With her trademark blonde hair and immaculately applied lipstick, Dr Nahed Taher looks nothing like a stereotypical banker or economist — much less one from Saudi Arabia. Despite being born in a country known for its strict Islamic regulations, the Jeddah-based businesswoman has been breaking with convention even since she left her position as chief economist at National Commercial Bank (NCB) to set up her own investment bank.
“When I worked at NCB I had a big opportunity to advise some very senior people and see the whole world through the bank. The male-dominated environment was hugely supportive, even the ministers and princes, so when I decided to quit, people thought I was crazy,” she tells CEO Middle East.
Disillusioned by the increasing emphasis that Saudi lenders were placing on selling consumer loans, Taher co-founded Gulf One Investment Bank in 2006, becoming the first Arab woman to set up a bank and the only woman in the Gulf to run one. In seven years, her firm has raised over $10bn for infrastructure projects across the Gulf, Asia and Europe and currently boasts more than $2bn worth of assets under management.
“I decided that Saudi Arabia needed a bank that really focused on investment banking not in trading and mutual funds but really investing [based on] Islamic principles. Islamic banking not conventional — because I don’t believe in many of them, it’s just sugarcoated — so in every project we share the capital and sit on the board — we are not passive. We sometimes take distressed company, sometimes projects as a whole or create companies,” she says.
Gulf One Investment Bank, which is based in neighbouring Bahrain, may be run on Islamic principles but Taher is a supporter of more progressive policies in her home country, supporting moves to put women in the driving seat, encouraging more females into the workplace and calling for greater government collaboration with the private sector to boost economic diversification.
Her departure from NCB may have been a surprise to many of her colleagues but Taher has enjoyed an unorthodox career for many years. She studied for a PhD in economics at Lancaster University Management School in the UK, is a former professor and head of the accounting department at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, and turned down a career with the International Monetary Fund to return to Saudi Arabia, eager “to do something for my own country”. Following her return to the kingdom, she became the first and only woman to join the 4,000-strong National Commercial Bank.
Saudi Arabia has made several reforms in recent years aimed at making it easier for women to work in the Gulf state. King Abdullah swore in the country’s first female members of the Shoura Council, an appointed body that advises on new laws, in February, has built new universities for students of both sexes and encouraged women to participate in the labour market. Taher supports such moves, adding that women can play a key role in the oil-rich state’s diversification.
“Women have a big role to play in terms of entrepreneurship; it is key to the success of women in terms of creating jobs for them. The government has been making huge efforts to increase the employment of Saudi women but they have succeeded [in achieving] very little because it is not in their hands,” she says.
“It’s the whole economic strategy and I think the time is very much geared for us — with all of these uncertainties surrounding us and the problems outside [of the country], I think we should focus more on the inside,” she adds.
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