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 / Summer 2011 / Issue 63(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Future of Women Leaders in the Middle East

A number of high-profile women are chipping at the “cement ceiling” in the Gulf countries and making it possible for others to do the same.

When Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi stepped into a role as head of IT strategy for transport services company Dubai Ports World, she was an anomaly in many ways. She was an engineer working on a complex, technical initiative that required a great deal of interaction with the members of the C-suite; a local from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) working with a large number of expatriates; and a female executive in the male-dominated maritime industry. “I was the first senior woman coming on board, and it was a tough challenge,” she says. “I would have to explain to executives how I was going to deliver, and there was always a question: ‘How much can I rely on you?’”

To build the needed trust, she says, she learned the terminology of the maritime industry and learned how to present IT projects to senior executives in a way that showed the project’s value to the business. But ultimately, what really established her credibility was the delivery of an IT system that supported the day-to-day operation of the company’s ports. “For women to be accepted, they have to be trusted, and they have to be overachievers,” she says. “The bottom line is whether you can deliver dollars — or dirhams. You have to prove that it doesn’t matter, gender-wise, who sits there.”

Now the minister of foreign trade for the UAE and the most powerful woman in the Arab world, according to the Forbes 2010 list of the world’s 100 most powerful women, Al Qassimi is no longer an anomaly. She is one of a small but significant group of women who are defying expectations and making a difference in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

The political developments in the Middle East this year have focused the world’s attention on the region. But another form of change — slower, less visible, and more pervasive — has been under way for some time among women in the GCC. When observers around the world look at the progress of women in the GCC, they tend to focus on the difference between these countries and those in North America and Europe. And, indeed, there are gaps: Only about 36 percent of women in the GCC work outside the home, compared with about 75 percent of women in countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Women from GCC countries remain a minority in the workforce, especially in the private sector — in Saudi Arabia, for example, Saudi women accounted for less than 1 percent of the private-sector workforce in 2009. (They were better represented within the government, where they made up 30 percent of employees in 2008.) Women from Qatar made up 2.6 percent of that country’s workforce, public and private, in 2008. On a 2010 World Economic Forum index of gender equality in 134 countries, the six countries of the GCC were all ranked below 100, ranging from 103 (UAE) to 129 (Saudi Arabia).

If the nations of the GCC are to continue their own advancement in an increasingly competitive world, they will need to engage the energy, knowledge, and skills of their entire population, including the female half. In this respect, the Gulf countries are not unlike other emerging markets, where conservative cultures have for generations kept women from being economically active, and where their integration into the workforce has encountered numerous obstacles. A recent study from the Center for Work–Life Policy found that women in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and the UAE are often held back in their careers by gender bias, elder-care responsibilities, and issues of travel and safety, such as cultural constraints on women traveling alone. However, nearly 1 billion women worldwide are rapidly becoming economically empowered, and their energy needs to be properly channeled. (See “The Third Billion,” by DeAnne Aguirre and Karim Sabbagh, s+b, Summer 2010.)

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  1. DeAnne Aguirre and Karim Sabbagh, “The Third Billion,” s+b, Summer 2010: Disenfranchised women in both developed and developing nations will gain in economic power in the coming years.
  2. Joe Saddi, Karim Sabbagh, and Richard Shediac, “The Challenges of Balance,” s+b, Summer 2009: Analysis of the difficulties challenging rapid economic growth in the Gulf states.
  3. Joe Saddi, Karim Sabbagh, and Richard Shediac, “Measures of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2010: Profiles of business and government leaders in the Gulf region.
  4. Joe Saddi, Karim Sabbagh, and Richard Shediac, “Oasis Economies,” s+b, Spring 2008: Overview of the GCC’s growing economies and the nature of their development.
  5. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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