Sun, May 07, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Female talent poised to transform Middle East

Throughout the Arab world, an increasing number of women are taking on high-profile roles in their countries' financial sectors and in trade

By Helena Smith  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Champagne, chandeliers and toastmasters might seem a long way away from the world inhabited by Arab women. Indeed, the City of London, the UK's financial center, might seem an odd sort of place for Arab women to converge. And, as venues go, Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London, might seem stranger still.

But it was at this grand Georgian house that some 300 Arab women congregated -- with Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi, Arabia's first female economy minister among the group -- on April 20 for a "celebration dinner."

Their mission? Not only to foster links with Britain's commercial heart but to prove that, from Morocco to Oman, women -- in this field at least -- are beginning to take the lead.

"If you look at the history of Islam, even the Prophet Mohammed married a businesswoman," said al-Qasimi, who holds what is regarded as the most important Cabinet post in the United Arab Emirates.

"Khadija was her name, she was his boss and she recruited him to work with her," she smiled, as the likes of Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, worked the notably unveiled crowd.

"The West always looks at the veil as a stigma and I think that's the No. 1 problem," she added, adjusting her own headscarf.

"They think that if women cover themselves, they cut themselves off from important roles, which isn't correct. In the Emirates, I can tell you, women are on rollerblades. They're moving fast in banking and business," she said.

Dispelling myths is what the California-trained al-Qasimi does best. Since she assumed the post in 2004, the Emirates' economy has flourished. Dubai, a gambling and tourist mecca, is dubbed the Manhattan of the Middle East.

Al-Qasimi is not alone. The decision of the lord mayor of London, David Brewer, to host the dinner -- in honor of the fifth anniversary of the Arab International Women's Forum -- highlights the headway women are gradually making across the 22-nation Arab world.

In Saudi Arabia, where an estimated 40 percent of the nation's wealth is now believed to be in female hands despite the strictures on women in public, a woman was elected last December to head the chamber of commerce -- something unthinkable even five years ago.

"Arab women are so stereotyped, but if, like me, you're from Bahrain you see change everywhere, in all sectors of business," said Elham Hassan, a country senior partner at the international firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. "It's happening, but it's coming to different countries at different speeds and is very linked to the pace of education."

Few regions face as many challenges as the Arab world. Economic development is seen as the single biggest impediment to peace and prosperity in the war-ravaged area. By 2020, it is estimated 80 million jobs need to be created to offset spiraling unemployment as a result of rising populations; a feat that would require unprecedented growth of up to 7 percent a year.

That and the forces of globalization have added to the realization that marginalizing half the workforce -- in Iraq, after years of conflict, women account for 60 per cent of the population -- is no longer an option.

Across the Arab world, the penny has finally dropped that women remain an untapped resource that could stoke the engines of stuttering economies and bring about social change. In Jordan, where the number of girls in higher education has rocketed, a campaign is encouraging female entrepreneurship by micro-finance and mentoring programs.

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