ABU DHABI // Shaikha Mubarak spent 10 years fashioning ceramic replicas of red and yellow dates and presenting them as housewarming gifts on silver plates, in glass bowls and on fruit stands. The hadeeh, or date clusters, adorn all the tables in her living room. Her friends tried to persuade her to go into business and sell them for profit. They suggested she contact Mubdiah, a business initiative started by the Abu Dhabi Businesswomen Council to encourage Emirati women to run businesses from home.
"My friends, they said, you can start a business like this with them," Ms Mubarak said. "They said that they had not seen anyone make it like this." Several months ago, after watching a television programme about the organisation, she finally approached Mubdiah, which means "female innovators" in Arabic. Although the organisation does not hand out funding, it holds workshops to teach women about marketing and quality control and helps them obtain a business licence.
After inspecting her workspace and her product, a Mubdiah representative helped Ms Mubarak obtain her licence, too. "They wanted to make sure I do it myself," she said. "So I made it for them." She acquired a grant from the Sheikh Khalifa Fund, which provides grants for Emiratis to start businesses. With the help of the council, she started selling her wares under Haji Handicrafts - named after her daughter - at exhibitions. She hopes to soon start retailing them through flower shops.
Ms Mubarak is one of 1,276 Emirati women who are members of Mubdiah. "The best compliment I received for my work was when someone came to me and said: 'When I see your dates, I am hungry, I want to eat it'," she said. Shafika al Ameri, the director of the council, is a busy woman. When not travelling abroad with UAE delegations, she often finds herself in an office full of women looking for business advice. Many are hesitant about their ideas until Mrs al Ameri encourages them to write a business plan. The work continues as they develop their products, packaging and marketing plans.
"If the quality is not good, we try to improve the product through workshops," Mrs al Ameri said. "If it is a success at first, then we consider expansion into other areas." Mrs al Ameri also represents the products made by the women. She takes some of them, such as the traditional Emirati embroidery and dresses talli, which are like red kaftans that can be converted to two pieces for the European market when she attends conferences abroad.
"We tell the girls that we are going to Europe and they know what to do," she said. "They want short tops, so talli designs are reproduced on the sides of pants or on shirts." Mrs al Ameri helped establish the businesswomen's council in 2005 as a part of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "There was a lot of load on myself," she said. "I came to the chamber to help women who were graduating and other women and young girls. So I told myself: 'If you want to be successful, focus.'
"It wasn't easy. It was tough. We struggled putting things together. The goal is that we don't want women to be in Mubdiah forever. We want them to grow, become independent and run successful businesses." Shaima al Zaabi, 25, turned to Mubdiah to help market her laptop skin designs. The designs - which are transferred to stickers and placed on laptop computers include crystals and blown-up images of denim pockets. They were such a hit with her cousins and sisters in university that their friends began asking for personalised designs.
Her clients are mostly high school pupils and university students. "From A to Z, it is my work," Ms al Zaabi said. "It is a little bit tiring, but that is not a problem." Ms al Zaabi spent months perfecting her designs, searching for the right kind of paper that would leave no residue, before approaching the council. "I think of quality all the time. That is the most important thing," she said. A year after making skins for her sister's friends, Ms al Zaabi got a business licence. She is now learning to market her business online and aspires to run a marketing firm someday.
"I am not a genius," Ms al Zaabi said. "But when I go to see my sister in her university, I see people walking around with my skins on their laptops. I feel very happy." email@example.com * With additional reporting by Hessa al Hameli