Sofana Dahlan on creativity, leadership and a new kind of legal innovation
Renowned lawyer and social entrepreneur Sofana Dahlan is one of the first ten female lawyers to have been granted permission to practise law in her home country of Saudi Arabia. She is a prominent advocate for multiple social causes, including the rights of women, and has contributed significantly to the promotion of creative industries in the region, now driving youth empowerment and Saudi Arabia’s transition to a knowledge-based economy. Regularly speaking on public platforms – ranging from TedXWomen to the UNAOC Forum in Doha – about issues that are important to her, she has also been the recipient of numerous accolades for her work as an entrepreneur and a leader.
As the Founder of Tashkeil, a social enterprise that promotes the work of creative entrepreneurs, and Kayan Space and Studios, a membership environment for creative professionals, she combines her legal expertise and business acumen with a commitment to supporting entrepreneurship and the diversification of the economy.
In this interview, she talks to Law Today about the influences that have driven her to succeed and what she has learned during the major stages of her career to date.
LT: You are known for being the first Saudi woman to have been given permission to study law by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education. This experience must have been full of the challenges and triumphs that accompany any groundbreaking endeavour. Could you share a little of this experience with us?
SD: The path to achievement has not been an easy one for me. Throughout the course of my life, I have encountered many problems, obstacles, and social barriers. It was precisely these things that made me adapt, learn how to be more flexible and reshape my path.
When I was in high school I wanted to study architecture as it was not taught in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and I wanted to use this as an escape route out of Saudi. Then one day, I heard a story of a woman who grew up as an orphan and married a wealthy man. When he passed away, the children from his previous marriage forced her out and deprived her of her inheritance. When she sought the help of a male lawyer, it was used against her and she was accused of having an affair with him. At that moment, I realised that having female legal representation was a necessity in my country. As a result, this became my primary reason to study law and it was something I really wanted and believed in.
Back in 1995, women were not permitted to study law in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it really came as a surprise to me that my request to further pursue my legal education outside of the Kingdom was granted and approved by the Ministry of Higher Education.
However, with this acceptance and the prospect of the move abroad came the onslaught of different challenges. One of them was the uncertainty of pursuing a legal career as a woman and the second was more related to the cultural context, where a woman studying abroad was widely frowned upon and always talked about in a negative manner.
Being the first woman from my family to study abroad without a guardian was seen as an invitation to both family and friends to relay their disapproval to my parents, particularly emphasising that it was extremely shameful for a family to send their daughter to a foreign land all alone. Nevertheless, with the continuous backing of my parents and the fact that my father and I shared a common vision that things would eventually evolve in Saudi and that women need to participate in the judicial realm, I set off to Egypt.
In Egypt I enrolled in Cairo University, which was one of the oldest and most reputable legal schools in the Arab world, and I followed my undergraduate degree with a Master’s in Islamic Studies. This was such a pivotal point in my life as I was introduced to many schools of thought, both philosophical and religious, and I had the chance to explore women’s rights in different religions and sects. My time there also helped me to better understand the framework of social justice and the values that operate in my society. However, the transition from attending a private school in Saudi to the largest public university in the region was not easy, especially since I had not previously been exposed to such a comparatively open society or an institution with at least 3000 students sharing one classroom. Nonetheless, it was a journey of development and self-awareness, involving the retention of knowledge and the experience of being independent.
After graduation, I encountered another setback as I applied to get my degree accredited in Saudi only to be rejected since I did not have proof of having been accompanied by a male guardian or companion throughout my time at university. Therefore, my only recourse was to start working as a legal consultant in the back office of a firm. Gradually frustration started building, as all my contemporaries were moving ahead in their careers and I was still in the same place, feeling useless. I started feeling more and more dejected and it all came to a head when these limitations prevented me from defending a person very dear to my heart, who was falsely convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and was sentenced to jail.
Nonetheless I was never one for accepting failure and moved on with my life, ultimately getting married and moving to Kuwait. From the very beginning of my time in Kuwait, I wanted to go back to my legal practise, but all the law firms I applied to needed someone with a licence. Since I didn’t have this it was initially an impossible task to find a job until finally one firm granted me an opportunity to work in corporate law.
As the years went by, despite all the obstacles I faced on a personal front, I never stopped seeking my right to be recognised as a lawyer in Saudi. In 2012, I reapplied to obtain a licence and on 24th November 2013, I was recognised as one of the first ten female lawyers to have obtained permission to practice law in Saudi.
This was all possible because I believed in my dream and my choices and I never gave up on my rights. Resilience, perseverance, and the ability to rise to a challenge are three core values that are ingrained in me and define my existence.
LT: Would you say that this sense of being a pioneer is something that has informed and affected your professional mindset and leadership style? Has it encouraged you to take strategic professional risks, for example?
SD: I think it’s the other way around. My personality and upbringing have massively shaped how I perceive things. Also, being an extremely curious person by nature, I have always questioned the existence or context of things around me and tried to find the logic and reasoning behind it. I’m not one for accepting the status quo and, as Edward de Bono said, creativity comes from breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way. I think this was totally embodied in me, even at a young age, and therefore I have always sought to create my own path – something that is my legacy, my own achievement, rather than merely following what others have done.
This trait has also extended to my professional life, as I have always tried to solve problems. The manner in which I work primarily involves me identifying gaps and then subsequently finding solutions to fill these gaps. That is why, apart from my legal practice, I have also established several social enterprises that actually go about solving certain problems prevalent in the community.
LT: Your experience as a legal scholar is broad and I believe encompasses Saudi Arabia,Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Kuwait. Speaking broadly, how do these jurisdictions differ from one another? How would you say the experience of studying or practicing law varies between them?
SD: If we look at the theory of law from a broad perspective, either Latin law or Anglo-Saxon law are predominant. Most of my practice in the Gulf and Lebanon has been within the framework of Latin law, where the laws don’t differ in theory but in practice, i.e. the way in which they are implemented within societies.
As for my personal experience, each country added a certain vertical to my perspective and enriched it in a different way.
In Egypt, it was really about laying the platform of my legal knowledge and my ability to shape legal arguments. It also enhanced my emotional intelligence, as dealing with the complexities of the cases in Egypt constantly required me to extend my skills and knowledge. Egypt’s historical practices and the depth of its legal thinking laid down the right foundation for my legal career.
In Lebanon, my practice mainly revolved around corporate law so I acquired a different vertical, one involving the understanding of businesses and markets, the context of business relationships and international trade and the legal tools and frameworks that surround the corporate legal sector. Also, since Lebanon serves as a gateway to Europe for the Middle East, the experience that I garnered helped me incorporate international standards in my legal practice, especially when it came to communicating and drafting legal documentation. It also played a significant role in enhancing the standards I had for myself and helped me to continue to thrive and evolve on multiple fronts.
My time in Kuwait was interesting as I believe Kuwait is the evolved and reformed version of what the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could be, because both share the same structure when it comes to society and heritage. In Kuwait, I added two different verticals to my perspective, one of which involved witnessing the figurative revolution for women’s political rights and the other which led me to my actual passion in law: Intellectual Property (IP). This is where my legal innovation kick started and I proposed mediation as a conflict resolution tool for all IP related cases. I also curated and conducted workshops about raising awareness regarding IP, particularly targeting people in the creative industries. To sum it up, you could say that in Kuwait my passion, experience, and professional expertise all came together.
Saudi Arabia is where all my collective experience and knowledge has converged and allowed me to better understand the business landscape and legal framework that exists and to identify gaps, all before I was officially recognised as a lawyer.
LT: For our readers not very familiar with the Saudi Arabian corporate legal ecosystem, how would you characterise it? How do you see Saudi’s legal-business- social climate evolving in the coming years?
SD: When it comes to corporate law, Saudi Arabia follows international standards in accordance with the treaties it has signed, both internationally and regionally. In recent times, there are certain gaps in the legal ecosystem that have been identified and outlined in Vision 2030 (the government’s plan for economic diversification and public sector development). With all the recent economic reforms that have been announced by the Crown Prince, H.R.H. Mohammad bin Salman, it is evident that there are major economic, social and developmental plans being laid down. Furthermore, the National Transformation Program 2020 has set out a clear mandate for each public sector organisation to reform its laws, policies, and procedures in order to achieve the objectives of Vision 2030.
LT: What was the catalyst for you deciding to found Tashkeil? To what extent do you think that the growth of social enterprise can benefit communities, the economy and the expression of culture in Saudi and throughout the region?
SD: One of the main reasons for establishing Tashkeil was the type of cases that I worked on as an IP lawyer. I recognised a recurring trend in all my cases, which was that all creatives I worked with signed contracts that had provisions that were unjust for them. After investigating this matter, I came to the conclusion that the problem was twofold. The first aspect was regarding the pre-awareness and understanding of the contracts; many creatives did not understand the context of the contracts they signed, nor their scope. That is why they were signing contracts without properly understanding their legal implications. The second aspect is related to the nature of IP, as it is often difficult to decipher its many layers and complexities. My solution to propose mediation gradually unfolded the complexities, allowing both parties to come to a resolution or at least define the main reason for their dispute before going to litigation.
Therefore, Tashkeil was established as a platform to support the creatives in the Middle East in order to scale up their talents and transform their initiatives into sustainable businesses by providing them with proper legal and business knowledge and opportunities. Over time, Tashkeil has identified more gaps in community building and started focusing on developing creative clusters and mapping the creative industry.
In my view, what we currently lack in the Middle East is a comprehensive legal framework for the creative and cultural industries. What we need is a proper legal system that actually takes into account the nature of this work and creates policies and laws that enable and protect these industries and foster their growth.
Law is a tool to support and facilitate the growth of any sector in a society. Its primary purpose is not to enforce or restrict but to regulate.