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Sat 24 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Ladies who launch

Bored with the region's slow-burn gender revolution, Gulf women are buying up backdoor routes into top-level business roles.

Bored with the region's slow-burn gender revolution, Gulf women are buying up backdoor routes into top-level business roles.

Courtesy of expansive, state-funded scholarships, women across the Arab world are outpacing their male counterparts and securing more university degrees than ever before. However, that dominance in the classroom hasn't yet translated to the boardroom.

Latest statistics from the World Economic Forum show only 39 percent of UAE women are active in the workforce, compared to 92 percent of men. And at the very top level, it remains a boys' club, with only around 3% of GCC board seats held by women.

"Most reports show that despite the investment [in education] and progress, there's no pay-off," says Dr Khalid Al-Yahya, assistant professor of public policy at Dubai School of Government. "The human capital isn't effectively utilised."

Now, bored with the region's slow-burn gender revolution, Arab women are taking matters into their own hands. Taking their lead from the rapid pace of development set by Dubai and other states, they are buying their way into the boardroom. And, as investment banks have noted, they have the money to do it.

Gulf women control around $245bn in assets, a figure expected to swell to $385bn by 2011. In Saudi Arabia, the largest of the GCC economies, women own 30 percent of all bank deposits, largely accrued through inherited wealth. This well-heeled demographic is now putting its wealth to work by buying up company shares, and driving social change through the boardrooms of prominent Gulf firms.

"Through high-level investment these women are buying a seat at the table," says Nadereh Chamlou, a senior adviser at the World Bank. "Investment is a legitimate path to increasing your influence. There are many opportunities for the Warren Buffets of this world to be Gulf women - they have the money."

Two types of investors are emerging. One is the traditional holder of inherited capital. On a quest for financial sophistication, she is now using her wealth to gamble on stocks and shares to grow her portfolio. She is part of the growing number of Gulf ‘traderettes'; the catch-all term used by bankers to describe this new breed of female financiers. According to NASDAQ Dubai, female investors traded more than 18 billion stocks last year alone.

Alongside the high net-worth traders are women who, finding other career paths blocked, have bought into the entrepreneurial spirit, launching their own firms or taking a front seat in family-run businesses. In the space of just a few years, Gulf women have built a broad business platform - a World Bank report found one in seven Middle East firms is owned by a female. And all hire disproportionately more women workers. It's a far cry from the image of pampered Arab princesses portrayed by some sections of the media.

Still, critics argue that some Arab women, backed by their father's money and often silent partners in their family firms, are poor poster girls for feminism. World Bank data shows that in the Middle East, only 60 percent of women actually run the firms they own.

Chamlou is scathing of what she describes as "romanticism for grassroots initiatives," arguing that a top-down revolution is more likely to spark change than social schemes designed to boost female participation.

"Bill Gates doesn't run Microsoft on a daily basis. A higher number of female CEOs - even if it's in name only - means there's a higher likelihood of these firms having modern governance systems that hire other women," she says. "These women are precisely the class of players we need. We need to promote them, not dismiss them because they received their wealth from their father."

Samira Abdulrazzak, the CEO of Dubai Infinity Holdings and the youngest ever female UAE national chief executive, is one business leader hoping to discover and develop a new generation of female talent in the Gulf.

She plans to launch a mentoring scheme later this year, to allow seven Emirati women to shadow executives at DIH. The hands-on education will lead to management roles for the best, she says.

"Leadership is like swimming; you can't learn it from a book. You have to get your hands dirty."Other women are taking their investment skills into their own hands. BNP Paribas, one of France's largest banks, offers week-long seminars and a two-month training schemes to school clients in the intricacies of investment.

"We absolutely are seeing more women take up these opportunities. Last year 55 percent of our attendees were from the Gulf and 30 percent of them were women," says wealth management expert Serena El Masri, from the bank's Bahrain office. Most are young women set to take over the family business or the family's investment portfolio, she adds.

Guest speakers include other high-level female clients who have mastered the sangfroid required to manage an asset-heavy portfolio. "There is a definite appetite and request for knowledge [from women] we didn't see before," El Masri reports.

This new source of financial muscle has not gone unnoticed by the bankers courting these ladies and their capital. DHI's Abdulrazzak notes several institutes have set up special units to cater for this niche market, moving beyond the superficial ‘pink-ribboning' of existing products - fuchsia credit cards for example - to tailored solutions. "They're starting to pay attention," she says.

Undeniably, the majority of prominent Arab businesswomen have had a head start, either through financial or political capital. For women without this edge, progress is still moving at a glacial pace.

However, Gulf governments have not been sitting on their laurels. Encouraged by a younger generation of Arab leaders and their publicly visible wives, most GCC states now have at least one woman in government.

They have been appointed by male rulers - Arab councils will still rarely vote women in - but their appointment represents significant progress in a region only now coming to terms with the introduction of women to the political arena.

Some have dismissed these steps as window dressing, benefiting only a small group of elite women, but Chamlou believes they will help lift the economic veil across the region. "This is how we empower women - we find women with the means to do it," she says. "These are the women at the top who will advocate for other women, and we all reap the benefits."

A case in point is the Khadija bint Khuwailid Centre, the women's section of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It has meshed business and politics, lobbying within the Chamber - where two of the group hold seats - for legal and administrative changes that affect its members.

This represents a significant leap for a country where, until 2004, women were legally required to filter business transactions through a male agent.

For now, Chamlou is hopeful high net-worth women will clear the path for other females to fight their way into the workplace. The financial reasons, she says, are compelling enough for more wealthy women to make the leap, bolstering the number of women at the top.

"These women, what will they do otherwise?" she asks. "Buy more Gucci bags? Buy shares. Today's diamond necklace could tomorrow be a company."

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Batul Ali 11 years ago

The article above on rising businesswomen is interesting, encouraging and inspiring. And why not? As Muslims, we have a role model in Bibi Khadija, the first wife of our dear Prophet (Peace be on him): she was a successful and wealthy businesswoman in her own right. The problem lies in the acceptance of women's economic independence matched by male insecurity! We women won't be worse off as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters if we handle our own bank accounts--trust us.

Gail Clough 11 years ago

I believe the best natural resource a counrty has is not oil or gas, but intelligence and talent. This should be carefully nurtured, cultivated and used to help society no matter which gender it comes from. To surpress it is a crying shame.

Susan Williamson 11 years ago

Women are clearly demonstrating their ability to think outside the box and when meeting obstacles are able to adapt and shift thinking in order to garner a better and larger representation as a financial player in both today's - and future - markets. It is presented by Ms. Chamlou that the most beneficial way to mobilize and effect positive change, elevating the position of women to a more equitable status, is to direct from a position in the boardroom. That is one facet. Certainly there is no reason why both the grassroots initiatives and the women's roles in the boardrooms cannot dually serve. As positions open to women in the field of business, grassroots efforts can prepare and instruct more financially challenged but potentially skilled players to better enter the market prepared. Somewhat romanticized as it may sometimes be, grassroots initiatives can and do present viable opportunities to those unable or ineligible to take full advantage of other educational opportunities. In so doing, a more level playing field with more open opportunity is effected for the majority of the female (and male) populace to compete. Down from the top, up from the bottom, meet in the middle.

Mrs ZK 11 years ago

It is very inspiring to hear stories about Muslim women working at the top level! As a Muslim women myself working within the public sector in the UK and I am looking for a serious female investor who would like to invest in a Arabian/ Indian themed restaurant/ hotel business in the UK. This is to give UK residents a taste of Arabia. I would like to make this a reality and would appreciate correspondences from serious female investors.