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Tue 27 May 2008 03:31 PM

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Leading historic change

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Dr. Basmah Omair, CEO of the Khadijah bint Khuwailid Centre, Jeddah.

As part of its special report Arabian Businesswomen 2008. ArabianBusiness.com is recognising the achievements of the Khadijah bint Khuwailid Businesswomen Center in Jeddah. The centre, which is part of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, aims to remove the obstacles facing Arabian women in order to truly empower them economically and socially. ArabianBusiness.com spoke exclusively to Dr. Basmah Omair, the Centre’s Executive Director, about Arabian Businesswomen - their achievements, the challenges they face and their future.

AB.com: What would you say is the main work that The Khadijah bint Khuwailid Businesswomen Centre does?

Dr Basmah Omair: “We are doing reform work of policy and procedures for businesswomen. We take from Saudi businesswomen the problems they are facing and then we go up to the ministries and government officials and discuss it. We’re still in the process of reform – but once we do have reform, there will be millions of Saudi businesswomen that we would have impacted.”

AB.com: How and why did the centre get its name, ‘The Khadijah bint Khuwailid Businesswomen Centre’?

Dr Basmah Omair: “It was the first centre in any of the Chambers of Commerce in Saudi Arabia to be part of a Chamber to represent businesswomen’s issues. So when that decision was made from the regional prince at the time, they thought of a name to represent it. We wanted to provide an Islamic role model, and lower the fear of people thinking that we were bringing in a Western model. So to do that, we chose Syeda Khadijah bint Khuwailid because she was the Prophet’s wife and the first businesswoman in Islam.”

AB.com: Dr. Lama al-Sulaiman and Nashwa Taher, the President and Vice-President of the centre respectively, became the first Saudi women to be elected as board members of the JCCI in 2005. How has that impacted the centre?

Dr Basmah Omair: “When the centre first started, it was not a lobbying centre. When the centre began five years ago, it was a training centre for women providing workshops and seminars. When Dr. Lama al-Sulaiman and Nashwa Taher ran for the board of directors of the JCCI and won, the vision started changing because they became part of the decision-making process and could see the bigger picture. The ladies then asked me to me to join the group and head up the division. We saw that the training aspect was not necessary at the time as the private sector was providing training. But what was lacking was that even when the ladies went out in the real world and tried to open their businesses, they would face a lot of obstacles. Therefore, we needed to remove those obstacles in order to empower them because no matter how much training we gave them, it really didn’t make any use because they couldn’t open a lot of businesses, they were not allowed to do a lot of things. The effect was we changed the whole vision, due to the fact that the ladies were part of the decision-making in the Chamber.”

AB.com: What would you regard as the main achievements of The Khadijah bint Khuwailid Businesswomen Centre in recent years?

Dr Basmah Omair: “Last year the main achievement was we did a forum (Saudi Women Forum) discussing women’s issues from religious, educational, social and economical perspectives. It was the first forum that was mixed, including men and women in the panel discussing women’s issues – that was the first of the kind. The recommendations that we did we gave to King Abdullah, the princes and the Ministry Cabinet (Majlis al-Shura) and we’re lobbying for those. We have also conducted research about the experience of employing women in the private sector and its pros and cons. So we chose twenty companies that actually employed women and went and visited with them and saw what they liked and what they didn’t like. We also did a city-wide poll of residents in Jeddah regarding their views of women’s role in the economy. They also asked a lot sensitive questions in that poll as well, to see how they view women in work and how we can start raising awareness. We’ve identified a lot of obstacles that women face with the Saudi Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Trade and Commerce and the Vocational Training Institute – and we’re lobbying for the removal of those as well.

AB.com: What is the current stage of development regarding the recommendations that the centre made following the Saudi Women Forum - such as the establishment of a supreme council of women reporting directly to King Abdullah?

Dr Basmah Omair: “They are all still in discussion, to be honest. We’re still back and forth making the case as well. We’ve gotten some responses as far as ‘Explain more’ or ‘This contradicts with another institute’ but nothing’s final, so we’re still in the negotiation phase."

AB.com: In a recent report, it was found that only 1.5% of the 4254 board seats of companies across the Gulf are held by women – compared to 13.6% in the USA and 22% in Norway. When do you think we will begin to see genuine change in these statistics and what is required for that transformation?

Dr Basmah Omair: “In the Gulf region as a whole, there is more aptitude for change as, for example, in the UAE, there are women ministers. Some countries in the Gulf have developed further in leadership and official cabinet positions for women. In Saudi Arabia, you don’t find them on boards as there is a law which says that they cannot become board members or CEOs – the only exception we have is Lubna Olayan. This is even goes as far as being a board member in your family’s business. The only way you can be a CEO or a board member is that it’s a female-based business – so even your clients are females. Once you’re providing services for both men and women, you cannot become a board member or CEO – you cannot even become the manager in the business. Although you have active members and they are family board members, they are not officially registered. These one of things we are raising awareness about."

AB.com: As a demographic, how would you describe Saudi women economically and in particular with regards to them pursuing a career in business?Dr Basmah Omair: “Fifteen billion Saudi riyals ($4 billion) in the kingdom’s banks belong to women, according to the national development agency set up by the government. The reason that figure is big is not because we have a lot of millionaires. We have a lot of women but the point is when women are asked to do a business or invest in the government or in the country, they are asked automatically to have a male guardian take care of their money, so you’re not actually in control of your investment. So, therefore, if you leave it in the bank you also lose control plus you could invest it in the stock without having a male guardian. So, unless that male guardianship is removed, and unless women are allowed to go into any sector they want, and invest in any sector they want, women are not too eager to put out there money.”

AB.com: We have featured many Saudi women in our special report on Arabian Businesswomen like Lubna Olayan and Nahed Taher. Why do you think these women have succeeded in business?

Dr Basmah Omair: “I think these ladies were exceptions. Nahed Taher had to go and establish Gulf One Investment Bank in Bahrain – she found a way around the system as she couldn’t set up here business in Saudi Arabia. Lubna Olayan – we’re really happy for her! But I really don’t know [how she succeeded.]”

AB.com: What would you say are the main challenges in becoming an successful Arabian businesswomen?

Dr Basmah Omair: “The main challenges are the lack of awareness of women’s rights; lack of clarity in the policy and procedures out there; lack of communication between the different ministries. Changes are coming, and the reform is being felt, but we just need time to see it in reality.”

AB.com: How do you envisage the future of The Khadijah bint Khuwailid Businesswomen Centre?

Dr Basmah Omair: “I see somehow a development of a civil society institute, a third-party organisation dealing with women’s issues on the same level.”

AB.com: How do you envisage The Future Arabian Businesswoman? Will she one day be able to enter future-oriented sectors like biotechnology and space aviation?Dr Basmah Omair: "I think if she raises awareness, gets high-self esteem and believes in herself, she can do wonders - given she has the opportunity. We feel our job is to provide that opportunity and choice for her. This is what we work on day and night. I don't see why she should not embark on such sectors [as biotechnology]. She just doesn't have the opportunity and doesn't have enough awareness or information about the sector. Don't forget that information in the Gulf is not easily provided, and information and knowledge is power. So when you lack information, you lack part of the decision-making process to know which sector is in need of investment and which sector is promising. All those indicators that are needed to make a good business decision are not available. So, it's mostly by word-of-mouth or family inheritance or family businesses, that people inherit something not that they willingly choose and go into because they did the right research and it showed that this is the new sector. Once that information is provided, once the woman is aware to make the process of decision-making, I do not see why she could not achieve. In other Gulf countries [apart from Saudi Arabia], laws and regulations are much more lenient, open and equal between women and men as regards investments - and we're getting there."

The special report Arabian Businesswomen 2008 - Celebrating Excellence aims to celebrate the achievements of women in commerce and trade in the region and globally. Click here to view more.

AB.com: Which Arabian Businesswoman do you personally admire?

Dr Basmah Omair: [Laughs] “Everybody is unique! To be honest, I admire the passion in each one that has innovated a new way for ladies behind her. I admire that each one opened a new sector, each one took the initiative, each one pushed the limits – I admire that character – and you see them all over the Gulf. Anybody who has done something new, who went into a new field, who has done what is not expected – to me, I admire that characteristic in them.”

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