Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For helping a global energy giant keep pace with fast and furious technology innovations

For Saudi Aramco to remain the world’s largest energy company, it needs project leaders who can shape and strengthen its authority. Computer scientist Maha Khan is working to deliver on that challenge. As leader of the company’s corporate project management office (PMO) of cybersecurity and digital transformation efforts, she’s responsible for ensuring Saudi Aramco has the tech tools it needs to accelerate innovation. At the same time, she’s insulating the company against virtual threats, like the 2012 attack that forced Aramco to suspend its network and destroy 30,000 computers.

They’re the types of assignments Khan says are tailor-made for digital natives accustomed to life in the express lane.
“We are living in a fast-moving era, with rapid changes taking place in the world of technology,” Khan says. “Young project leaders are interested in keeping up with the pace and moving quickly from one project to another.

We want to see quick results and learn as much as possible in the shortest time possible.”

Most recently, Khan co-led the development and rollout of data analytics tools designed to provide executives with a holistic view of the company’s capital projects portfolio. Getting the project across the finish line was as much about soft skills as technical skills—like taking the time to actually hear what stakeholders were saying.

“I had to use analytical skills and problem-solving to properly identify the current situation and the to-be situation or the desired outcome,” she says. “Active listening skills enhance your capability to identify the real pain points that can add the most value.”

To get the job done, Khan channels her project management superpowers: stakeholder management and “being able to collaborate effectively with people from diverse backgrounds.” And those skills will be in high demand as Saudi Aramco tackles an ambitious list of initiatives. The energy behemoth plans to launch 90 projects through 2025 with an eye on boosting its daily oil output by 1 million barrels by 2027. Among the headline efforts are a US$10 billion refinery in Panjin, China, and a US$11 billion petrochemical facility in Jubail, Saudi Arabia.

As a member of the PMO’s risk management committee, Khan is helping the organization rethink how it anticipates and responds to shifts in the marketplace. The list covers everything from data protection and leak prevention initiatives to third-party cybersecurity and audit projects. And like many rising leaders, she’s also made it a priority to scale agile ways of working and iterative approaches across Saudi Aramco’s portfolio.

“Young people have the eagerness to learn and explore new ideas,” she says. “They welcome change and like to challenge the traditional methods of project management.”

That mindset is especially valuable as teams juggle multiple projects with limited resources, she notes. “You need to think about how to deliver applications using a phased approach, focused on the most-needed features for the different customers you’re serving.”


Q&A: Maha Khan on the inspiration of Ithra, the ambition of Vision 2030 and the magic of Disney

What project has most influenced you personally?

I am fascinated by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture—Ithra, meaning “enrichment” in Arabic—which is located in my hometown of Dhahran. It was built as part of Saudi Aramco’s public initiatives, and its architecture is inspired by the geological and cultural history of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Today, it’s one of the kingdom’s leading cultural and creative destinations for talent development and cross-cultural experiences.

What moonshot project would you most like to work on?

Saudi Arabia has many planned projects that are part of Vision 2030, the kingdom’s goal toward economic, social and cultural diversification. I would like to work on one of them, such as Amaala, which is an ultra-luxury tourism destination being developed along the Red Sea in northwest Saudi Arabia.

What famous person would you want to recruit for your team?

Bob Iger, the CEO of The Walt Disney Co. I attended one of his master classes and see him as an inspirational leader. I’d like to have the “Disney magic” on my team.

What’s your go-to source for information?

I enjoy reading Harvard Business Review. It covers a wide range of topics and trends that are relevant to leaders and professionals.

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