x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Woman in a mine's world

Ines Scotland cuts an impressive figure in the male dominated world of mining and is currently raising finances for a project in Saudi Arabia.

Not many people think turning 40 is good news. But for Ines Scotland it was cause for celebration. Hitting the Big Four-O made it easier for her to get permission to enter Saudi Arabia for business. "I immediately applied for my multiple-entry visa," she says, laughing. "It seems you're considered 'no longer desirable', and I thought, well, OK, it doesn't bother me." Ms Scotland is chief executive of Citadel Resources Group, a Melbourne mining company that is in partnership with the Saudi government to explore the kingdom's newly opened mines; ones largely untouched since, it is said, the time of King Solomon.

Soft-spoken and just over five feet (1.5 metres) tall, in a pinstriped suit and black patent leather peep-toe heels, Ms Scotland seems an unlikely corporate conquistador. Then again, she bears a dossier marked by the unexpected: woman; miner; a beautiful baby contest winner who now wears steel-toed boots, searching the Arabian peninsula for copper and gold. The Jabal Sayid mines lie deep in the rocky desert between Jeddah and Medina, where abandoned Roman mine trenches and foundries dot a glittering landscape of about 100 square kilometres. "Veins of copper and quartz [where gold is found] have mushroomed up through volcanic vents ? you can see this," says Andrew Thomson, a non-executive director at Citadel.

"Where the Romans found some, there's likely a stash underneath," he says. "Where there's smoke, there's fire." The mine itself is massive, about 550 metres deep. "Saudi will be the next big mining area, like Canada or South Africa," Ms Scotland says. In the meantime, she splits her time between courting financiers in Australia, inspecting core samples with metallurgists and geologists at the mine site and working on strategy with mining officials in Jeddah. Ms Scotland says navigating the Gulf's male-dominated business culture takes a mixture of confidence and grace. "There are some men who won't shake your hand," she says. "I tend to ignore it. I just try to get my job done."

More vexing, she says, is one particular logistical challenge to being a female executive working in Saudi Arabia: there are no toilets for women in public buildings. "It's absolutely awful!" she says, laughing. "I always make sure I go to the bathroom before I leave the office, and try not to drink too much coffee." Occasionally, she says, a minister or executive will offer her the use of the toilet in his office "if the need is really calling".

Five years ago, Ms Scotland was running what was then known as Vertex, a small engineering services company. (One company executive at the time was Russell Luxford, who is now her husband.) Vertex management decided to change into a more traditional mining operation. To bring in start-up money to fund the venture, Ms Scotland sold her home in Brisbane for A$800,000 (Dh2.34 million). At that time, she was in Oman working on a project to refurbish a copper smelter, when she met a consultant with ties to the Saudi government. "He was doing a bit of marketing for the deputy ministry for changing their mining act," she says. Saudi Arabia was opening up the mines and, most unusually, it was not requiring the corporate partner to pay royalties.

Vertex had already done work on some phosphate projects in the area and saw the Saudi project as a key to making the fledgling firm's name. The consultant set up a meeting between Ms Scotland and Saudi officials. "I just said, 'Hi, my name is Ines, and this is what we'd like to do'," she says. A Saudi family who owned the copper mines in Jabal Sayid, among the most potentially lucrative in the country, agreed to a joint venture with Vertex in 2006. By then, Vertex had acquired eight licences for nearby gold mines. In Dec 2007 the company, having renamed itself Citadel Resources Group, raised A$29m on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Jabal Sayid is an ideal project for Citadel, a small company without a bottomless capital account. Not only are there no royalties to pay the government partner, energy costs in Saudi Arabia are among the cheapest in the world. Citadel's workers do not need to bounce along a winding gravel road to the mine camp: it is a smooth, four-hour trip from Jeddah on a two-lane highway. In addition, unlike locations where rains can spread dangerous metals into a water supply, Ms Scotland says the desert is a perfect place to have a mine.

Company geologists have been drilling for samples, and mining is planned to begin this November. In the meantime, Citadel's staff of 40 will eventually grow to a village of 450. The company expects to extract gold by February next year, and copper by late 2011. Ms Scotland was born in Newcastle, England, but was given the Spanish version of the name Agnes because her father grew up in Argentina. The family migrated to Australia just two years later, part of the thousands of "Ten Pound Poms" bound for a new life in the southern hemisphere in the 1960s.

During those early years, a neighbour who baby-sat the young Ines entered the toddler's photo in a Baby of the Year contest put on by The Sun newspaper. Ines took first place in the under-three category and won a couple of hundred dollars. "My parents used the money to put a deposit down on a rental property so they could get out of immigration housing," she says. "That was the end of my role in the beauty world." However, during Citadel's "roadshow" before the company's initial public offering (IPO), several Australian fund managers proved they had done their due diligence, teasing her by saying: "We didn't know we were investing with a beauty queen."

Ms Scotland's father was a military attache for the Australian government, so the family lived in cities around the world. She spent much of her childhood in the US, but free university tuition brought her back to Australia. After earning her bachelor's degree in applied science at the University of Technology in Sydney, she took her first job working for the mining giant Comalco at a camp in Weipa, an isolated company town on the northern tip of Australia. As one of only six unmarried women there, she admits "the first five days I was too afraid to go to the mess hall, because the men would follow us around." But she got over it, and thrived despite the lack of female role models. Mining's appeal has endured because of what she says is the ability to create something from nothing, to extract raw materials that then can make gold jewellery or copper wiring for cars.

Despite her enthusiasm for the profession, she does confess to a surprising aversion: she's claustrophobic. "After a 2½-kilometre decline, I'm ready to climb back up. I like open-cut mines." Some day, Ms Scotland says, she would like to start a non-profit organisation to help women in Africa start businesses. For now, she spends a lot of time travelling and starts each day checking her BlackBerry for updates on gold and copper prices on Bloomberg.

Mr Luxford, whose professional relationship with Ms Scotland had turned personal, left the firm for a steady income elsewhere, while she ran the fledgling mining company. He maintains an equity interest in the company but has not rejoined. As she recently shuttled from the UAE to Jeddah to Melbourne and back, her husband was working in Central Africa. Ms Scotland estimates that the couple spends only 80 nights a year together. "I tell him sometimes, 'I wish you could be my househusband'."

Her daughter, Tess, is 14 and attends boarding school in Melbourne, joining her mother on breaks. "I put her on a plane and she comes to me," Ms Scotland says. "She's a happy traveller." Ms Scotland recently bought a townhouse in Melbourne, but its rooms are decorated by mostly unopened boxes. For now, she says: "Emirates Airline is home." ashah@thenational.ae