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Sun 29 Jan 2006 04:00 AM

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Doctor’s orders

By becoming CEO of Gulf One Investment Bank this month, Saudi economist Dr. Nahed Taher has become the first Saudi woman to head up a regional financial services firm.

|~|Saudi-200.jpg|~|SIMPLE ECONOMICS: Dr Taher believes that if the female graduates could gain active employment, Saudi’s GDP could rise dramatically.|~|By becoming CEO of Gulf One Investment Bank this month, Saudi economist Dr. Nahed Taher has become the first Saudi woman to head up a regional financial services firm. She aims to use her new position to improve how money flowing into the region is invested.

Dr. Nahed Taher is an ambitious woman. The last few years have seen her becoming a well-known TV commentator on economic reforms, and now she’s become the first Saudi woman to head up a regional bank.

So how did she feel when, despite her success, she wasn’t allowed to vote in Saudi’s men-only local elections last year? “I didn’t believe in the process, or that it was professional,” she states. “But it was a farce, anyway. For women to be allowed to vote only wouldn’t have been the right move — they should be elected. This is the way we should see women in the future — elected and able to represent their male and female colleagues. They shouldn’t just be allowed to support political and economic efforts — they should be integrated into them as well.”

Although Dr. Taher is now a central figure in her country’s economy, she is obviously frustrated that her role has been confined to the private sector so far. She admits she has political ambitions, but has instead seen women in neighbouring countries like Shaikha Lubna Al Qassimi, the UAE’s minister of economy, rising to high office. When similar opportunities emerge in her home country, she says she hopes to be given a call.

“On the political level, I [look to] women like Shaikha Lubna in the UAE. She is a professional. When women participate on an economic or political level, it should be based on strength and capability.

“Look at Bhenazir Bhutto and Margaret Thatcher — they were a huge success. I hope I will see that being replicated in the region and the steps some of our neighbours have taken have been extremely positive.

“In Saudi, I hope that whenever we see women at a high political level, we will see them capable, confident and able to excel in their efforts to reform their economies. That is the idea I have followed throughout my career.”

Although changes are happening, detractors of women’s rights programmes in Saudi have held firm in the defence of restrictions on women’s participation in various aspects of socio-political life. But economists, including Dr. Taher, argue that the kingdom’s development will be badly affected if job opportunities aren’t opened up to its female population. ||**|||~||~||~|In Saudi culture, women and men are segregated in many parts of their life. But due in part to inheritance and other laws which allow women to control their own wealth, Saudi women have significant resources to invest in business. Saudi businesswomen are estimated to own over 15,000 companies, or around 5% of registered Saudi businesses.

Also, over 50% of the country’s graduates are female — so are allocated most of the government’s educational budget and could potentially make up half of its workforce. Some also argue that they could replace many of the millions of expatriate workers in Saudi, reducing remittances and increasing the kingdom’s GDP.

Dr. Taher, however, says opportunities for women should come primarily through economic growth and the creation of new jobs, not through Saudisation. “To me, the nationalisation policies that governments are adopting in the region are not right,” she says. “Expats are all over the world and they do not hinder growth. In fact, educating our people to international standards is the issue, as well as developing economic structures that can absorb an educated youth and help us benefit from its energy and creativity.”

She adds: “It could happen, especially with the higher percentage of women being educated. They could have a lot of added value in the economy and save a lot of money transfers outside. But it’s also about education. The sectors women are educated in are in limited areas. So replacement will not be that easy.”

Essentially, Dr. Taher says, women will not be the only ones to suffer if overall growth cannot be accelerated in Saudi — where despite huge oil revenues, unemployment is estimated at between 15% and 30%, and extreme differences remain between poor and rich.

“It’s not a matter of gender only,” she says. “Women’s participation in the economy is rising — women want to help in the economy and progress what is happening. But if we retain current economic structures, the problems are not going to be restricted only to women. My commitment is geared towards helping the whole economy — I want to help my son, as well as my daughter.”

Having moved recently from National Commercial Bank, the largest bank in Saudi Arabia, to head up Bahrain’s Gulf One Investment Bank, Dr. Taher intends to do her bit for the Kingdom’s economic development. She says the mainly Saudi-owned company’s premise is that many of the petro-dollars now flowing into the region aren’t being wisely invested — a problem which could have major implications for the kingdom’s future development.

“I believe there are a lot of deficiencies in the way money is invested,” Dr. Taher says. “A lot of focus is on short-term gains, in brokerage and real estate. It’s not really about the long term vision of the region, which has a lot of potential and competitive advantages that could be utilised. It is time for the region to focus on its natural strengths and to direct its wealth at investments that will grow and protect its wealth, while building our society. With oil revenues streaming into the GCC economies, there is a critical need to optimise the management of this wealth.”

She adds: “The old, traditional financing schemes are not working now for the region; so we need to fine-tune them to get the most out of the capital that is available.”

Having received its licence from Bahrain’s Monetary Authority (BMA) in December last year, and start-up capital of US$100 million, Gulf One is expected to be operational by June. It will focus on providing the finances behind ‘mega-energy’ and infrastructure projects in the region — investments which Dr. Taher says could be worth over US$1 trillion over the next 15 years.

She also intends to concentrate on mergers and acquisitions, an area she says will grow thanks to Saudi’s recent accession to the World Trade Organisation, as well as focusing on increasing the flow of capital between the Middle East and oil-hungry economies, like India and China.

“A lot of demand for oil is coming from the Far East, so the GCC should be focusing on offering services they need in that region, or bringing partnerships from their side to invest in our region,” she says. “That could be improved; providing support for the mega-infrastructure projects that are needed for our industries to evolve. We need to support more outside investment that will mutually benefit the GCC and the economies it will come from. We could emerge as part of their growth.”

If she gets her way, perhaps she will also have an opportunity to play a political role in that growth. “Whenever my decision makers want me to be, I will be a soldier for my country,” she says. “I’m really enjoying my business career but I could play both roles — political and economic — with my colleagues, helping the region develop.”||**||

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