Women in Business in the Middle East
Author: Nicole Outhwaite
On a global platform, women face a number of challenges which can impact their success in the
workplace. In the Middle East region, these issues are further compounded by cultural perceptions that
women are less capable, more irrational, and better suited for domestic responsibilities.
These patriarchal attitudes and traditionalist values have been difficult barriers for women in the region.
Among a diverse community of international business women facing similar challenges, there is now a
growing movement of women leading and driving business initiatives. As the region continues to change
and develop, a significant number of women are reaching positions of influence in business, politics, civil
society, academia and the media, with a growing number of entrepreneurs leading successful start-ups.
As a result of this success, they have not only been able to impact the industries in which they work, but
are also having an important impact on the Middle East region as a whole.
Progress is gradual and there is a long way to go before women in the region achieve the equality
enjoyed in other parts of the developed world. According to the World Bank, just 28% of the adult
female population is economically active; this is the lowest percentage in the world. Additionally, most
female employment is concentrated in low-level positions. Due to increased literacy and educational
opportunities, there has been a steady rise in the number of working women. Families are also
recognizing the benefits of financial support provided by their wives or daughters.
Gulf women have also benefitted from government policies designed to reduce reliance on foreign labor.
Companies have recruited greater numbers of female workers in order to meet newly established
quotas for citizen employees. For example, since the UAE no longer allows foreigners to work as
secretaries, public relations officers or human resources personnel, most of these positions are being
filled by Emirati women.
Women are now being accepted into university more often than men, despite requirements by some
universities that women achieve higher grades than men for acceptance. A marked shift in enrollment
has been seen from fields of study once considered traditional female subjects, such as teaching and
healthcare, into the male-dominated fields of science and engineering.
In 2008, women in Qatar were accepted for the first time in the fields of architecture and electrical and
chemical engineering. In Saudi Arabia, three educational institutions began to permit women to study
law in 2007, although the graduates are only allowed to act as legal consultants to other women and are
still prohibited from serving as judges and advocates in court.1
The success of these changing times is seen in the growing list of Middle East business women included
in prestigious rankings, including Forbes International, Arabian Business and Forbes Arabia. It is clear
that women in the Middle East are more visible and their influence is felt across many sectors of the
business, despite the fact that they continue to represent a small minority in society. They are often
seen as role models and change agents for the Middle East.
Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, currently the UAE’s Minister for Foreign Trade, started
her career in what was deemed a male-dominated industry as the only female software designer for the
Dubai Port Authority in the early 1990s. In November2004 she was appointed the UAE’s Minister of
Economic and Planning and became the first female to hold a ministerial post in the UAE.
In a region where change comes slowly, there is a definite shifting of the gears, specifically in the UAE
and Saudi Arabia. With more senior-level appointments, such as the appointment of Muneera bint
Hamdan al-Osaimi as the new assistant under-secretary for medical services affairs within the Ministry
of Health, it is a sign of creeping reform in this ultra-conservative kingdom where women are prohibited
from driving, must work in segregated facilities, and were only recently granted the right to vote and run
in municipal elections. Regularly listed in the top 100 leading businesswomen in the world, Princess
Ameerah Al- Taweel of Saudi Arabia is the vice chair of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation and an
outspoken advocate for Saudi women’s rights.
Long-term resident of Dubai for more than 27 years, Janet Graham, Crown’s Regional Manager, Global
Mobility Services, has travelled extensively throughout the region for business and has seen significant
changes in the roles and acceptance of businesswomen during this time. Janet states, “There was little
opportunity for foreign national women to work in this region in the early 80s and typical roles would
see them employed as teachers, nurses and in lower level administration roles, but there has been a
steady increase in more diverse options for women to take successful senior-level management roles
across many industry sectors.”
Over the years women have taken up roles in a wider variety of industries: in medicine as practicing
surgeons; in engineering as well engineers and IT engineers working on offshore oil platforms; in
banking and finance as business professionals leading multi-million dollar operations—all once very
much male-dominated fields.
For international business women of the UAE, their continuing advancement means a potential market
with wide possibilities for women-centered services, products targeted toward women and the
possibility of investing in women-owned businesses.
These are only a few of the many international women determined to advance the opportunities for
women by talking the language of business: networking, accessing capital, mentoring. If they are
successful, it will be a quiet economic evolution that takes place in the shadow of the region’s stormy
political revolutions, where it’s unclear how women will fare in the longer term.
Etiquette tips when travelling to the Middle East
THINGS TO DO:
• Respect the privacy and protected role of women in Arab societies
• Men stand when women enter a room
• Respect the different living areas for men and women
• Do not expect women to eat or socialize in the same room as men
THINGS NOT TO DO:
• Do not shake hands with an Arab woman unless she offers her hand first, or if you are a woman. Do
not flirt with, touch, hug or talk in private with women.
IT COULD ENDANGER THEIR SAFETY!
• Do not talk in public to professional Arab women unless it is business related
• Do not try and engage a woman in conversation unless you have been formally introduced
• Do not stare at women or maintain eye contact. Do not ask an Arab man questions about his wife or
other female members of his family.
In certain countries in the Middle East, women are required to wear veils or have their hair covered in
public. Female executives travelling to the Middle East should take care to heed particular policy for the
country in which they will be conducting business.
The mixing of men and women is also forbidden in certain countries.
Trousers for women are also discouraged – skirts on women are much preferred.
Of course, knees and elbows must be covered at all times and a high collar is required. Generally,
neutral colors are also preferred.
Never refuse food or beverages from your hosts as this can be viewed as the ultimate sign of disrespect
in most of the Middle East!