Breaking the glass ceiling

In between running a family, the COO of the Al Jaber Group also manages 50,000 staff and controls assets of $4.9bn. But it’s all in a day’s work for her.
By Claire Ferris-Lay
Tue 01 Feb 2011 03:03 PM

Fatima Al Jaber looks comfortable in the company’s boardroom. More than 50,000 staff, $4.9bn in assets and a reputation for building iconic projects such as Dubai’s Mina Al Salam hotel and Madinat Jumeirah are part of the course for the chief operating officer of the Al Jaber Group. The fact she is an Emirati woman in charge of such a huge operation appears almost rude to mention.

“Everything is there; if a woman wants to start a business she can. If she wants to work in government, she can find a job. If she wants to study, there are all sorts of education venues and places to study. The choices are all there,” she says.

Al Jaber has clearly made the right choices — the biggest of which she took four years ago when she decided to ditch a hugely successful career in the public works department at the Abu Dhabi Municipality for a role in the company founded by her father, Obaid Al Jaber, 40 years ago.

“I was working in the government and very happy. I was happy because I was away from the family work and building my own career,” she says.

“I used to help out with certain things such as family investments but that was only part time. I certainly wasn’t planning to join until my father asked me to. I thought here is this great man, I would do anything for him so I joined,” she smiles, clearly happy with her decision.

When Al Jaber joined the Abu Dhabi-based Al Jaber Group, the conglomerate was midway through a restructuring period. Unsure what her position would be she sat on the board of the restructuring committee. It wasn’t long, however, before she was appointed chief operating officer and a member of the board of directors.

“It was a changing era, the boom was starting and everybody had high hopes so we wanted to look at how we could have better control of the organisation,” she says of her early days at the company.

“A family business has its own issues and challenges. I came from a systematic environment in the government and coming to a family owned business meant I [had to] overcome a lot of challenges. But that’s the nature of the private sector,” she smiles.

Five years into the journey Al Jaber doesn’t seem to have any regrets. In addition to guiding the company through one of the worst financial crises in history (at the end of 2010 the firm had more than $4.4bn worth of projects under construction) Al Jaber is also a regular speaker at business conferences across the region as well as a high profile ambassador for women in the workplace — as such she is regularly voted amongst the Arab world’s most powerful businesswomen by the likes of Forbes Arabia and Arabian Business.

Not surprisingly, she says the UAE’s attitude towards women in the workplace is changing. “There is a big change happening in society especially in the last three to four years. The presence of women [in the UAE] is strong in numbers and in education,” she explains. “The UAE is miles and miles ahead of other [Gulf countries in terms of equality]. The Gulf countries are catching up with the UAE. Now you see female ministers in all [areas] of government and in parliaments,” she continues.

“My mother and the mothers of the previous generation were not working mothers, they were all housewives. Now I’m a working mother and I see the majority of my colleagues and friends are working mothers so it’s exactly the opposite.”

In addition to championing women in the workplace Al Jaber is also an active member of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce. In December 2009 she become the first Emirati woman to be elected to the board of directors of the entity when she beat off competition to bag 4,880 votes. “Elections are a good opportunity to test ourselves,” she says.

“Two ladies had [already] been appointed by the government but I said I wanted to go in it myself to improve the number. The outcome was fantastic; I was amazed by the outcome because I didn’t think a lot of people would elect me. For me it is a personal success, a success to my journey and a success because I could represent women and be elected by men.”

While there is a little doubting her success, Al Jaber also knows that her legacy is likely to be shaped in the next few years. Like all construction firms in the UAE the Al Jaber Group has felt the effects of Dubai’s spectacular real estate crash.

Property prices in Dubai have dropped by more than half while neighbouring Abu Dhabi faired only a little better with declines of 30 percent as speculators fled the market and banks tightened mortgage lending amid the downturn. A lack of liquidity coupled with high profile defaults at two Saudi conglomerates has made it difficult it for the private sector to raise finance to secure additional work and expand.

Weeks after our interview the Al Jaber Group finds itself at the centre of much press speculation when it announces plans to restructure debts of up to $1.63bn following delays between payments and receivables.

Al Jaber’s only hint of the announcement during the interview is when she briefly mentions a consolidation plan that will affect the company’s bottom line in 2011.

“We won’t see a big growth in 2011, very little, around 4-5 percent compared to 2010,” she says.  “In 2011 we’re looking at consolidating some of businesses internally; looking into reevaluating our resources….and this is why I’m telling you maybe there won’t be a big growth for 2011,” she continues.

“In general we’ll be looking at our different entities, like Al Jaber Building. We’re looking at enhancing our resources...…because before we were doing projects here and there but now I think we’ll be more focused on ensuring that our resourcing policy is cost effective,” she adds.

On the subject of payments Al Jaber admits the environment is “still tough” with financing difficult to come by. “The payment issue with the Dubai downturn is still tough but I think there are ways and means to handle it,” she says.

“I think Dubai government is working hard with everybody to try to manage this, supported by the local government of Abu Dhabi. All stakeholders are in the same boat; we share the same concerns,” she adds.

“We’re trying to manage this one way or another and I think it has been managed well for the time being. We’re still having some issues with payments as are all the major contractors,” she continues. “The good thing is that we had diversity between Abu Dhabi and Dubai so not all of the eggs were in one basket.”

Despite the tough economic environment amid the downturn, the firm posted continuous growth in 2009 and 2010. In the last twelve months it has won a string of contracts including a $56m one for Abu Dhabi’s Bawabat Al Sharq development, a $2.65bn deal to build the Mafraq-Ghweifat road link, a motorway route from Abu Dhabi to the Saudi border, and a $54m joint venture to work on the capital’s Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone.

The group’s strength throughout the downturn has been its diversity, explains Al Jaber.  “In a small market like us diversity is our strength,” she says. “When you look at the structure of each group you need to have a bit in oil and gas, a bit in real estate and a bit in infrastructure and utilities.

“This type of diversity was created earlier [than the economic crisis] and helped us to really let’s say survive the crisis. A lot of people that were really focusing in on one sector have really been hit hard.”

This diversity helped the company continue to grow in a year that many were forced to look to new markets. “For us 2008 was a very good year. When we got to 2009 everybody stood still watching but in construction we had ongoing projects so we didn’t stop. Our worry was 2010 but we picked up some projects in 2010 so our book was okay,” she adds.

Despite the restructuring announcement Al Jaber plans to plough on full steam ahead with expansion plans which could see the group expanding into new markets including other GCC countries and North Africa.

Qatar with its recent successful World Cup 2022 bid and Saudi Arabia with its vast government-backed, billion dollar, infrastructure plans are both on the group’s radar, says Al Jaber.

The firm already has a small presence in Qatar through one of its subsidiaries but in-roads into Saudi Arabia are proving slightly more challenging, admits Al Jaber.

“Saudi Arabia has always been a strategic market for us. For a market that big we know that one way or another we need to there but we’ve been really evaluating this because being a contractor we know that there are a lot of constraints on the transport of labour between the UAE and Saudi.

“It is very difficult to move [labourers] directly, you need to get them through their own countries so it does create some difficulty for us,” she explains.  “When you are contractor you are very conservative when you are looking [at expanding].

“We are not an investment company, we’re not working by papers, we are working using resources, a labour force and through people who are on the ground so we need to think of everything such as how to bring these people, how to move them, how to put them together and arranging these things as well as equipment is a hard job so you really need to assess your geographic presence and where you need to be.”

It might be a challenge, but Al Jaber’s track record suggests she will meet it with ease.

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