Effective January 1, Thoraya Obaid of Saudi Arabia will become executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), succeeding Nafis Sadik, who is retiring after leading the world's largest international source of population assistance since 1987. The first woman to receive a Saudi government scholarship to study at a university in the United States, Obaid has held various posts within the United Nations since the mid-1970s, in which her focus has been on programs to promote gender equality. She became director of UNFPA's Division for Arab States and Europe in 1998.

Obaid is the first Saudi national to be appointed to head a United Nations agency. The Saudi government is reported to have campaigned vigorously on her behalf despite the fact that in Saudi Arabia, women still cannot drive, need written permission from their male relatives to travel, cannot socialize with men and must be covered from head to toe in public. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah recently called for women to have a greater role in society, however, and during the five-year review of the platform from the 1995 Beijing women's conference in June, the Saudi government announced its intention to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Sadik, a Pakistani obstetrician-gynecologist, was the first woman to head a United Nations agency. She played a major role in forging the landmark "Cairo consensus," which put individual women's health and empowerment at the center of population stabilization and development efforts and was ratified at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994.