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


The Future of Women Leaders in the Middle East

The Way Forward

Those interviewed for this article agreed without exception that certain improvements in the work and social environment would be critical to fostering women’s leadership in the region. “You have to have the right ecosystem in place, and then make sure that individuals have the right tools for leadership,” says Al Rustamani. These measures address both parts of that imperative.

Entrepreneurship. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play a relatively small role in the GCC: For instance, in the UAE, SMEs contribute just 30 percent of GDP, compared with 45 percent in the U.S. and 67 percent in the European Union. A number of interviewees commented on the need for GCC governments to tap into their nation’s history, specifically the tradition of trading, and encourage a spirit of entrepreneurship — especially among women. Al Gurg points out that the chance to start a small business can open doors for ambitious, educated young women who want to work but feel that the long hours required for a traditional corporate career path are at odds with their desire to be at home with their family. A 2007 survey of 110 women business owners in the UAE, conducted by Dubai Women’s College, Dubai Business Women Council, and Abu Dhabi Businesswomen’s Council, found that women are running successful businesses in personal services (such as hair salons and tailoring), business services (such as corporate event planning), and retail. The survey noted, however, that these women want greater access to capital, training in leadership and financial management, and opportunities for networking. Al Jaber explained that Abu Dhabi is now offering training for entrepreneurs through the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce, with some courses that are tailored to women’s needs, and that the Chamber is looking into financing options as well.

Work–life balance. This issue, pervasive worldwide, is especially challenging in the GCC — particularly because so few provisions are currently in place for flexible employment. “The American model of working nine to five and doing whatever you have to do to get ahead doesn’t work in a family-oriented culture where women may have four or five kids,” says AbuSulayman. “When companies insist on that model here, they have a lot of turnover. At the foundation, we’re doing an employment study now to find some alternatives — for example, short internships that allow women to stay active and keep their qualifications current so that they don’t have three- or four-year gaps in their resumes due to childrearing.”

Al Qassimi agrees that flexible work policies are critical, noting that the UAE currently lacks regulations that allow for part-time work: “Part-time jobs have to be structured so that employees don’t lose out on benefits or opportunities. Such jobs are also very beneficial to society, because you don’t lose an individual’s energy or contribution even if he or she can’t work full time.” Governments and companies need to collaborate on the best way to put such measures in place.

Education. In the past few decades, GCC women have made enormous strides in their access to education. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, 70 percent and 60 percent, respectively, of university students are women; GCC governments regularly sponsor women who want to study abroad and bring new talents and skills back to their burgeoning economies. The challenge now is to make sure that women are pursuing educational paths that will lead to employment. For instance, education itself is still the most popular course of study for women in many GCC universities, to the point where the market is now saturated. Graduates whose degrees don’t meet the needs of the labor market need ongoing education and training, and universities and the private sector must work together to make sure that students currently completing their education are better prepared.

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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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