December 21st, 2006 10:33 EST
Arab Businesswomen Hone Skills at United Arab Emirates Summit
Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates – Women long have been involved in the business life of the Gulf region. Well before the discovery of oil, women took in embroidery and tailoring and tended gardens to support their households. When men went to sea to work in the pearling industry, women stayed behind to run the fish markets and tend the shops.
Now, Gulf economies are booming and, as the region has risen in prominence, so has the role of women in economic activities. But Arab businesswomen have yet to reach their full potential.
To aid in this effort, the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative sponsored a Middle East and North Africa Businesswomen’s Summit, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in October and November. More than 1,200 businesswomen from 17 countries gathered to share their experiences and expand their networks through a series of workshops and discussions designed to build their management and leadership skills. The agenda covered topics from marketing to trade to management. (See related article.)
The summit was an opportunity for cultural dialogue as the Arab women met with prominent American businesswomen and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes. Maryam al-Noori, vice president of the U.A.E. Plant and Flower Association and a member of the board of Young Arab Leaders, welcomed these exchanges: “Women need international connections in order to keep up with issues like the changes taking place in laws to protect women, and issues like maternity leave, flexible working time, tax laws, and changes in health care coverage and other policies. It helps for us to hear how the U.S. has handled these changes.”
The participants embraced the notion that common experience binds all women. “All women speak the same ‘language,’” said al-Noori, “and women in the U.S. are no different. Like many women in the Gulf, they also need to work to support their families, and they have other responsibilities that they share with other women.”
The summit was both informative and supportive, allowing women to learn from the successes and challenges of others and encouraging them to play an active role in the development of their societies. Fayza al-Sayed, purchasing manager for the United Arab Emirates’ al-Fahim Group, appreciated this message. “Women are 50 percent of the population and want to participate in the development of the country,” she said. “This doesn’t depend only on the government. Women should also play a role, and to do this they have to be given skills and feel a sense of empowerment.”
Many of the women viewed their work as an engine of personal growth -- a way for them to develop their personalities and character and therefore contribute more to society. “By participating in the work force women also develop important personal skills, like the ability to manage time and deal with people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds,” said Raja al-Gurg, managing director of the Easa Saleh al-Gurg Group. Al-Gurg is president of the Emirates Businesswomen’s Council, a board member of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, and is ranked fourth on Forbes magazine’s list of the 50 most influential women in the Arab world.
Like al-Noori and al-Sayed, she has traveled widely to address business organizations on the emerging role of women in the Gulf region. In Louisville, Kentucky, she gave a talk entitled “The Facts Behind the Veil” to break down stereotypes of women in the Middle East. “Women are playing an active role in society,” she said, “and people in the West can think more positively about women in this part of the world.”
In the United Arab Emirates, she counsels young businesswomen on retaining their personal and cultural identity, and she is ready to deliver many helpful maxims: “Learn to respect yourself and you earn the respect of others;” “Success breeds success;” and “Never run before you can walk: at the first level of success, be certain of your success.”
Becoming a businesswomen, she advises, can help women develop their “inner person; it does not have to mean compromising their ethical and cultural values.”
The State Department announced at the summit that it will establish training and mentoring centers for aspiring businesswomen in Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Territories.
In her remarks before the gathering, Karen Hughes said, “Each of you has achieved success on your own in the business world. Yet by working together you will multiply your influence many times.”
Raja al-Gurg stated her sentiments succinctly: “Traditions are changing. We are moving from sand to silicon.”
For additional information, see Middle East Partnership Initiative.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Chris Thornton
USINFO Special Correspondent