the case, it is clear that Putin wouldn’t have been able to withstand the blows of the past three years without Nabiullina at his side. As Russia’s economy still faces sanctions and uncertain commodity prices going into 2018, her pragmatism will be in demand yet again.