The perception that women in the Arab world are treated as second-class citizens must be changed to encourage women entrepreneurs from overseas to do business in the UAE.
Positive role models show that women in the UAE can have it all
“This is entrepreneur land,” says Julie Irving, a partner at the Links Group, based in the UAE. “I am English and in England if I said I wanted to start a business and take risks, the general consensus would be not to do it and to stick with what you know.”
Ms Irving was speaking at a recent panel discussion on gender diversity in the UAE, hosted by the Links Group, the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the European Union’s Eagle One Mission, which promotes small and medium enterprises.
“The UAE encourages entrepreneurship and welcomes everyone to do business here and to be successful,” Ms Irving told the mostly female delegates from 50 European companies, who were there to learn more about doing business in the region.
But another more pressing issue was also addressed during the session – the perception of how women in the Arab world are treated. The panel set out to dispel any myths about the role of working women in the Arab region and encourage more female entrepreneurs from Europe to set up shop here.
Archaic stereotypes of women unable to drive, treated as second-class citizens and not encouraged to work can sometimes dominate western perceptions of the entire region. But in the UAE, the “reality couldn’t be more different,” Ms Irving told the delegates.
“If you have a good business idea it will be encouraged here. You will be congratulated and supported,” adds Ms Irving, whose organisation assists companies looking to do business in the UAE and Qatar. However, currently only about 8 per cent of businesses on the company’s books are run by women, something they want to see change.
This “gender push” complements the strategy of the recently formed UAE Gender Balance Council, which is driving women’s participation in national development under the UAE’s Vision 2021.
Ms Irving says she knows from her own experience the ease of doing business in the UAE. She moved to Dubai in 2002 as the managing director of an airline supply company and joined the Links Group as chief operating officer in 2006.
“It is not about your gender or your social class,” she stressed. “It is about your desire to succeed. Women can be very successful here.”
For Reem Al Hashemi, another panellist, gender has never been an issue in her career.
As Minister of State for International Cooperation, chairwoman of Dubai Cares and director general of the Dubai World Expo 2020, she says there is a true conviction in the UAE to activate different members of society.
“Reward is based on merit,” she adds. “We know that without this activation we won’t achieve our economic plan for Vision 2030. Everyone is rewarded for their hard work and dedication.”
Ms Al Hashemi worked in the UAE Embassy in Washington DC before taking up her position in the UAE Government and believes it is trust in her ability and her hard work that has enabled her to succeed.
This was welcome news for Angela Moran, founder and chief executive of the British company Amvigo Eltie, an exclusive virtual members club for high net worth business travellers.
She joined the EU’s Eagle One mission to increase her understanding of the UAE marketplace and establish the potential for growth for her company.
“I am very inspired by what I have heard so far and it has certainly changed some of my perceptions,” says Ms Moran. “Listening to the success stories proves that anything is possible if you want it enough and that being a woman in business here is not a disadvantage. “
She is now hoping to develop contacts in the region for potential sponsorship and to negotiate preferential treatment for her company’s members.
Tara Rogers-Ellis, a board Member of Reach Mentoring and co-founder of Mojo PR, was another panellist at the event. She says that being a woman has never “stood in the way”.
A senior communications expert who has worked in her native South Africa and the UK, Ms Rogers-Ellis has been in the Emirates for nearly 20 years and says women are taken seriously here.
“There is an openness here,” she adds. “A real sense that anything is possible for anybody.”
Lubna Qassim agrees. As the executive vice president and group general counsel at Emirates NBD, she believes the challenges for women working in the UAE are no different to the rest of the world.
“It is a global challenge ... an extremely difficult balancing act between family and work that every woman faces. Women can have it all. It’s all about choice, conviction and hard work.”
For her that choice means juggling the demands of her job with the demands of her home, something faced by women worldwide.
“I am a firm believer in quality over quantity,” she adds. “While I may only have an hour or two with my children each day, I am there in the moment.”
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