To celebrate International Women’s day this year, I decided to share some of my experiences of working with women leaders within the GCC (Gulf council countries) which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.
In January 2015, I delivered a 4 day programme on women’s leadership in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Reactions from people when discussing this project before hand were mixed. One person’s comment was; “Female leadership in Saudi Arabia, that’s an oxymoron, isn’t it?” Other people expressed concern for my personal safety; how would a lone western woman fare in Riyadh where the religious clerics and police are notoriously powerful and conservative. I personally had few concerns beforehand, I had done my research, spoken to a number of people, especially women who had either lived or worked over there, so I knew what to expect. I had also made contact via Linkedin with a good number of women who attended beforehand; this all helped allay my fears.
I contexualised the programme I had designed within the backdrop of the cultural and societal changes that have been taking place within Saudi Arabia and also within the GCC generally.
The timing of my trip was also highly interesting as I arrived in Saudi Arabia (KSA) just 2 days after the death of King Abdullah who had reigned for over 50 years. The women on the programme ranged from in age from 20 to 53 years. All were well educated and working in a variety of leadership roles within the financial, health, automotive and justice sectors. Their experience ranged from graduates in their first job or business through to highly experienced women including a professor of Orthodontics, and one of the country’s leading plastic surgeons. It is difficult to convey all my experiences from that trip in one posting; suffice it to say, I was met with kindness and extreme courtesy wherever I went. During that amazing week I met some of the most fiercely intelligent, warm, funny and beautiful women I have ever met.
What I learned about women’s leadership in Saudi Arabia is this:
- It is much more evident and advanced than we perceive it to be here in the west.
- King Abdullah was highly instrumental in advancing full participation of women in the Saudi Arabian economy. He saw that access to good education was key and enabled women to access education opportunities abroad which thousands of women take advantage of every year. He commissioned the creation of the largest female university in the world which caters for 60,000 women in total. He negotiated with the religious clerics to enable women to sit on the Shura council for the first time. People need to remember that Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative country and substantive change takes time. King Abduladh was a very wise leader who knew that the changes he and more enlightened leaders wanted to make had to be made, inch by inch, slowly but surely. It was notable that during the core leadership module, when asked to identify well known world leaders they considered visionary, King Abdullah was mentioned by nearly all the women.
- The highest proportion of women setting up in business in the GCC countries is in Saudi Arabia, which is indicative of their desire to be financially and otherwise independent of men’s control and the constraints of a more traditional way of life for women.
- There is a rising number of women in KSA and the GCC countries generally, who are consciously choosing not to marry and to have a family, but instead concentrate on building their career or business.
- Women sit on the Shura (government) council for the first time ever, and are therefore in a position, however limited , to exert some influence over government policies affecting women.
- Women run some of the most successful businesses in Saudi Arabia
- The editor in chief of one of the leading daily papers, The Saudi Gazette, is a woman, the first ever female national newspaper editor in KSA.
- The number of women actively working and seeking work is rising year on year.
There is no doubt that many restrictions remain in place which actively impede women in attaining their full potential. The most obvious of these is the law forbidding women to drive cars. Women either have a dedicated driver or call for one when required. The other interesting factor was the amount of negotiation these women did, as to apply for a job or to set up in business, a women must have the permission of a male guardian, husband, brother or father, whoever is closest in relationship to them. The married women on the programme all lived with enlightened men who wanted their wives to be happy and fulfilled at work. The sense I got on speaking with them that for every liberal man there are about 3 deeply conservative ones, and this is reflected in the numbers of women actively engaged in work and business .
All of the women I met both on the programme and outside it socially, want change, realistic and practical change that lifts the constraints to them accessing work, business and leadership opportunities on an equal footing with men. I see these women as being at the vanguard of continued reform. As more women take their places on the Shura council, as more enlightened men complain about the unnecessary impediments to effective daily living and working for families, and as more young women set up enterprises and continue to challenge some of the outmoded and completely impractical laws affecting women disproportionately, I believe that the rate of change will continue, albeit at a slower pace than most enlightened women and men would like.
Since that trip in January 2015 I have returned to Dubai twice to deliver the same programme. Both courses attracted women from all over the GCC countries. I am still in personal contact with a number of them. I like to think that in my own small way, I have made a contribution to the advancement of women’s leadership in this region. I’m sure I will return again in the future.