The former senior economist at the National Commercial Bank is now the first female chief executive of Saudi Arabia’s Gulf One Investment Bank, Dr. NahedTaher. She has been increasingly occupied lately, immersed in plans for financing public sector projects, including the expansion of the terminal that handles Mecca pilgrims at Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport, alongside overseeing finances for a water desalination plant for Saudi Arabian Airlines, and Saudi gold, copper and zinc mines.
Taher is a very rare case for a female in a country where women are prohibited from driving, voting or holding high-level government office. In Saudi Arabia, poverty and tradition deprive many women of control over basic choices, as what most would find simple as what to wear to when to get married. Despite the odds, business women such as Taher are gaining power and control of their lives.
Just like Taher, breaking the barriers, 10 women executives from the Middle East are on the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women 2016 list.
Capitalism plays a role. In the recent years, the economic liberalization of some Muslim countries, and the privatization of government-run companies has helped Muslim businesswomen to have a greater foothold.
Laura Osman, the first female president of the Arab Bankers Association of North America said: “Now opportunities are open to everyone, the private sector runs on meritocracy.”
There has been a growing number of women, banking in the Muslim world, even in the historically all-male executive suite.
Second in command at Commercial International Bank, which is one of Egypt’s largest private banks, is Sahar El-Sallab and there are more women climbing the ranks behind her. Today, 4 out of 10 of the senior employees at CIB and 70% of its management staff are women.
Chairman of Kuwait’s Global Investment House, Maha Al-Ghunaim, has grown the investment bank she founded to manage over $7 billion in assets. The bank now has permission to operate in Qatar and wants to establish in Saudi Arabia.
At the top ranks of mega-conglomerates now are Muslim businesswomen. Imre Barmanbek (No. 88) runs Dogan Holding, one of Turkey’s largest multinationals, which shifted its operational focus from finance to media and energy. Lubna Olayan assists in overseeing The Olayan Group of Saudi Arabia, which has investments in more than 40 companies, making it one of the biggest multinationals in the Middle East. The top ranks of the conglomerate run by the Egyptian family, the Khamis, include several women.
Vidya Chhabria (No. 97), originally from India, is chairman of the United Arab Emirates’ Jumbo Group. This is a $2 billion multinational operating in 50 countries, with interests in durables, chemicals and machinery products, also owning Jumbo Electronics, which is one of the Middle East’s largest distributors of Sony consumer electronics, as well as worldwide brands in IT and telecom products.
In the government sector as well, Muslim women are acquiring posts. Sheikha Lubna Al-Qasimi (No. 99), is one of those women. She is the minister of the economy in the UAE and broke down on stock market shenanigans with rules that are stricter, transparency and corporate governance.
The Supreme Judicial Council of Egypt chose 31 females to be judges in March 2007 and this is the country’s highest court, 30 of the women are now employed at courts around Egypt. Afghanistan’s constitution reserves a quarter of its seats in its lower house for women and 17% in the upper house of its parliament–that is higher than the percentage of women now in the U.S. Congress (14%).
This does not necessarily mean it is easy for professional Muslim women. In 2002, the first Arab Human Development Report, issued by the UNDP discovered that women occupied an average of 4% of all seats in the parliaments of Arab countries, compared to the 11% in sub-Saharan Africa and 13% in Latin America and Caribbean countries. These figures were blamed partially on women’s inequality under the law, and also noted that just one in every two Arab women is literate.
Though the report had a galvanizing effect, it “really shocked everyone in the Arab world because it came from within,” says Dr. Nailah Hamdy, assistant professor of mass communication at the American University in Cairo, meaning that the report’s criticism of women’s second-class status “could no longer be perceived as a foreign idea,” says Hamdy.
Opportunities exist for the determined and lucky females.
“Just being a woman in our part of the world is quite difficult,” says El-Sallab. “But if you have the proper education, credibility, and integrity in the way you handle your job, intelligent men will always give you your due.”