Amina al-Rustamani, a member of a prominent family in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), raised eyebrows among friends and relatives when she started her career in Dubai 13 years ago as an electrical engineer, becoming one of few females in the Middle East to enter the profession.
Success in a male-dominated environment helped give her the confidence to rise up the career ladder and break more barriers.
She is now chief executive of TECOM Investments, part of a conglomerate owned by the ruler of Dubai that manages a complex of nine business parks and spearheads the emirate’s economic ambitions in information technology, science and education.
Almost unimaginable just a generation ago, Rustamani’s rise to the highest level of business in a Gulf Arab country underlines a shift in the business environment that is allowing the gradual entry of women into boardrooms and other positions of economic power in the region.
“There’s always this challenge to fit in and excel, but once you prove that you are competent, you will earn society’s respect,” said Rustamani, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering from George Washington University in the US.
“Governments have a role to play, the private sector has a role to play and families have a role to play. But it all boils down to what you can do as an individual,” Rustamani said.
While female company directors are still a rarity in the Middle East, the region’s growing wealth, rising education standards for women and government efforts to promote more equal opportunities should help make it easier for women to crack the “glass ceiling,” or perceived discrimination against female executives, in future.
Women accounted for 9.8 percent of corporate board seats across the world in 2011, the latest data from US-based research firm GMI Ratings shows. However, in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — the group of six wealthy oil-exporting countries — they accounted for just 1.5 percent, according to the Dubai-based Institute for Corporate Governance.
The gap is narrowing though. The figure of 1.5 percent “compares to almost nil 10 years ago,” said Shailesh Dash, chief executive of Dubai-based asset management firm Al Masah Capital.
In the UAE, the business world is unusually cosmopolitan by Gulf standards because of freewheeling Dubai.
In December 2012, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE’s prime minister and Dubai’s ruler, issued a law obliging all government departments and related companies to have female representation on their boards, although it did not set a target date so adherence to the law is seen to be very gradual.
Fourteen percent of senior management roles in the UAE are held by women, a study released by consultants Grant Thornton last month showed. That was below a global average of 24 percent, but above 9 percent for Japan, 10 percent for the Netherlands and 13 percent for Switzerland, the study found.
Conservative Saudi Arabia, by far the biggest Gulf economy, trails behind as custom is reinforced by strict Islamic law; women need the permission of a male guardian to travel abroad or open a bank account. In many companies and government departments, women and men are segregated.
However, there are signs of change.
Last month Saudi Arabia’s NCB Capital, a unit of the country’s biggest bank, said it had appointed Sarah al-Suhaimi as chief executive — the first woman to head an investment bank in the kingdom. Suhaimi was previously head of asset management at Jadwa Investment in Saudi Arabia.