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.