If anyone attending the first-ever UAE-British Business Women Forum in London had any misconception about the role played by Emirati women in their country, they would have come away in no doubt as to the impressive scale of their contribution.Held at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce (A-BCC), in partnership with the Emirates Business Women Council, the level of representation from the UAE demonstrated the dynamic role of women in business.A-BCC secretary general and chief executive officer, Dr Afnan Al Shuaiby opened the event with a warm welcome to the guests who included the Ambassador of the UAE, Abdul Rahman Al Mutaiwee, Shaikh Mohammed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, First Secretary, Embassy of the UAE, and Dr Shaikha Hind Abdulaziz Al Qasimi, chairperson of the Emirates Business Women Council.She said: “As the UAE marks its 40th anniversary, we all share in the celebration of its enormous achievements, not least of which is its rapid social and economic development... We warmly applaud the fact that women’s contribution towards the country’s development and prosperity are now highly valued and women are regarded as essential to the continuing success and transformation of the UAE.”She added: “Many areas can be identified where there is great scope for successful co-operation between Britain and the UAE for the advancement of women in business; in investment and joint ventures, education and training, acquainting women with a competitive business environment and detailed trade procedures, and in building essential contacts through networking.”Dr Shaikha Hind Abdulaziz Al Qasimi paid tributes to her British counterparts, saying: “The United Kingdom has always appreciated the achievements of the UAE. From the start they have been with us hand in hand. There is a strong relationship between the two nations, exemplified by the volume of trade.”This point was echoed by Hamad Abdullah Al Mass, executive director, International Economic Relations Sector, Department of Economic Development, Abu Dhabi, who commented: “We consider the UK home away from home.”
He observed that the UAE is the biggest market in the Middle East for British exports. Talking about the economic policy of the UAE, he said: “We do not envisage a further roll-out of the state. We admire Baroness Thatcher, who championed private enterprise and SMEs. She was a great woman and we hope to learn from her.”Describing the drive to transform Abu Dhabi from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy, he highlighted the importance of key infrastructure and the industrial zones. “We are focusing on attracting foreign direct investment — not for the money, but for the technology and know-how,” he said.He added: “It’s an advantage for companies wanting to export to the Far East to have their manufacturing in the UAE. We have excellent ports and airports — we are a transport hub for everyone travelling from west to east.”Samer Mohammed Al Hayra, vice-president, marketing and communications, High Enterprise for Specialised Economic Zones, noted that the UAE receives more than one million visitors from the UK annually, while over 50,000 Emiratis visit the UK.The UAE is also home to more than 100,000 British citizens and 2,000 British companies and organisations.He paid tribute to the UAE’s founder, late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, as “a true advocate of women”, whose outlook was demonstrated in his famous quote. “Nothing could delight me more than to see women taking up her place in society. Nothing should hinder her progress. Like men, women deserve the right to occupy high positions according to their ability and qualifications.”The role of the founder’s wife, Shaikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, was also highlighted. She was the first chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, establishing the UAE as regional leader in enhancing the role of females in society.
He added that the same principle continues to be applied under the UAE’s leadership today.Today, women make up 22.5 per cent of the Federal National Council of the UAE; there are four female ministers, and women account for 60 per cent of the public sector workforce. There is a 15 per cent representation at board level. There are over 11,000 businesswomen currently residing in the UAE.“We are all working together, men and women, to develop and grow and we are supported by the UAE government every step of the way”, he said.
Dina Ali Bal Jafla, second vice-chairperson, Emirates Business Women Council, said: “I believe it is a very special place to be a woman, as the development and progress of women has an excellent track record. Women have reached high levels as ministers, CEOs and executives. I am very happy with the progress that has been achieved so far and looking forward to future progress.”Noting that the UAE is one of the leading Middle East countries in promoting women, she commented: “Hopefully we are setting an excellent roadmap for ladies around the region to follow our steps and progress towards a better future.”
Fatima Ali Khalfan Al Dhahiry, manager, Bateen Branch, National Bank of Abu Dhabi, commented: “My father always said: ‘The boys are the same as the girls. Always we have to push the boys and we have to push the girls’. In our religion the girls and the boys are equal. That’s why we always strive to keep them at the same level.”
Forum delegate, Dr Najla Ahmed Bastaki, a physician at the Dubai Hospital of the Dubai Health Authority, emphasised the importance of encouraging women to think about their role in society at the earliest stages of schooling.“Such education should be started from the first grade — this will make the person think more actively about career choices. When you start young — the opportunities are greater,” she said.Abdul Rahman Al Mutaiwee, UAE Ambassador, noted the remarkable development of education in the UAE. Back in the 1970s, he observed, there were no universities, while today there are 54 universities and colleges.Alia Al Khafajy, associate banker, Private Banking, Northern Emirates, National Bank of Abu Dhabi, said there was still some way to go in overcoming entrenched western stereotypes of Arab women.“To be very frank and honest I think there is a stereotype that is engraved so deeply in their minds that just because women dress and in a certain way and because their culture is different, they think there is a lot of oppression. But instead, if you look at the development of these countries in this short span of time and see how far women have come — it’s quite contradictory to think in that way.”“You can put a veil on someone but it doesn’t mean you put a veil on their mind. I think that needs to be clarified.”
Al Khafajy noted that some 27 per cent of the world’s wealth is controlled by women of which some $500 billion is in the GCC, much of it sitting as “idle cash.” She explained that this wealth mostly comes from divorce, inheritance or entrepreneurs. Some women, she remarked, “find themselves holding assets or cash but are not sure what to do with it”.The private banking services offered by the bank were there, she said, to assist with advice on how best to manage and invest wealth. “We’re providing bespoke, global private banking services to high net worth women,” she said.Ayda Al Khoory, director of economic promotion, the Department of Economic Development, Abu Dhabi, invited businesswomen from the UK to come and invest and build partnerships in the UAE. She explained that this year her organisation had highlighted investment opportunities through business delegations to Korea, China and India, with visits to the UK and Japan planned for 2012. Jameela Hamad Al Junaibi, marketing manager of the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi, or Kizad, outlined key attributes as being, outstanding access to global markets, low operating costs and ease of doing business.
A very lively speech was given by businesswoman Badria Mulla, of the International Emirates Group.She explained how her company had grown from a small, Abu Dhabi-based consultancy to its current position as the sole strategic advisor for the Federal GCC with regard to major global projects.“We will be the first one to be contacted in order to make it happen,” she said. Her company works with leading companies around the globe and also advises the governments of Switzerland and Malaysia. “For us there is no boundary — always the sky is the limit,” she said.Despite her high-level connections, Mulla has her feet firmly on the ground when it comes to the everyday challenges of running a business.She was quick to respond to a question from the floor by a businessman selling ice-cream who was having difficulty keeping tabs on his invoices. She recommended some cheap and easy to use software and clearly made a fan as she advised him: “You can monitor your finances from day one — so now you can sell your ice-cream and be happy!”Speaking about her company’s expansion into the fashion industry, she explained that this had come about during the economic crisis when some of her staff whose projects had been stopped were in danger of becoming redundant.“Some of my team were in a very shaky position — but I am not a person to fire people — so we liquidised some of our assets and put the capital into studying which sectors were still doing strong business in the crisis.”
The resulting research found, she said, “that fashion, jewellery and perfume will never die!” To general laughter she remarked: “In our culture when people are depressed, they go shopping — as I do myself.” The fashion side of the business, she said, “has become a very serious, leading edge company with strategic partners and clients from around the world.”Edward Oakden, Managing Director, Sectors Group, UKTI, and former ambassador to the UAE, observed that many Emirati business women had said to him: “We don’t want to be regarded as special or singled out — we want to be mainstream.” That wish on the evidence of this forum seems already to be a reality.