x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Trailblazer who leads by example

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi is regarded as an economic and social force in her own right.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi is regarded as an economic and social force in her own right and the UAE Minister of Foreign Trade's growing list of achievements is testament not only to her personal drive but also to the increasing global clout of the country, Gregor Stuart Hunter writes


The Arab world's most powerful woman is clearly enjoying sharing her cake with staff.

Named the leading Arab high-flyer in Forbes magazine's "Power Women 100" list this month, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi celebrates with an icing-sugar-coated treat.

"You can have the slice that says 'woman'," the Minister of Foreign Trade and the UAE's commercial representative says, emitting a joyful laugh and handing a huge slab of chocolate cake to her press relations aide. He looks on, bemused.

The cake is for everyone at the Ministry of Foreign Trade. It marks not only her own achievements, she says, but also the growing global clout of the country.

"It is a reflection of how confident and strong our economy is and also how it's viewed from outside," says Sheikha Lubna, who was listed 70th in the Forbes list, which was topped by Michelle Obama, the wife of the US president Barack Obama.

It is a "huge responsibility", she adds. "You have to walk the talk."

Described variously as "a regional power in her own right" and the leader of a "one-woman, economic and social revolution", Sheikha Lubna's exploits and successes have drawn praise in the West from some of the highest levels of society.

For her efforts as a trade envoy, she was presented with the Legion d'honneur by Christine Lagarde, the French minister of finance, representing the French president Nicolas Sarkozy. She has also been presented with the Star of Italian Solidarity by the president of Italy Giorgio Napolitano.

Ms Lagarde, a friend of Sheikha Lubna, praised "a blend of excellence, dynamics and enthusiasm in her work", while Italy's ambassador described her as "a great friend of Italy".

"She is a true inspiration for women everywhere," says Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, the UK's first Muslim member of the House of Lords.

Sheikha Lubna has certainly become one of the public faces of the UAE.

During the furore in the US over DP World's planned acquisition of the US division of British ports operator P&O in 2006, she was thrust into the global spotlight at the insistence of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

She brought to the table an eclectic CV, featuring Silicon Valley, Dubai's technological development and a couple of illustrious offices of state. "A geek and a techy!" is how she exuberantly categorises herself.

She played a pivotal role in dealing with the controversy, not only lobbying for the P&O deal but also defusing some of the negative views about the Arab world in the US media.

Nobody in the West expected Dubai to send a woman. "It was really shrewd of Sheikh Mohammed," she says. "Having the 'California girl' there softened whatever image or perception was had about the UAE. Second was the fact that I was a computer engineer. And part of it was the experience that I had at the ports." Despite the fact that DP World bowed out after a committee in the US Congress voted to block the acquisition, Sheikha Lubna still regards her efforts as a victory.

"It transformed the way in general that we were viewed," she says.

"We were a liberal country, we hired women, they're actually big bosses and big government figures. We learned a great deal. We had assumed that the branding of Dubai was known … but it wasn't."

Educated in England and California, Sheikha Lubna began her career as a computer engineer, graduating through senior roles at the General Information Authority and Dubai Ports Authority, before founding her own internet start-up Tejari.com in 2000, just as the dotcom bubble burst, and which is still going strong.

In 2004, she made history when she was appointed the Minister of Economy and Planning, the UAE's first female cabinet member. She has now been joined in the Emirates's cabinet by three other women.

"History will always remember Sheikha Lubna as the first woman to assume a ministerial portfolio in the UAE," said Abdullah Mohammed al Ghafli, the UAE's ambassador to Canada. But although Sheikha Lubna's high-powered career has brought benefits for the UAE, as she reels off her itinerary for the coming months it is hard not to wonder if she feels a little travel weary.

"I have several trips coming up to Germany, Tunisia, Malaysia, Korea, Armenia, Latin America … I travel so much that I've decided I'm almost considering when I retire that I should get a reclining [Airbus] A380 bed. I sleep on them more than I sleep on my bed."

Life as a globe-trotting government minister leaves her with little spare time. What free time she has is largely spent reading, watching movies and playing Scrabble on her iPad. "I used to grow a lot of indoor plants," she says wistfully. "Now, with this job, the only plants I can grow are plastic. You need something to water."

There was no specific reason for Sheikha Lubna, whose uncle is the ruler of Sharjah, to have set out on her unique career path. But her drive is evident.

"The challenge I sometimes see here is sometimes you find some young women, and women in general, who are self-deprecating - they criticise themselves more than others criticise them," she says.

Women who focus on their careers, she says, often feel a sense of "guilt", regardless of whether their background is Muslim, Christian or any other religion.

"It puts a pressure on the decisions you make," she says.

Sheikha Lubna, who has climbed to the highest echelons of corporate and political life in the UAE, recalls how this feeling of guilt sometimes "tricks your confidence".

"I was like this myself," she says. "It's about how we're built in our minds. It's typical of women that they would always cast guilt and responsibility on themselves."

She says, like herself, many Emirati women have been encouraged by the support of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the president of the UAE General Women's Union.

"She's like the wind beneath the wings, pushing and being the strength there but not being obvious," Sheikha Lubna says.

"She's been the one who has driven the call for women's equality, women's rights from the establishment of the UAE." And for the many thousands of young Emirati women who wish to follow Sheikha Lubna's lead? "My message to the girls is that they should follow that step in terms of committing to deliver, regardless of what they are - housewives, mothers, professionals, businesswomen, whatever - they do need to deliver," she says.

For someone with such ability to deal with western governments, Sheikha Lubna credits the UAE for the chances it has given her - and which is reflected by her Forbes accolade.

"It speaks of how far the UAE has come in terms of mobilising women and opening doors for them," she says. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the Government. There are a lot of societies where it's a struggle. Here, the Government pushes you forward on a wave of high expectations."

With her California lilt, she does not strike you as the UAE's "secret weapon", as she became known during the DP World case.

But confounding expectations has characterised Sheikha Lubna's career and she has certainly set high expectations for those who wish to follow.