Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat – Women seeking entry to the Gulf economies need an equal playing field, not affirmative action, to be able to contribute effectively to national economic growth, leading businesswomen from around the GCC said at the first-ever Forbes Arabia debate and discussion evening held Monday night at the Madinat Jumeirah resort in Dubai.
Public and private sector institutions should evaluate women on the basis of their qualifications and skills, and not on the basis of gender, women business leaders from the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan said at the special event convened to address the issue of women as drivers of economic growth in the Arab world.
Held on the heels of the release of Forbes Arabia’s first listing of the 50 Most Powerful Businesswomen in the Arab World, the event featured insightful presentations from four of the women on the list and Jordanian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Suhair Al Ali, and a lively debate between audience members and speakers.
The Arab world, Al Ali said, is at a crossroads, with the only route to sustainable development moving via the inclusion of women in economic circles.
“We in the Arab world are direly and badly in need of women to contribute to our societies, to improve the standard of living and economic development,” she said. “Despite women accounting for 50% of the population, women’s participation is still substandard.”
The inclusion of women could also stave off the impending threat of a growing youth population and rising unemployment across the Gulf, Al Ali added.
Governmental regulation alone is not enough to boost women’s economic participation, she said. The minister called for renewed private sector efforts and a change in societal thought and stereotypes to eliminate the problems of a glass ceiling and the widespread bias that prevents women from moving into non-traditional economic sectors.
The minister also articulated a six-point reform plan that includes the provision of funding and training opportunities; women-to-women transfers of knowledge and power; quotas at company management levels; and a labour mechanism to ensure equal opportunities based on qualification; and increased awareness and education in society.
Dr. Nahed Taher, the Saudi Arabian CEO of Gulf One Investment Bank in Bahrain and No. 5 on the Forbes Arabia list, said the non-involvement of women has led to severe societal inequities, including an over-reliance on expatriate labor and a distorted distribution of wealth.
“If educated Saudi Arabian and GCC women replace 25% of uneducated expatriates, we can create economic growth of 50% per annum and minimize the financial transfers out of our countries,” Dr. Taher said. “Women can accelerate growth in the GCC region, to greater extents than we can imagine.”
“We do not have a middle class – only the extremely rich and the destitute,” Dr. Taher said. “Our emphasis should be on productivity, not discrimination. Women will not take jobs away from men, especially if the men are efficient.”
Although the Gulf countries are making progress in including women in economic and political circles, Dr. Taher added, much remains to be done.
“We have to take our rights not by roaring, but by our qualifications,” she said. “Jobs should be given to the most qualified, regardless of gender.”
Ibtihaj Al Ahmadani, No. 11 on the Forbes Arabia list and the highest ranking Qatari woman, said the region’s human resources are quickly replacing oil and gas as its most treasured asset.
“All of the infrastructure and capacity building efforts of our governments will be useless unless the role of women is developed,” said the head of the Al Ahmadani Group.
Salwa Al Shaibani, winner of the Emirates Businesswomen Award for 2003, founder of the Abu Dhabi Businesswomen Council and No. 47 on the list, said Arab women have historically played a key role in contributing both to their households and to the larger societies.
“From the time of Bilqis to the pearling days when our grandmothers and mothers ran their households and contributed financially during the absence of their husbands, women in this region have proved themselves immensely capable and productive,” she said. “Today, more than 70% of the UAE’s new graduates are women, which only underlines the potential we have in our societies. Now we only need access and progress so that we can once more reclaim our natural role at the local and national level.”
Elham Hassan, No. 14 on the list and the highest ranked Bahraini woman, also touched on the societal and economic cost of keeping women out of economic and political circles.
“Our religion has dignified and glorified women,” she said. “Arab women are part of the unofficial economy. Men have taken their appropriate place in the last century, now it is our time.”