x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

To all those doubters - our Arab women are doing just great

There is a widespread misconception in the western world that Arab women are deprived of many rights and do not play a major role in society. A recent awards ceremony demonstrates that is not the case, writes Manar Al Hinai.

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE's Minister of Foreign Trade, is a role model for women in the region. Stephen Lock / The National
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE's Minister of Foreign Trade, is a role model for women in the region. Stephen Lock / The National

There is a widespread misconception in the western world that Arab women are deprived of many rights and do not play a major role in society.

I have held countless discussions with westerners intrigued to know more about Emirati women's social rights, whether they are paid the same as men for equal work, and whether they are allowed to establish and manage their own businesses.

Clarifying misconceptions is always enjoyable for me, and I love to cite some examples of great female leaders in the UAE. A recent testimony to women's active participation in the UAE's economy came two weeks ago atL'Officiel magazine's annual Arab Women Awards ceremony, which I attended.

The award recognises inspirational Arab women who have contributed in fields such as business, medicine, charity and the arts.

Sitting at my table at the event, I felt goosebumps on my arms every time a nominee was called on stage to receive her award.

The winners included Osha Khalifa Al Suwaidi, a renowned Emirati poet, and Asma Al Fahim, an Emirati entrepreneur who founded the European International College for Hotel Management and Tourism in Abu Dhabi, the first of its kind in the city.

Looking at it now, women in the UAE have come so far in the past 40 years since the country was formed - and so have their counterparts in other GCC countries.

Not only did they challenge the status quo, but they have also excelled more than men in different fields, with some of them now praised as international influencers. These figures include Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE's Minister of Foreign Trade, and the Saudi princess Ameera Al Taweel, the wife of the billionaire businessman Prince Al Waleed bin Talal.

However, women today have particular influence on the economy of the UAE and that of the wider GCC. MEED, a Middle Eastern business-intelligence organisation, estimates the wealth held by women in the Gulf region at US$385 billion (Dh1.4 trillion).

Most of this wealth translates into a great purchasing power on which many retailers depend. Because of their money-saving habits, GCC women are thriving financially despite the global downturns.

Some financial institutions are now targeting this pool of women to put their money to wider use - by providing female-only bank branches, and targeted funds such as The National Investor's Dana Women Fund.

Female Emirati entrepreneurs are also pioneers in the small-business sphere. I know many women who have established successful businesses ranging from media agencies to popular bakeries. I have also come to know countless entrepreneurs through different media.

A scan through Facebook's numerous pages for small businesses managed by Emirati women shows that some business owners as young as 20 have already established strong business roots, attracting hundreds of customers.

In 2007, a study by the International Finance Corporation declared that a third of businesses owned by women in the UAE each generated $100,000 per year, compared with only 13 per cent of similar enterprises in developed countries such as the United States.

All of this has been encouraged by the support of our leaders and government entities.

The UAE Government is always undertaking major efforts to ensure women's active participation in the socio-economic development of the country and has made it easier by establishing different facilities such as the Khalifa Fund to support women's entrepreneurial projects.

One of the fund's business consultants proudly told me that most of the people to apply for business financing are women who have gone on to establish successful businesses with the fund's support.

Maybe we do have a long way to go to become leaders in medicine and education, but our women are doing great things.

Just knowing that is assurance enough for all young aspiring women out there.

Manar Al Hinai is an Emirati fashion designer and writer who can be followed on Twitter: @manar_alhinai