Libbie Burtinshaw, Head of Operations at PRO Partner Group
It has long been recognised that women are critical to economic development. Women participating in a nation’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is a major indication of business optimism and outlook, drive, and overall economic and social aspirations. Additionally, companies with women in leadership positions generally outperform their male-dominated competitors.
As women worldwide move into more prominent roles in business, the Middle East is one region where this trend is transforming economies at an unprecedented rate. Across the public and private sectors, leaders like Sarah al-Suhaimi, Hutham Olayan, and Muna Al Gurg have become prominent examples of how women can build a better future for themselves, their families, their communities, and their countries.
Examining how and why women succeed in entrepreneurship and leadership in the Middle East will help ensure the region achieves its aspiration to become a global business hub.
Below are a few critical factors paving the way for women in the region to reach their full potential in the business world.
Extensive, high-quality education is one of the key factors driving the rise of women in business and entrepreneurship in the Middle East. Moreover, it has proven critical to the GCC’s overall development and women’s advancement at all levels of society and across the region’s business landscape.
GCC governments have made education a top priority for its young population, and women especially have benefited from generous scholarships and support programmes. As a result, recent years have seen a significant increase in women enrolling in universities. For example, over 50% of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, and in the United Arab Emirates, the amount is over 70%. As a result, the region is building a highly educated, diversified and inclusive workforce ready to revolutionise the future of business.
Resilience and a Sense of Community
Resilience is one key characteristic shared by women business leaders and entrepreneurs in the Middle East. Starting a business can be challenging, and historically, women in the region have often had to overcome significant barriers to success. This resilience enables them to persevere in the face of setbacks and pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. As UAE entrepreneur Deema Abdel-Hadi, owner of Plastozone Plastic Industries, notes, “At times, you will feel broken and ready to quit- but don’t.”
Women in the Middle East also bring a strong sense of community to their businesses. Many female entrepreneurs see their businesses as a way to create wealth for themselves and their families while contributing to the well-being of their communities.
This focus on community helps build acceptance for women entrepreneurs and business leaders and creates strong relationships as well as a sense of trust that is essential for business success. UAE entrepreneurs like Farah Al-Qaissieh, founder of Stutter UAE, shine a spotlight on how women in the region rise above the challenges they face to pursue their passions, benefiting themselves and their community in the process.
Practical Support Programmes
GCC governments have launched various initiatives and programmes to welcome women into the workforce as employees, business leaders and entrepreneurs. These programmes, like Saudi Arabia’s She’s Next (in partnership with Visa), provide invaluable support, including access to credit and financing.
One of the most notable examples of government support for women in business and entrepreneurship is Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. For example, one objective of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is to create one million jobs for Saudi women across a wide range of industries. The Kingdom has already seen significant growth toward this goal, with women’s participation in the workforce surging to 35.6% in the second quarter of 2022, exceeding Vision 2030’s target of 30%.
Governments are not the only ones supporting the rise of women in business. Several private sector organisations in the Middle East are working to support and empower women in business and entrepreneurship. One example is the Dubai Women’s Association, which provides resources and support to women looking to start a business or advance their careers. The association offers training, networking events, and mentorship programmes.
Challenges Still Remain
Despite these efforts, women in the Middle East continue to face significant challenges when starting and growing their businesses. One major hurdle is the need for more access to capital and financing.
A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted that female company founders receive 23% less funding than their male counterparts. That figure is even more shocking, considering female founders produce 35% higher returns on investment and generate an average of 12% higher revenues than male founders.
In the GCC, women need access to traditional funding sources, such as bank loans or angel investors, as their male counterparts. Unfortunately, women receive only 6% of available private equity and venture capital funding. With critical funding, women-led ventures can launch and grow without facing potentially crippling difficulties.
Another challenge for women entrepreneurs in the Middle East is the lack of supportive networks and resources, making it difficult for them to get the guidance and resources they need to succeed. This challenge is especially prominent in communities where cultural norms are more restrictive, preventing women from pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams.
Despite these challenges, women in the Middle East are finding ways to overcome them and become leaders in the business world. One way they do this is by taking advantage of the growing number of incubators and accelerators, such as She Wins Arabia (a collaboration between the International Financial Corporation and Abu Dhabi Global Market) and Saudi Arabia’s Blossom.
The rise of women in the Middle East’s highly competitive business world is driven by a combination of factors, including the support of governments and private organisations, the increasing education levels of women in the region, and changing societal norms. Many companies have already embraced diversity and inclusivity as major organisational objectives. For example, women comprise approximately 50% of PRO Partner Group’s internal workforce. As more women across the GCC become successful entrepreneurs and leaders, they will show the world that the region is ready for a more inclusive future – which is great for business.