H.E. Dr. Rania Al-Mashat is a woman with big dreams and the discipline, determination and expertise to make them happen. As Egypt’s first female Minister of Tourism and now Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation, she is a pioneer in the region and a true role model for today’s generation.

From a young age, Al-Mashat was inspired by her surroundings and knew she was destined to make an impact in her career. With her father being a university professor, she grew up surrounded by scholars and intellectuals. Thus, it’s no surprise that from a young age, Al-Mashat strove for excellence in everything she did. At age 25, she had earned a PhD in Economics from the University of Maryland and went on to a distinguished career at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While at the IMF, she was tapped to join Egypt’s Central Bank where she played an important role in modernising monetary policy formulation and helped Egypt survive the 2008 global financial crisis. In 2018, Al-Mashat served as Egypt’s Minister of Tourism, until she was appointed Egypt’s Minister for International Cooperation two years afterwards. Throughout her career, Al-Mashat proved herself as an economist and a leader, and has become the face of the new modern Egypt to the world.

eniGma’s Founder and CEO, Yasmine Shihata, sat down with the enigmatic and inspiring minister to learn about her life journey and the secret to her success. Here are some excerpts from this exclusive and fascinating interview.

Madame Minister, welcome. You have had a fascinating and inspiring career journey; tell us about your childhood dreams and how they affected your vision and journey to success.
From a very young age, I learned the importance of acquiring the right educational credentials by watching my father and his friends, who were all professors, academicians and national security experts, expounding on essential national issues on different media channels. And they were PhD holders. Thus, my childhood dream from the age of seven was to be a PhD holder myself and to be an expert in a subject matter that would allow me to shape policies and influence my country.

As time went on, I earned my undergraduate degree with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the American University of Cairo and went to the University of Maryland in the US, where I completed my master’s degree and PhD, specialising in International Economics with a focus on monetary policy and public debt management.

As a PhD student, I then had an internship at the IMF in Washington DC and was fascinated by the IMF as an institution that directs financial stability and monetary policy through dialogue with national authorities. I joined the IMF after finishing my studies, and then in 2005, I was asked by Egypt to join the Central Bank to help modernise the bank’s systems and dealings. So when I look back on my career, my motivation since childhood was a combination of being surrounded by people who value education and my appreciation of education as a license, based on competence, to influence events around me. All of this brought me very close to what I am today.

When you returned to Egypt to join the Central Bank, did you foresee that it would be a life-changing move?
The dream was always to equip myself with competencies and exposure to what’s happening globally and to be able to implement them in my country. Thus I spent the years 2005 to 2016 at Egypt’s Central Bank, putting together monetary policy frameworks for inflation. My tenure there saw us go through 2008’s global financial crisis, the 2011 revolution, and much more. I was then called back to the IMF to use the operational expertise I had gained at the Central Bank to assist other countries.

My experience at the Central Bank was a fantastic way to equip myself with hands-on experience with monetary policy and financial stability. Then going back to the IMF and working with other countries to guide them in policy implementation, enriched my experience even further. I was able to add to my skill set and understand what’s happening globally, the lessons learnt and how they can be shared with other countries. All of this is essential for progress in what you do. Two years after I returned to the IMF, I was called back to serve as Egypt’s Minister of Tourism.

So, you’re at the IMF, and you get a call to become Egypt’s Minister of Tourism. That must have taken you by surprise… tell us about that call.
Honestly, it was counterintuitive for me and everyone who knows me. However, it was such an interesting episode in my life. It all started on 2018’s New Year’s Eve when I was in magical Siwa in Egypt, a place where I feel that everybody’s dreams can come true. After finishing my holiday there, I was leading an IMF mission in Jordan for discussions with Jordan’s central bank and financial authorities on their monetary policy. On the last day of the mission, I got a call from the Egyptian government, saying, “We want you to come back to be sworn in.” I was shocked when I was chosen for the tourism portfolio because it is not about financial stability or monetary policy, which I had studied and practiced. But I was told, “The tourism sector makes up 15% of Egypt’s GDP, and we want it to be run from an economic perspective.” So, I travelled to Cairo the next day, and on the 14th of January 2018, I became Egypt’s first female Minister of Tourism.

Yet, while tourism was not part of your educational and career background, you excelled in that position. Tell us about this experience.
Well, again, that’s where one’s skills and education come in. Even when you get a portfolio that may not be very close to what you’ve been practicing, having a macroeconomic background makes you take a better look at the sector to see what needs to happen. It took me a few months to understand every detail of the tourism sector since it is also intertwined with many others. In fact, Egypt’s tourism reform program was a structural reform program that identified the structural things that needed to happen, including training and investments.

Also, being in this role was a major opportunity for me to show Egypt in a different light and it was a fantastic way for me to feel closer to my fellow citizens. When you are promoting the country, you get an affinity with everyone. This was one of the perfect connections I had at the time. Happily, we ended 2019 with the highest revenues from tourism in Egypt’s history. So, there was so much to do, in terms of designing reforms, implementing, marketing, and most importantly, using all the skills I had learned and applying them at a micro level.

How did your success at the helm of Egypt’s tourism lead to the post you are holding now?
At the end of 2019, there was a cabinet reshuffle, and I was appointed as the Minister of International Cooperation. The Ministry of International Cooperation is mainly responsible for Egypt’s economic diplomacy.

Consequently, we work with all international institutions, including, for example, the World Bank and the African Development Bank, and our portfolio also includes all of Egypt’s economic bilateral relationships in the region and internationally. Our role is important in showcasing what the country is doing and our partnerships play a fantastic role in satisfying both national and global goals.

For example, to agree on implementing a project with the World Bank, the United States, or Germany, the institutions and countries need to see eye to eye on what the project is supposed to achieve. At the Ministry of International Cooperation, a lot of our work involves looking at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and creating dynamic and inclusive partnerships that contribute to Egypt’s development. We try to find the common denominator that brings everyone together rather than the differences that might push us apart.

What were the challenges you faced with the move to your new post?
Well, right after I was sworn in, COVID-19 happened. As the Minister of International Cooperation, I needed to travel everywhere to create partnerships, but everybody was locked in their country.

Nonetheless, this allowed us to put together the Country-Led Multi-Stakeholder Engagement Framework which includes the three principles of economic diplomacy. The first principle is multi-stakeholder platforms, which we were able to create with all the partners online to discuss what needed to happen. For instance, at that time, health, vaccines and so forth were vital for all countries. We planned how we could work with the US and other countries to avail ourselves of the vaccines needed, as well as with the World Bank to get immediate responses on financing.
The second principle is about the official Development Assistance Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Mapping Framework. This principle mainly focuses on interactively mapping the finance with all the partners I mentioned, to the SDGs.

The third principle is the Global Partnerships Narrative, which focuses on three pillars: ‘People at the Core’, ‘Projects in Action’ and ‘Purpose as the Driver’. Through our New Global Partnerships Narrative, we ensure that no crisis derails us from pushing forward with the SDG agenda. We are doing this by transparently showcasing projects and their impact on people, to boost inclusive growth and bolster credibility. This principle aims to ensure development financing is more accountable and effective, by enabling stakeholders to have access to comprehensive information on official development assistance initiatives. It also provides them with opportunities to engage in its programs; to play a key role in mobilising resources to support the SDGs.

Through these principles, we are able to foster trust and good governance, focus on micro visions for macro plans and mobilise the international community with a powerful narrative. I documented this in a book titled “Stakeholder Engagement through Economic Diplomacy”, launched at the London School of Economics in 2021.

As an economist, how do you see Egypt’s economic development?
The past three years were a challenge, with massive successive global shocks including the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and climate change. This has had an impact on economic development, yet we’ve also seen a spirit of solidarity, bringing different stakeholders around the world together and demonstrating that multilateralism is still alive.

As Minister of International Cooperation, our focus has been on international partnerships for sustainable development, to go from pledges to implementation. Our international partners include multilateral development banks, the private sector, and philanthropic organisations, and we work together to secure development finance for priority projects and sectors. This goes hand in hand with supporting economic growth because we focus on sectors such as transportation, infrastructure, education, agriculture etc…

A key part of our economic development is tied to climate since climate action and development go hand in hand. This is why many of Egypt’s government and presidential initiatives encompass both, such as Hayah Karima and the National Climate Change Strategy for 2050.

Another key driver in our economy is the private sector. Over the past three years, $7.3 billion was secured through direct financing to private sector companies and credit lines to commercial banks to finance SMEs and implement projects in various fields of development.

Enabling the private sector to grow and increasing public-private partnerships in development projects is a high priority for the government, as well as creating a suitable environment for entrepreneurs and innovators to thrive and grow. In turn, this reflects positively on the economy.
We do our work with a green, inclusive and digital mindset. Thus the projects we present and collaborate with development partners on must have a green, eco-friendly or environment pillar. Women and youth need to also be taken into account and empowered effectively to fulfil active roles in the economy. Technology and innovation are also at the centre of our future. All of this, in cooperation with all the ministries and national entities, pours into supporting Egypt’s economy.

Let’s talk about your role in the very successful COP27, which put Egypt on the global map in a different light. It was impressive to see Egypt successfully organise a global summit on such a scale.
The Confernce of Parties (COP) is the biggest gathering of global stakeholders, which means that you have countries, represented by governments, as well as the private sector. Today, financial institutions, climate action and climate objectives have become key in the design of any project for a country or the private sector. To access financing today, either as a government, the private sector, or an NGO, you need to show how your project is sustainable or how it fulfils one of the climate objectives.

There is an evident discrepancy between the economies of the Global North, which have already moved ahead with their development and their climate goals, and the Global South which is still developing, and therefore suffers from the effects of climate change. The countries of the Global South, nonetheless, are required to do a lot to align themselves with climate action. This discrepancy requires financing. One of the key roles that we played as the Ministry of International Cooperation was to go from pledges to implementation; given that we work with the financing world, multilateral development banks and bilateral partners.

We had to see how we could make sure that many of the commitments made by developed countries help developing countries. So we looked into how we could ensure these commitments made their way to projects that are needed the most. Our role and contributions were threefold:

First, we launched the Sharm El Sheikh Guidebook for Just Financing. This is a guidebook that tackles what needs to be done by each stakeholder in order to achieve climate action. It highlights 12 core principles serving as a framework to help stakeholders adopt innovative climate finance modalities, while reducing risk and uncertainty with investments in developing countries.

Second, we launched Egypt’s Country Platform for the Nexus of Water, Food, and Energy (NWFE); an Egyptian platform dedicated to bringing in commitments for climate action. The nexus of water, food, and energy in Arabic: نُوَفِّـي, means fulfilling pledges and leverages on Egypt’s partnerships with multiple stakeholders to mobilize finance and technical assistance.The fulfilment of pledges was the initial concept, and now many countries want to do the same.
Our third contribution was the launching of the first tech-run entrepreneurship and startup competition, the global ClimaTech Run. This is the first global competition in any COP, and the idea was to see how globally, startups and youth are thinking of innovative ways to tackle climate action and meet adaptation with ease.
I can go on and on because the preparation and outcomes for COP were significant, but as you mentioned, it showed that the philosophy and thinking of climate in Egypt was positive and has been happening since 2014; and because we see climate and development as working hand in hand, they are not mutually exclusive.

You’re very outspoken on the power of youth and entrepreneurship, how do you see the role of youth in Egypt’s economy?
They are the future. They are an engine and one of the key players in moving the economy forward.

Entrepreneurship falls within part of the Ministry’s work to foster an innovation-centric atmosphere. The Ministry supports startups via Egypt Ventures and through cooperation with development partners. The aim is to cultivate resilient entrepreneurs ready to compete globally, lead GDP growth, and increase economic competitiveness. Egypt Ventures is an investment firm seeded by the Ministry and GAFI, with a mandate of supporting and investing in startups from a diverse range of sectors across Egypt.

The year 2022 witnessed a lot of work in this area. The first example is the graduation of startups from the Orange Corners Upper Egypt programme, which put Egypt’s Assiut on the map of an innovation-driven economy. We visited Assuit last year and met with over 20 startups; many of them female-led and many that were already offering new ideas and faster solutions with defined potential.

The second was the launch of Egypt’s version of the “Generation Unlimited” (Shabab Balad) Initiative at the World Youth Forum, done by the United Nations to empower youth in education, employment, entrepreneurship, and engagement in a public-private-youth partnership. I’m also honoured to be part of the GenU Global Leadership Council, where we’ll be working on skilling the world’s young leaders-to-be, especially young women.

A third example is a global startup competition I mentioned earlier: the ClimaTech Run. This was a true display of innovative technology and unmatched creativity. We had over 422 applications from 77 countries, which were narrowed down to 15 finalists. Five winners were selected with projects within the key theme of adaptation and resilience with a focus on water, food, agriculture and waste management.

Interestingly, the 15 finalist startups, together, reduce emissions by a total of about 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide through the solutions they provide. So this is an evident example of the global, regional, and local role that startups can play in accelerating economic growth and in finding innovative solutions to today’s problems.

Yet there’s always more we can do to continue empowering youth and ensure that more have access to necessary education and potential job opportunities. This is also part of our work at the Ministry where we cooperate with development partners on supporting MSMEs, small companies and the private sector.

We also can’t advance the economy without women and ensuring our girls’ education. Last year, we visited a STEM school in Assiut and interacted with students, particularly young girls, who shared their commitment to education, science, innovation, and creativity. STEM schools are a key pillar in the partnership between Egypt and the USA, and we have approximately 18 schools so far. What’s eye-opening about these schools and their students is the potential for enterprising problem-solving and creative, critical thinking skills.

You’ve achieved so much at such a young age, did you face challenges as a young woman in such positions of power?
Maybe it’s my upbringing or persistence, but I’ve never seen gender as a characteristic that should hold you back or push you forward. Competence is extremely important to me. You should never take anything for granted. Even at the ministry level, you need to keep yourself exposed to what’s happening, to change, to be agile and to be flexible.

This is one of the very important ways to overcome any challenge, for a man or a woman. So women should not feel held back by gender. Anyone who’s adding something to the table is an asset. And to add to the table requires that you invest in yourself a great deal, look around and try to see how you can add value. And you need to put your ego aside; this is one of the key aspects of success. Regardless, of whether you are a man or a woman, if you’re convinced that you know better, try to make sure that what you’re trying to achieve is done in a very inclusive way. This is what always pushes one forward.

Sometimes you feel that you may not be achieving as much as you want to or are capable of and that can be a challenge that can hold you back or frustrate you in many ways. In those situations, gratitude becomes very important. Take a step back and see how much you’ve done and realise that you’re always still going to do more.

In government, there is a great commitment from the political leadership to empower women on every level.

However, the biggest challenge today for any policymaker around the world is how quickly environments change. We are constantly tested and pushed outside our comfort zone, which necessitates that we remain vigilant and innovative in the face of change.

The finance world and the world of politics are very male-dominated, does that drive you to make even more of a difference?
I was raised to always be the first in the class, to work hard, and ace my exams. So hard work comes naturally to me. I suppose I’m just wired that way.
In my experience in different institutions, both on the global and national levels, anyone competent, who is a subject-matter expert, adds value. Even if there may be a difference of opinion, there’s an appreciation for what you add. That’s what everyone needs to work on. What it is that makes you different? What is it about you that adds value to a discussion, a project, a cabinet, or a country? If everyone can integrate that into their psyche, how they decide what to do and how to move forward, that will help them tremendously.

Do you feel that women ministers bring a different perspective to policy formulation than men?
I was raised to be gender blind. So, the dilemma is not about being a woman or a man, it’s about who can do it better and strive for more. Everyone can succeed, we just have to believe in ourselves and develop our skills in order to be the best in what we wish to pursue.

Today, gender equality is a necessity for any country to realise its full economic potential. Enabling women to achieve social, economic and political equality strengthens the social fabric and accelerates progress in achieving developmental objectives.

And it is not only about statistics but rather productivity because the participation of women is macro-critical and their empowerment leads to a positive economic impact on GDP growth. So it’s no longer lip service, as both public and private stakeholders are coming together to progress towards gender parity.

What advice would you give to young people who are ambitious and have much to offer?
Consistency in success needs three key things: set your intention, be authentic, and be present in every moment. Find what you are passionate about and invest in that. Invest in yourself. And have faith and optimism, even during challenging times. Keep dreaming big and work hard to achieve those dreams.

My recipe for success can be summed up in my 4C’s: competence, connections, confidence, and charm. I consider these the four elements of success. I worked hard on learning and excelling in my field to be the most competent. Competent people attract the right kind of connections and acquaintances. A competent, well-connected individual will have the confidence needed to succeed; yet one must have confidence without arrogance. Finally, a competent, well-connected, confident individual who is decent and well-mannered, has balanced the equation of technical knowledge and human respect.

Are there any goals or dreams you still want to achieve?
One of my hopes is to see the projects we work on and the partnerships we create with our international partners continue to grow; and for that to continue reflecting positively on development in Egypt. That way, we can reach more and more communities, especially vulnerable ones.

To me, serving one’s country is unparalleled. Serving Egypt by contributing to policies that will make the riches of the Nile flow to all its citizens is not only a mission but a passion for me. In 2016 I wrote about this in a book titled “Daughters of Nile” in a chapter titled “Playing an Active Policy Role within the Government”. And to this day, this is still relevant to me.

Photography by Ahmed Mobarez

Makeup by: Bijoux Andraws at Al Sagheer Salons

Hair by: Youssef Sadek at Al Sagheer Salons

Shot on Location at The St. Regis Cairo