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


The Future of Women Leaders in the Middle East

Mentorship. The fact that there are currently women in positions of power throughout the GCC is an enormous source of inspiration to young women. “We were the bridge that they walk on today,” says Al Qassimi. But it is not enough for young women to admire their role models from afar. “Formal mentoring programs are a must,” says Jamal AlLail. “Professional development doesn’t really come from training. Mentorship addresses the personal, social, technical, and professional aspects of work. It develops the whole person. Leaders should support the employees in their institutions, and leaders in different institutions should work together to create mentoring programs.”

Family support. All the interviewees agreed that encouragement from their families was integral to their success. Their parents encouraged nontraditional career paths; their husbands made the accommodations necessary for them to work long hours, to travel, and in many cases to be in the public eye; and their children expressed pride in these women’s accomplishments and a desire to emulate them. But in a culture that takes women’s responsibilities in the home very seriously, there is widespread concern over the fact that women’s careers could undermine their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Although this is always a very personal issue, governments can make a difference by sending a message — particularly in schools and through the media — that emphasizes the essential value of women’s contributions to society and the economy, reinforcing the fact that women can work and lead outside the home without undermining their role in the family.

A Critical Juncture

The GCC is a region in flux, and it is impossible to predict what will happen over the course of the next decade. But the changing role of women will clearly be a critical element of the region’s evolution. Although there is an urgent need to tap into their potential, there is an equally fervent desire to ensure that their widespread introduction into the workforce does not destabilize a culture that has already gone through a series of socioeconomic shocks in recent decades. “We are understood and appreciated by our societies, and we are developing our own path,” says Al Thani. “There can’t be a fast-forward; this has to come gradually. But we can make sure that the next generation doesn’t face the obstacles that we faced.”

It’s clear that there is an institutional shift under way in women’s economic participation, and that the leaders profiled here represent a vanguard of things to come rather than isolated outliers. Observers should not be deceived by the deliberate pace of this movement: As women in these countries gain the legal, social, and cultural support they deserve, they will change the face of the GCC’s development for decades to come.

Reprint No. 11209

Author Profiles:

  • DeAnne Aguirre is a senior partner with Booz & Company based in San Francisco. She leads the firm’s work on organizational and talent effectiveness.

  • Melissa Master Cavanaugh is a contributing editor to strategy+business.

  • Karim Sabbagh is a senior partner with Booz & Company based in the Middle East. He leads the firm’s work for global communications, media, and technology clients.


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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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