x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A big success in the field

The Life: Engineer Haifaa Alajmi is encouraged by the support Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait, has given to Kuwaiti women who aim to be professionally successful.

Haifaa Alajmi, a senior engineer with Kuwait Oil Company, speaks at the 16th Global Women Leaders Conference in Dubai this week. Sarah Dea / The National
Haifaa Alajmi, a senior engineer with Kuwait Oil Company, speaks at the 16th Global Women Leaders Conference in Dubai this week. Sarah Dea / The National

On graduating from Imperial College London with a PhD in the area of heavy oil, Haifaa Alajmi was asked by Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait, to visit him at the palace so he could congratulate her in person on being the first woman in the GCC to gain a doctorate in this field.

He received her in a big hall and, to her surprise, it was just the two of them.

"When I [got] there I said: 'Come on, there is no one else. What are we going to chat about?' But it was a very, very wonderful chat."

Ms Alajmi decided at the age of 11 that she wanted to be an engineer. After school, she got a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and in 2000 started work at Kuwait Oil Company (KOC).

During the selection process she was told that she would have to accept working in the field, which she did.

For some time, she was the only woman working in the field following operation and production. She worked on wells, monitored pipelines and checked tanks.

KOC figured out ways to support her such as by providing her with transport so she didn't have to drive herself through the desert. The company also let her alter her work attire.

"I don't like to wear the overalls," she says. "They accepted the modifications I made to make it a bit more feminine. So it's become like a lab coat with trousers."

Contrary to expectations, working in the field - with its long hours and hard physical work - was easier than in the head office.

"During the site work gender does not matter," she says. "We are all wearing the same clothes and we are doing the same thing. I didn't feel that anyone didn't want me to be there - either the top management or the labourers working for me."

However, the men were overprotective and prone to shielding her, thereby cutting her off from interacting normally with other engineers.

At the head office it was culturally inappropriate for her to be overly chummy with her male colleagues, meaning she couldn't stop by their desks for a chat or join them for dinner after work.

This culture which excludes women is the main barrier to their progress in the oil and gas industry, she contends, as well as the current lack of senior female oil executives.

To compensate for her isolation, she threw herself into work, generating some resentment among her peers.

"There was a development programme that lasted for one year when we joined KOC," she says. "The men didn't take it that seriously. Because I was isolated I spent a long time doing every single thing."

Even her boss told her she was taking it all too seriously.

"But I think that was the starting point, because taking the training seriously from the beginning made me want to step ahead of the others," she explains.

Settled into work, she then did a part-time masters in environmental engineering and for three years worked at KOC from 7am to 3pm, then studying until 9pm. She then got a scholarship to Imperial.

Ms Alajimi graduated a few months ago and awarded herself a well-deserved break. She decided to go back to London as a tourist and do all the things she had missed while studying. She returns to KOC next month.

Knowing that a career in oil would likely be difficult for a woman, why did she choose this path?

"I was born in Kuwait," Ms Alajmi says. "The oil industry is the most important thing. It is what changed Kuwait from a desert to a modern city, to a real country."

But things are changing for the better, she says. There are now many more women working in the head office and a few more in the field.

She believes the government should do more to support and encourage women who want to study engineering at university, as well as reverse the law on gender segregation at Kuwait University.

"That is not helpful for a country looking for development and looking to establish a new generation who can help and support and develop the country," she says.

She is encouraged, however, by Sheikh Sabah's support for women.

"I heard this about him before but I heard it directly from him," she says. "He told me, 'Haifaa, go back to KOC. We need you to be there. Make me aware if you see something we can change or make better.' Now I have a mission at KOC."