THEY WERE AN IMPRESSIVE BUNCH by any standard, elegantly attired in designer named business suits with matching accessories. They mixed freely with the other speakers and delegates as if to the manner born, but then many of them were.
"Where did she say she was from?" I heard one European delegate enquire of another as one of the kingdom's most impressive young oil experts returned to the conference hall after a chance three-way conversation on management training schemes during the coffee break.
"Saudi Arabia," replied her European colleague.
"That's what I thought she said," responded the first speaker with a perplexed look.
"I didn't think they had women like that in Saudi Arabia. I didn't think Saudi Arabian women were allowed out of the house!" Such is the level of ignorance that prevails about the kingdom's women in the West.
To be fair to the European women, their conversation took place during the early stages of the two-day conference. By the closing session there was no one who remained in ignorance of the drive, determination and sheer dynamism of the Saudi delegates. Their presence, obvious skills, confidence and self-belief endeared them to every audience before which they appeared.
At breaks and meal times they mixed freely and enthusiastically with all comers, striking a positive hit for Saudi Arabian public relations.
Some of the kingdom's most prominent women, who are actively prompting change and development within Saudi Arabia took part in the conference, including economists, oil experts, educationalists and successful entrepreneurs.
Princess Loulwa bin Faisal, head of the delegation and a keynote speaker at the event, is keen that the ignorance about her country is redressed. "People in the West were interested to know about Saudi Arabia up until the events of 9/11. There were programmes on the television and radio about Saudi Arabia, about women in Saudi Arabia, all kinds of things, then suddenly after 9/11 it all stopped. It was as if there had been an erasure of Saudi Arabia from the collective consciousness. I was even asked on a recent trip if we had schools for girls! It is quite extraordinary when the education system in Saudi Arabia has been working for half a century for boys and girls!"
Princess Loulwa agrees that this seachange from fascination to apathy could have something to do with the fact that the architect of the attacks of 9/11 was a Saudi national, Osama bin Laden. But she feels this is unjust...