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Published: May 24, 2011
 / Summer 2011 / Issue 63

 
 

The Future of Women Leaders in the Middle East

Al Thani went on to Qatar University, where she studied economics and graduated only to find that no one would give her a job. She got a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, returned to Doha, and found that she was still unemployable. “We talk about glass ceilings, but I was facing a cement ceiling,” she says. “It’s not legal, it’s not social — it’s a multitude of things that you cannot unravel.”

To keep busy, she began writing papers for the general public about household finances, noting that the government’s welfare state had led people to abdicate responsibility for their own money — for instance, few households knew how to budget, and most did not invest their savings. These papers drew the attention of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Al Missned, the wife of the current emir of Qatar (who at the time was the heir apparent). The two women agreed that the sense of complacency that had taken hold within families was bad for the country — and Al Missned asked Al Thani what she planned to do about it.

That question launched the Qatar Ladies Investment Company in 1998, a small, family-focused investment bank that today is known as Amwal, Qatar’s leading investment banking and asset management firm. It also launched Al Thani’s career: As Amwal’s founder, she still holds the position of chairman, but she is also the CEO of Al Wa’ab City, a residential and commercial development in Doha; deputy CEO of NBKS, a family conglomerate with investments in construction, oil and gas, broadcasting, information technology and communication, hospitality, and real estate, among other sectors; and a board member of the International Arab Women’s Association, Dana Gas, and Injaz Al-Arab, a nonprofit organization that encourages entrepreneurship among Arab youth.

The common thread among these activities is a desire to improve Qatar’s future. “This golden age of the Gulf has established our infrastructure and our worldwide position, but it has bred complacency,” Al Thani says. “How did we kill innovation and entrepreneurship in ourselves as Gulf people?” By pushing herself beyond the boundaries of what many in her society believed to be possible for a woman, Al Thani is helping to push her society forward as well.

Studied Discomfort

Gulf economies are growing at a breakneck pace, with relatively small populations and an even smaller cadre of qualified people who can maintain this evolution. As a result, the region’s leaders are often called upon to step into roles for which they have not prepared and for which they do not necessarily feel qualified. In doing this, they further their own career and the growth of their country. Yet there are still too few leaders who are willing to take such risks.

Amina Al Rustamani, CEO of TECOM Business Parks, is not among the fainthearted. In 2001, she had completed her Ph.D. in electrical engineering and was doing academic research at George Washington University. She had recently taken a step outside academia on a project with TECOM Investments, where she saw how her knowledge of engineering could be put to practical application in relation to other functions such as operations, sales, marketing, and product development. When Al Rustamani heard of a UAE initiative to build a special economic zone called Internet City, which would attract technology companies from around the world, she sought and won a job as project engineer, working on the development’s telecom infrastructure. She then became executive director of media for TECOM Investments, in which she oversaw the development of three cluster zones — Dubai Media City, Dubai Studio City, and the International Media Production Zone. When TECOM Investments spun off TECOM Business Parks, she became CEO of the latter — and now she oversees 11 such zones, focusing on information and communications technology, media, education, life sciences, clean technology, and manufacturing. These developments have drawn major multinational companies to invest in operations in Dubai, including BBC World News, Dell, ExxonMobil, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Moorfields Eye Hospital, NBC Universal, Oracle, Thomson Reuters, and Xerox.

 
 
 
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Resources

  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: www.strategy-business.com/global_perspective.