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Our Most Creative People in Business 2023 is a region-spanning list of extraordinary achievers
This year we honored 39 exceptional individuals leading impactful change within their sectors and beyond.
Over the past several months, the editorial team at Fast Company Middle East has been putting together a robust list of some of the most extraordinary individuals in the region who have been working at an exceptionally high standard for many years to impact the industry they are in. They have also accomplished something truly innovative that has a measurable effect beyond their industry.
Today, we announce the honorees of Fast Company Middle East’s 2023 Most Creative People in Business, which highlight individuals tackling everything – from public service, climate change, and tech innovation to groundbreaking businesses, education, and thought-provoking films – with creative, distinctive voices.
With royals, ministers, filmmakers, sportspersons, journalists, climate activists, and entrepreneurs, we celebrated the region’s creativity, variety, and diversity at Armani Hotel in Dubai on May 17.
Here’s the diverse list of honorees recognized for their creative zeal; hope you get inspired by knowing about them, just as we have been.
FOR ADVANCING TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION
H.E. Huda Al Hashimi, Deputy Minister of Cabinet Affairs for Strategic Affairs, UAE
H.E. Huda Al Hashimi is a key leader in the UAE, responsible for setting an ambitious long-term strategy and developing the government’s agenda. She is steering the development of the national agenda, coordinating country-level strategies, and providing consultation on government strategy for innovation. She leads the Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation and the Ministry of Possibilities, and her expertise in design and innovation has led to the recognition of her leadership excellence, resulting in appointments at the Digital School board, the UAE Gender Balance Council and Dubai Women Establishment, and chair of the Global Innovation Council.
Dr. Ray O. Johnson, CEO, Technology Innovation Institute
Drawing on his decades of experience in global technology leadership and business strategies, Dr. Ray O. Johnson has pushed the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), the applied research pillar of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), to pioneer breakthroughs across emerging technologies, which is helping to drive solutions to some of society’s most pressing challenges. Among his many achievements in TII are the launch of the electromagnetic compatibility laboratories for high-energy laser and microwave testing, the development of Noor, the world’s largest Arabic natural language processing model, and the building of the UAE’s first sovereign cryptography libraries. He is a sought-after speaker at global forums. He is also CEO of ASPIRE, the business development and program management arm of ATRC.
Eric Xing, President, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence
Eric Xing as the first president of MBZUAI, has overseen exceptional growth in AI research, establishing a platform for faculty and students to present their research, emphasizing national priorities while balancing research and translational R&D. With extensive experience as an academic, entrepreneur, and administrator, Xing has been leading the innovation frontier, working to educate and train AI professionals. He has also designed and built a supercomputing center and developed an executive and professional training program for senior executives and government leaders.
Khalid Shaikh, CEO, Prognica Labs
Inspired by a family member’s experience with breast cancer, entrepreneur Khalid Shaikh decided to utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop a smart screening solution to help predict and detect early cancer signs. Since its launch in 2019, Shaikh’s venture has partnered with many international institutions to accelerate breast cancer screening using AI. As a self-proclaimed “technocrat,” Shaikh has been been involved in a few tech startups as an advisor and mentor over the years.
FOR BRINGING GOOD THINGS TO MORE PEOPLE
H.E. Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, President, American University of Sharjah
She is a leading public figure in the Middle East promoting and supporting youth education and employment, female entrepreneurship, small and medium-sized enterprise development, expanding funding for the cultural industries, and climate change. As the Chairperson of the Board of Trustees and President of the American University of Sharjah, Sheikha Bodour is working to achieve excellence in teaching, research, and public service to develop future leaders, while as Chairperson of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority and Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa), she is accelerating the development of Sharjah’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Becky Anderson, Managing Editor, CNN Abu Dhabi
One of CNN International’s highest-profile anchors, Becky Anderson has a distinctive regional perspective on some of today’s most important news stories, including the emerging politico-economic trends in the Middle East. She has spent much of her time traveling across the region at an extraordinary time of upheaval and change, and interviewed some of the world’s leading politicians, decision-makers, and thought leaders. She has extensive experience, bringing a range of interviews and reports from Riyadh to Beirut to Tehran.
Anas Bukhash, Entrepreneur & Host of YouTube show AB Talks
Serial entrepreneur Anas Bukash is the founder of influencer and celebrity marketing agency Bukhash Brothers and the high-end luxury clothing line Buka. In addition to that, he is also pushing boundaries by covering thought-providing topics on his hit YouTube show #ABTalks. Showcasing the “real” side of celebrities, athletes, entrepreneurs, and influencers, it features candid conversations on mental health, toxic masculinity, cyberbullying, rejection and failure, and more.
Alia Al Shamsi, Cultural Programming Manager, Louvre Abu Dhabi
She is an author, poet, curator, and photographer. Through her work at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Alia Al Shamsi has curated and produced numerous exhibitions and cultural events that have received international acclaim. Being a key player in developing the cultural landscape of Abu Dhabi, her work has been instrumental in promoting cross-cultural understanding and appreciation and helped position Abu Dhabi as a cultural hub, bringing together diverse audiences and fostering a greater appreciation for the arts.
FOR CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO
H.H. Sheikha Intisar AlSabah, Founder of Intisar Foundation and Social entrepreneur
A philanthropist and mental health activist, she founded the Intisar Foundation to provide psychological support to Arab women traumatized by war and violence, especially those who live in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. She has been using drama therapy to facilitate change and promote mental health in the region. She launched her jewelry brands, the proceeds of which go to implement drama therapy programs. Sheikha Intisar AlSabah has been working to shed light on health, education, women’s empowerment, and child protection and started initiatives for youth, including anti-bullying outreach and positive learning in schools.
H.E. Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, Minister of State for Foreign Trade, Minister in Charge of Talent Attraction and Retention, UAE
H.E. Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, as UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Trade, is a leading statesman in realizing the UAE’s long-term economic vision while navigating the global economy with innovative thinking and international collaboration. He has advocated for Trade 2.0, facilitating trade and investments in a digital economy and embracing the digital future to infuse the next growth phase in the UAE economy by heralding the increase of non-oil foreign trade, expanding trade partnerships, and increasing exports. In addition, Dr. Al Zeyoudi is boosting the investment environment in the country, thus strengthening UAE’s position as the ideal hub for business. As the Minister in Charge of Talent Attraction and Retention, he ensures the best global workforce talent has the pathways, incentives, and opportunities to work in the UAE.
H.E. Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, Chairman, Mashreq and a director, Abdullah Al Ghurair Group of Companies
H.E. Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair is at the forefront of innovative technologies in the banking sector in the UAE. For nearly 30 years, under his leadership, Mashreq grew from a small bank to a leading customer-centric financial institution in the region with innovative products and services. Al Ghurair plays a crucial role in offering expertise to the UAE’s financial and banking industry. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Abdullah Al Ghurair Group of Companies, one of the biggest business groups in the UAE and Middle East, with operations spanning more than 20 countries. In 2015, he pledged one-third of his group’s assets to his foundation, the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, which aims to help 15,000 Arab students get a secondary and university education by 2025 by offering scholarships.
Jomana Al-Rashed, CEO of Saudi Research and Media Group and Chairperson of Red Sea Film Festival
A seasoned media professional, Jomana Al-Rashed is the CEO of the Saudi Research and Media Group (SRMG), a publishing company that owns over 30 major media outlets, including Asharq Al-Awsat and Arab News. She has been responsible for the company’s branding and transformation strategy, including the launch of Manga Arabia. As the chairperson of the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation, Al-Rashed is enhancing the growth and development of the film industry ecosystem in Saudi Arabia while encouraging creative Saudi talent.
Adwa Aldakheel, Founder & CEO, Falak Investment Hub
Adwa Aldakheel has achieved success at a young age and serves as an inspiration to Saudi youth. With a mission to empower entrepreneurs and promote economic development, Aldakheel has brought together investors, entrepreneurs, and business leaders worldwide to support innovative startups and SMEs in the region. As a prominent figure in the investment community and a member of leading organizations such as the Young Arab Leaders, Aldakheel’s commitment to promoting innovation and growth is helping to build a more prosperous and sustainable future for the region.
Besma Al Qassar, Founder, Women Mentor Forum
While women are graduating from college at ever-increasing rates, the amount of high-growth companies they start is still low, in addition to a low rate of female leaders in the corporate world. Since 2016, Besma Al Qassar has been mentoring and assisting career women in Kuwait. She founded the Women Mentor Forum to offer innovative women’s leadership programs specially designed for Arab women working in the region’s private sector. She is a regular guest participant at Chatham House’s gender-related events, most significant is the annual flagship event, the International Policy Forum on Gender-Inclusive Growth.
Dareen Barbar, Motivational Speaker & Athlete
Athlete and activist Dareen Barbar, who lost her leg at age 15, holds the Guinness World Record for the longest Samson’s chair sit, also known as a static wall sit, by a female contender. This marked the launch of the Guinness World Records Impairment Records Initiative, opening up opportunities for new record titles that people with impairments worldwide could create. Her many accolades and accomplishments include being the first Arab amputee to complete a super sprint in Dubai Women’s Triathlon 2018. In 2022, Dareen, a personal trainer, life coach, and TEDx speaker, made a rap song of her life story to encourage people struggling to keep going, no matter the odds.
John Pagano, CEO, Red Sea Global
A veteran business leader and sustainability advocate, John Pagano is the CEO of Red Sea Global, the multi-project developer behind pioneering regenerative tourism destinations, including the Red Sea Project and AMAALA. Both projects aim to be 100% powered by renewable energy upon completion. To enhance Saudi Arabia’s luxury tourism and sustainability sector, Pagano has led the project development right from the get-go and plays an integral role in supporting the kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy and developing a world-class tourist destination.
Dalia Darweesh, Entrepreneur & Blogger
Dalia Darweesh is a writer, reporter, and stylist in addition to being the CEO and founder of Ela Agency, the first modeling agency in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. In 2016, she returned from the US, where she studied business management, worked as a model, and developed a passion for fashion. She uses the agency to redefine the misconceptions of the modeling industry in the region, and specifically in the kingdom.
Naila Farouky, CEO, Arab Foundation Forum
With decades of experience in media production and philanthropy management, Naila Farouky, after assuming the CEO role for the Arab Foundations Forum, has helped grow the network across the region, with members representing the rich ecosystem of philanthropy, non-profit, civil society, and development actors. Farouky has contributed to academic research and data on the Arab philanthropy sector and serves on the boards of ArteEast (New York), the Resource Alliance (global), and The Family Hub (Egypt). With the Arab region facing multiple challenges, including conflict, climate change, and food shortages, Farouky has been supporting the development of a more professional, responsive, and impactful local philanthropic ecosystem.
FOR DELIGHTING US
Majid Al-Remaihi, Filmmaker
Majid Al-Remaihi’s short film And Then They Burn The Sea has made history in Qatar’s film industry by being the nation’s first entry to be nominated for an Oscar. Produced by the Doha Film Institute, the film follows the director through his mother’s deteriorating memory loss. The movie was also shown at the Locarno Film Festival in 2021 and took home the Silver Tanit Award at the Carthage Film Festival and Best Short at Vienna Shorts. Al-Remaihi demonstrates the limitless potential of the up-and-coming Qatari filmmakers as they forge a path to the global audience.
Butheina Kazim, Founder, Cinema Akil
Entrepreneur and film producer, she is fostering the arts scene in the region and contributing to a ground-up cultural initiative through Cinema Akil, the first arthouse in the Gulf. Through the arthouse built in a repurposed warehouse in Dubai’s creative Alserkal District, Butheina Kazim is bringing diverse audiences from around the region to watch independent films that would otherwise have a low chance of reaching them, thus helping local artists and filmmakers to emerge and impact their creative fields.
Hamad Al Amari, Comedian
Spreading laughter since 2011, Qatari comedian Hamad Al Amari, well known as “The Qatari Guy,” has emerged as a star of the World Cup 2022 by entertaining thousands of supporters at Doha’s fan zones. FIFA appointed him “as the Master of Ceremonies at the FIFA Fan Festival.” He has collaborated and performed with some of the biggest names in comedy as the resident comedian at the Doha Comedy Festival. Passionate about developing innovative ideas that disrupt the status quo through his business endeavors or comedy routines, Al Amari’s experience ranges from stand-up comedy to advocating for charities, cancer awareness, and youth development.
Haider Rashid, Filmmaker
Haider Rashid has formidable talent in filmmaking, making waves at international film festivals – carving out his space in the broader film industry. His films have won awards at Venice Film Festival, Dubai International Film Festival, and the Nastri d’Argento award ceremony. His film Europa, which debuted in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, was Iraq’s official entry to the 94th Academy Awards. As an Arab filmmaker, Rashid utilizes his art as a medium of expression to shift the narrative and tell the stories of the Arab region.
Amrita Sethi, NFT artist
Dubbed the first NFT artist in the UAE, Amrita Sethii dived into the art world with a unique multimedia art form called Voice Note Art, now called SoundBYTE. Having launched her 2D portfolio, Sethi was the first NFT artist to create 2D animation with audio, enabling people to “see sound” through her art. The artist has also introduced augmented reality to her art and painted one of the world’s largest NFT augmented reality murals at the DIFC Innovation Hub in Dubai. As a pioneer in Web3, NFT, and metaverse space, Sethi proves that the boundaries of merging the physical and digital worlds are endless.
Amjad Al Rasheed, Filmmaker
Amjad Al Rasheed is a luminary in the Arab film industry, renowned for his exceptional storytelling prowess and creative ingenuity. Throughout his career, spanning over a decade, he has brought to life a string of critically acclaimed films, including the highly lauded Inshallah A Boy, a multi-country co-production. Al Rasheed’s trailblazing accomplishments have not gone unnoticed, earning him many coveted awards and accolades. As a filmmaker, Al Rasheed is deeply committed to his art and dedicated to telling stories that resonate with audiences.
Alaa Fadan, CEO & Managing Director; Ali Alkalthami, Chief Creative Officer and Ibraheem Khairallah, Executive Creative Director at Telfaz11
Alaa Fadan, Ali Alkalthami, and Ibraheem Khairallah of production company Telfaz11 have been driving the firm’s expansion and establishing it as a leading voice in Saudi Arabia’s entertainment industry. Their belief in the potential of the region’s creative and digital economies has guided the company’s rise, mentoring a dynamic team of writers and directors and combining their experiences to engage audiences in delightful ways. Telfaz11, which started in 2010 producing YouTube videos from Saudi’s underground stand-up comedy scene and now produces feature films for Netflix and plays at international festivals, has played a crucial role in opening Saudi’s entertainment sector.
FOR REWRITING THE RULES
Sacha Jafri, Artist & Philanthropist
Contemporary artist and philanthropist Sacha Jafri constantly pushes the limits of his artworks, often creating for humanitarian causes. His most prominent work — The Journey of Humanity — has put him on the Guinness Record for the largest painting on canvas in the world. His NFT artwork, On the Wings of an Angel, broke the record to become the fastest-selling NFT. His collection for UNESCO, The Art Maze, also celebrated 50 years of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And if that’s not enough to impress, Jafri’s We Rise Together with the Light of the Moon will be placed on the lunar surface, with funds pledged to humanitarian charities. His work has been showcased in most major international art institutions and has raised over $140 million for charities worldwide.
Dubai Abulhoul, Author & Founder, The Fiker Institute
With thought-provoking ideas and balanced conversation, Dubai Abulhoul, Founder of the think tank Fiker Institute, is setting the record straight about the region and debunking stereotypes about its people. The interdisciplinary think tank addresses a gap in international dialogue and international affairs from the Middle East, including gender equality, climate change, diplomacy, and global governance. She also served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the UAE. Well-versed in tackling challenges and pushing the envelope, Abulhoul also published children’s books to preserve Emirati folktales.
Yusra Mardini, Swimmer & UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini had her hopes of winning Olympic gold crushed by the onset of war in her home country. Fleeing Syria with her sister Sara in 2015, they embarked on a dangerous journey by boat from Turkey to Greece, during which they had to push the overcrowded dinghy to safety for three hours. The sisters made it to Germany, where they settled and were later reunited with their parents. Her survival story has been turned into a Netflix film, Swimmers, inspiring millions. Mardini’s resilience led to her becoming the youngest UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. Today, she leverages her platform to advocate for refugees worldwide.
Omar Samra, Mountaineer & High-Level UNHCR Supporter
Omar Samra’s list of accomplishments includes being the first Egyptian to climb Everest, conquer the highest mountain on every continent, and skiing to the North and South Pole. In 2017, he achieved three first ascents of Antarctica mountains and named them. Samra’s adventure-seeking spirit led him to row 1,000km across the Atlantic Ocean, where he capsized in a storm. His harrowing tale of survival, which also sheds light on the plight of refugees, has been immortalized in a documentary. Today he uses his reach to advocate for climate action and the refugee crisis.
Dalma Malhas, Sportsperson
As a professional show jumper, Dalma Malhas has made history as the first female athlete from Saudi Arabia to compete in and win a medal at the Olympic Games. She is an accomplished international show jumper and Chairperson of the Athletes’ Commission at the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee. She is unwavering in her pursuit of winning a gold medal at the upcoming Riyadh 2034 Asian Games, a dream she is determined to realize.
Nelly Attar, Entrepreneur & Athlete
Nelly Attar, who previously offered fitness and dance classes due to limited opportunities for women to be active in Saudi Arabia, has become a role model for her country. After gaining popularity for her fitness classes, she launched her studio, Move, and later switched careers to focus on the emerging sports industry in Saudi Arabia. She made history in 2022 by becoming the first Arab woman to summit K2. Her success has inspired thousands to become more physically active.
Dr. Eng Suaad Al Shamsi, UAE’s first female aircraft engineer
Dr. Eng Suaad Al Shamsi’s passion for aircraft and engineering led her to become the first female aircraft engineer in the UAE, breaking barriers and paving the way for other women to follow in her footsteps. With knowledge and expertise in aircraft mechanics, design, and maintenance, she has held leadership roles in some top aviation companies. Dr. Al Shamsi advocates for gender equality and diversity in the workplace and has mentored students, particularly young girls, to pursue careers in engineering and aviation.
Maya Ghazal, Pilot & UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
Maya Ghazal has dedicated her life to advocating for refugees and promoting their welfare. She is also the first female helicopter pilot in Syria and plays a vital role in humanitarian aid and rescue missions. As a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, Maya uses her voice and influence to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and advocate for their rights. She’s a role model for girls worldwide who aspire to make a difference.
Elie Habib, Co-founder & CTO, Anghami
In building the first music-streaming platform in the MENA region, Elie Habib, with Eddy Maroun, established Anghami as a digital cultural force. He has made a product that goes beyond music to immersive experiences around media and entertainment by working with local labels and artists. Habib has been continuously innovating in creating an ecosystem of creators, expanding content, and adding millions of users – Anghami has over 75 million registered users with around 1 billion streams per month and a catalog of more than 75 million songs from the region. Habib has been using tech to play a key role in getting the Arabic-speaking world to value the music of their favorite artists, prioritizing localization and retaining Arab culture despite going public in 2021.
Dr. Saeeda Jaffar, Senior Vice President & Group Country Manager – GCC, Visa
Dr. Saeeda Jaffar, a seasoned leader with a deep understanding of financial and payment services and digital technologies, is the Senior Vice President and Country Manager for Visa’s operations across the GCC region. She specializes in private and investment banks, private equity firms, and sovereign wealth funds, and has also been at the forefront of innovative initiatives at Visa, such as sponsorship of the FIFA World Cup and the release of the Visa Masters of Movement NFT Collection, wherein soccer fans were able to create digital art. She also spearheaded the Visa’s She’s Next initiative in the UAE to empower local women entrepreneurs by giving them access to networking, mentoring, and funding opportunities.
FOR SAVING THE PLANET
Omnia El Omrani, COP27 President Youth Envoy
She was the first official Youth Envoy for the COP27 President, and has years of experience in climate change, health policy, research, and education. She has attended the UN climate change conferences in Katowice, Madrid, and Glasgow, representing more than 1.3 million medical students worldwide in the International Federation of Medical Students’ Association (IFMSA) and Egypt, representing youth globally. She has worked on research initiatives with the World Health Organization, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Global Climate and Health Alliance. She is dedicated to developing strategies to unlock systematic change for the health and prosperity of people and the planet.
Lamis Al Hashimy, Co-Founder, Palmade
Driven by the goal to replace single-use plastics, Lamis Al Hashimy, with her team, developed a patented biodegradable material made with date palm waste. Here sustainable cutlery has replaced single-use plastics cutlery at many restaurants and food trucks. From a backyard workshop to unveiling their products at Expo 2020 Dubai, Al Hashimy’s venture is a testament to how the UAE community has a growing demand for homegrown, sustainable products.
Neeshad Shafi, Environmentalist & Educator
An environmentalist paving a better, greener future for the next generation, Neeshad Shafi has been speaking and writing about decarbonization, energy transition, sustainability, and the role of youth and civil society in climate action in the Middle East at various regional and international forums. Shafi serves as CoalitionWILD’s steering committee chair, a founding member of the Climate Action Network (CAN) Arab World, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Steering Committee for Climate Action. Believing transformational change starts with bold targets, Shafi started the Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar, a non-profit.
Saood AlNoori, Head of Diplomatic Engagement, the Office of the UAE Special Envoy for Climate Change
Saood Al Noori has over a decade of experience in international affairs, focusing on energy and diplomacy. As Head of Diplomatic Engagement in the Office of the UAE Special Envoy for Climate Change, he oversees and leads diplomatic efforts in Asia and the Pacific. In addition, Al Noori is also the UAE’s lead negotiator on mitigation within the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change. Most recently, he was part of the National Experts Program, a launchpad for UAE-based specialists poised to play a transformative role in key future-growth sectors aligned with the strategic vision of the UAE.
The Most Creative People in Business awards night was a grand affair that saw the convergence of some of the biggest names in the industry. And the evening’s musical feting was provided by Lebanese singing sensation Nour Helou, who belted out a mix of English and Arabic hits, adding her vocal flourishes that sounded grand and were a fitting sentiment for the evening.
The event was supported by partners, including Blacklane as the mobility partner, Anghami as the music and entertainment partner, and Citi as the banking partner. The Armani Hotel played host to the occasion.