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


The Future of Women Leaders in the Middle East

“Changing your career and doing something completely different is a very serious step, and it takes courage,” she says. “Starting as a project engineer was exciting for me, but other people thought I was crazy. Moving from that to real estate and cluster development was another major shift. It is a risk, and you have to work hard. But I like that.”

Raja Easa Al Gurg took a similar leap when she left a 14-year teaching career to join Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, a family-owned conglomerate operating in the industrial, retail, consumer goods, and construction sectors. “My ambition had always been to study economics and politics,” she says. “But when I went to Kuwait University in the 1970s, they would only allow me to study English or Arabic.” She chose English, and began teaching after she received her degree, eventually becoming a school principal.

When her father, the chairman of Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, asked if she would join the family business, she was hesitant. She had received many accolades for her work in education and was not certain she wanted to start from scratch. So she spent three summer months working in the company’s warehouses, overseeing inventory and learning the business from the bottom up. At the end of the summer, she felt ready for a role running a steel mill. She is now the group’s managing director, as well as president of the Dubai Business Women Council. The latter role has allowed her to have a substantial impact both within the region and in the world at large. In Dubai, she is an advocate for the importance of women’s participation in the economy, as well as a role model for a new generation of women leaders. In her travels around the world, including visits to the U.S., Australia, Italy, Germany, and Japan, she promotes Dubai as an investment opportunity for women and, in the process, shows the strong and active role that women can play in the Gulf economies.

Quiet Confidence

For women leaders, faith in their own ideas and abilities is essential in the face of frequent skepticism. In many organizations in the Gulf states, the presence of a woman in a senior position, particularly a woman from the region rather than an expatriate, is still rare enough for people to be taken aback. This reaction is exacerbated when women choose to cover their hair and wear an abaya (a long, loose robe). Several women commented that they refrain from saying anything important during the first five or 10 minutes of a meeting with a new contact, because they have found it generally takes that long for people to get acclimated, overcome their preconceptions about a woman in traditional dress, and begin truly listening to and recognizing the validity of these leaders’ ideas and insights.

Skepticism of women’s performance manifests itself in other ways as well. “Some people will try to avoid meeting with you because they don’t trust that you can do anything for them,” says H.E. Fatima Al Jaber, COO of Al Jaber Group and chairperson of the Abu Dhabi Businesswomen’s Council, and formerly the assistant undersecretary for technical services at the Abu Dhabi Public Works Department. “But this doesn’t have an impact on my commitment to delivery. I always perform to the fullest extent of my capabilities, using the depth of my knowledge and experience. I think it is counterproductive to focus on how others perceive my competence and aptitude.”

This is a common theme: All of these women recognize that self-confidence is necessary to push past the doubts of others and perform in a way that allows their results to speak for themselves. For Khawla Al-Kuraya, principal clinical scientist at the King Faisal Hospital and Research Center and director of the Research Center for Children’s Cancer, the belief that she could achieve her dreams extends back as far as her adolescence: When she was 16, her parents told her it was time to get married, and she had her first child at 17. She was adamant, however, about attending medical school, and did so on scholarship at King Saud University while raising three more children. She went on to the pathology residency program at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., then completed a fellowship in molecular diagnostics at the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. before returning to Saudi Arabia. “I didn’t want anybody in the residency program to feel any different about me because I come from this part of the world or because I was a mom with four children,” she says. “I would go to the hospital very early and leave very late to prove to all my attending physicians that I could do it.” Her confidence in herself, she noted, led others to feel the same. “I think for a lot of women in the region, the biggest obstacle is themselves. Women need to believe that the role they play is important.”

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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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