Thoraya Ahmed Obaid is the Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, the world’s largest multilateral source of population assistance. Ms. Obaid was appointed head of UNFPA, effective 1 January 2001, with the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. She is the first Saudi Arabian to head a United Nations agency.
Ms. Obaid also serves as Chair of the High-level Committee on Management of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB). The Committee is the principal United Nations inter-agency body for coordinating administrative and management matters.
From 1998 to 2001, Ms. Obaid was Director, Division for Arab States and Europe, UNFPA. Before joining UNFPA, Ms. Obaid was Deputy Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) from 1993 to 1998. She was the Chief of the Social Development and Population Division, ESCWA, from 1992 to 1993, and Social Affairs Officer, responsible for the advancement of women, from 1975 to 1992. A central focus of Ms. Obaid’s work at ESCWA and UNFPA has been to cooperate with governments to establish programmes to empower women and develop their capacities as citizens with rights and responsibilities. She has also worked with women’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to advocate for women’s equality.
In 1975, Ms. Obaid established the first women’s development programme in Western Asia. The programme helped build partnerships on women’s issues between the United Nations and regional NGOs. Ms. Obaid chaired the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Gender in Amman, Jordan, in 1996. In November 1997, she was a member of the United Nations Inter-Agency Gender Mission to Afghanistan. Between 1984 and 1985, she was a member of the League of Arab States Working Group for Formulating the Arab Strategy for Social Development.
In 1963, Ms. Obaid became the first Saudi Arabian woman to receive a government scholarship to study at a university in the United States. She has a doctorate degree in English Literature and Cultural Anthropology from Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. She is a member of the Middle East Studies Association and of Al-Nahdha Women’s Philanthropic Association, a Saudi NGO.
Throughout her career, Ms. Obaid has emphasized the importance of development that emerges from the context of each society, taking into consideration the cultural values and religious beliefs that shape people and affect their actions. As UNFPA Executive Director, she has introduced a special focus on culture and religion in the Fund’s development work, thereby linking universal values of human rights to values of the human worth promoted by all religions and found in all cultures.
Ms. Obaid has received many awards and honours. She is married and has two daughters.
- Ph.D. Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, United States, 1974, English Literature, with minor in Cultural Anthropology
- M.A. Wayne State University, 1968, English Literature, with minor in Cultural Anthropology
- B.A. Mills College, Oakland, California, 1966, English Literature, with minor in Sociology
- Pre-university education at American College for Girls, Cairo, Egypt, 1951–1962
Director, Division for Arab States and Europe, UNFPA, New York, 1998–2000
- Deputy Executive Secretary, Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), 1993-1998
- Chief, Social Development and Population Division, ESCWA, 1992–1993
- Senior Social Affairs Officer/Women and Development Programme Manager, ESCWA, 1986-1992
- Social Affairs Officer/Programme Manager for Women and Development, ESCWA, 1981-1986
- Assistant/Associate Social Affairs Officer, Women and Development, ESCWA, 1975-1981
- Appointed by the Secretary-General as Chair of the High-level Committee on Management of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), 1 January 2006. The Committee is the principal United Nations inter-agency body for coordinating administrative and management matters.
- Represented Secretary-General in United Nations Relief Works Agency Provident Fund, 1996–1998
- Member, United Nations Inter-agency Gender Mission to Afghanistan, November 1997
- Member, United Nations Strategic Framework Mission to Afghanistan, September-October 1997
- Chair, Inter-agency Task Force on Gender, Amman, Jordan, 1996
- Member, Editorial Board of Journal of Arab Women, 1984-1990
- Member, Working Group for Formulating the Arab Strategy for Social Development, supported by League of Arab States, 1984-1985
- Coordinator, ESCWA Group on Women, 1989-1990
- Member, Al-Nahdha Women’s Philanthropic Association, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
- Founding member, Association for Working Mothers, Sidon, Lebanon, 1974-1982
- Member, Middle East Studies Association
- Distinguished Alumni Award; Wayne State University, in recognition of outstanding achievement and service, May 2008
- Profiled as one of 100 Muslim Builders of World Civilization and Culture in Notable Muslims, an Oxford-published book by Natana DeLong-Bas, Deputy Editor for The Encyclopedia of the Islamic World and editor for The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, 2006.
- Commemorative Medal from Bulgaria,' 60 Years UN, 50 Years Bulgaria in the UN, November 2006
- Order of Dionisio de Herrera for Service to Humanity, for supporting the integration of a course on the protection of women victims of domestic violence in the curriculum of all police training institutions in Honduras, May 2005
- Rated among 50 most powerful Arab Women by Forbes magazine, December 2004
- Doctor of Laws degree, Kwansei Gakuin University, Kobe, Japan, for contributions to the advancement of culture, May 2004
- Second Century Award for Excellence in Health Care, Columbia University, New York, May 2003. Granted for leadership in advancing health care for women around the world and dedication to empowering women and furthering their reproductive rights to improve their health
- Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Award, highest honour by Nicaragua’s Parliament or President, March 2003
- Medal and Key to the City of Managua, Nicaragua, given by the Mayor of the City of Santiago of Managua, for notable work on behalf of peace and development and her very important work to help extremely poor populations, March 2003
- Doctor of Laws degree, Mills College, Oakland, California, for commitment to serving people in developing countries to achieve basic education, health and economic opportunities, May 2002
- Global Philanthropy Forum: Borderless Giving, in recognition of her contribution to the Forum, March 2002
- George P. Younger Award by the Committee of Religious Non-Governmental Organizations at the United Nations, for courage in bringing culture and religion into United Nations dialogue, May 2002
- Award from Wagner School of Public Health, New York University, for outstanding commitment to global public service, July 2001
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