The real revolution in the Middle East: Women in business

April 16, 2012: 9:10 AM ET

At a Dubai forum for women executives, entrepreneurs, and executives, talk of change is in the air.

By Nina Easton, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- Sheikha Lubna, self-described computer geek and Cal State Chico grad, describes the sleepless nights, and piercing insecurities, as she rose from lonely female software designer to Dubai Port Authority modernizer to the United Arab Emirates' first woman cabinet minister. Fear, she counsels a rapt audience, is a powerful motivator: "It's what pushed me further."

The charismatic trade minister could be mistaken for a high-paid American motivational speaker. But the women hanging onto her every word are mostly from the Arab Middle East, where failure is a stigma -- and sharing your fear of it an alien language. That goes double for women here, whose entrepreneurship rates are the world's lowest.

Lubna, who spoke at the inaugural forum of the MENA Businesswomen's Network here in Dubai late last week, is part of a small cohort determined to advance women's rights by talking the language of business: Networking, accessing capital, mentoring, and even sharing personal setbacks with a room full of strangers. If they succeed, 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.

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"By shifting to the focus to economic issues, business women will be positioned to better push for reform," insists Alyse Nelson, president of Vital Voices, the Washington group that has spent the past five years helping build the MENA BWN, a network of 2,500 businesswomen that has spawned some 500 new enterprises.

In addition to Lubna (whose full name is Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi) , other leaders in the region are taking up the cause, most prominently the Jeep-driving, American-educated Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel of Saudia Arabia. Saudi Arabia prohibits women from driving; they must also work in segregated facilities, and were only recently granted the right to vote and run in municipal elections.

No one underestimates the challenge. Only about 28% of the adult female population is economically active -- the lowest in the world -- and most of those women are concentrated in low-level positions. According to the World Bank, different rules for men and women exist in all 14 economies in the Middle East and North Africa, and only 17.4% of firms in the region employ a high-level manager. Freedom House cites "cultural perceptions that women are less capable, more irrational, and better suited for domestic responsibilities."

The cultural bias is especially hard for women who want to run an enterprise outside the family business. (One survey found women as principal owners in just 13% of firms, less than half the world average.) "Usually families are protective of women. They don't want you to be exposed, to take the brunt of the market forces," says Egyptian entrepreneur Shereen Allam, who also runs an association to foster female professional development.

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As executives and owners of businesses ranging from manufacturing to digital services, the more than two hundred women who gathered here last week to hear from Lubna and others push against that tide. They are building network "hubs" in Libya and Lebanon, the Emirates and Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia -- 10 countries in all (Israel is not part of the network).

They arrived at a Dubai hotel ballroom wearing running shoes under embroidered abayas, designer heels under slim skirts, some covered in silk head scarves or others in salon-fresh hair. One young woman wore a Beatles T-shirt; another sported a small tattoo. They sipped dark coffee and mint lemonade as they swapped business cards and strategies for branding and media imaging, finding angel capital and accessing government contracts.

Mostly, they avoided the more politically sensitive talk of human rights for women. "We need to make [reform] a business imperative, and talk about its importance to the economic competitiveness of the region," says Beirut's Rana Ghandour Salhab, Deloitte's first female partner in the Middle East.

Still, talking about advancing the status of women remains a delicate exercise. The UAE, among the most tolerant in the region, followed in Egypt's footsteps last month by shutting down the local office of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. group whose mission is to promote democracy, as well as Gallup's polling operation -- a sign of worry about the Arab spring uprising spreading into its borders. Last fall, the government asked the organizers of an International Bar Association conference to revise a panel on women and Islam.

And, in the short term, economic fallout from the political tumult has taken a toll on working women, though Egypt's Allam says she worries less about entrepreneurs than salaried-employees. "You're doing it with your own money and at your own risk," she notes. "I worry about the women who work for government, or businesses that aren't multinationals. [There's a view that] if there's so much unemployment, the few jobs we have should be given to men, so women will be laid off."

MORE: Gen-Y looks to developing economies for biz training

Interestingly, women outpace men in education -- as 67% percent of university graduates in Kuwait, 63% in Qatar, and 57% in Saudi Arabia. Freedom House notes that women are becoming more visible in public life and in business. Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar dropped laws requiring women to get a guardian's permission for a passport; Saudi Arabia now allows women to study law and check into hotels alone. Multinationals like GE (GE) are hiring small numbers of Saudi women. "We see women as a rich untapped talent in this part of the world," says Joe Chalouhi, HR director for GE Energy in the UAE.

If anything, the lesson of last year's Arab Spring is that the Middle East is not immune to cultural change. The women at the forefront see reform coming in fits and starts -- but they're betting it will come.

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About This Author
Nina Easton
Nina Easton
Fortune

An award-winning author, columnist, and TV commentator, Nina Easton offers insights at the intersection of economics and politics. For six years she has been a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday and Special Report, and has appeared on NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation, and PBS's Washington Week in Review and Charlie Rose. Easton is the author of the critically acclaimed Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendancy. Prior to joining Fortune, she won a number of national awards as a Los Angeles Times writer, and later served as the Boston Globe's deputy bureau chief in Washington. She is a native Californian and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.

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