A Strong Voice in Arab Women’s Leadership

By: Editor In Chief
Fri 16 January,2015

Picture 4-YAWL Conference press
Mrs. Haifa Al Kaylani (left) Founder Chairman of The Arab International Women's Forum (AIWF)

Filed Under: Women Empowerment

Considered to be one of the most powerful women in the Arab world, Haifa Al Kaylani is the Founder Chairman of The Arab International Women's Forum (AIWF). Before setting up AIWF Mrs Al Kaylani was the President of the Federation of International Women's Associations in London. She is also a former Vice President and current Board Member of The Women’s Leadership  Board at Harvard University.


She was named one of the hundred most powerful women in the Arab World on the Power 100 List 2013, compiled by Arabian Business Monitor. In the same year, Mrs. Al Kaylani was inducted by the Centre of Economic Leadership & Development in Nigeria into The Global Women Leaders Hall of Fame as a distinguished achiever and symbol of female achievement globally. She received The Excellence in Life Award presented by The Global Thinkers Forum in Dubai in December 2014. 


Furthermore she was presented with an Award for an Outstanding Contribution as a Women Leader of Palestinian Origin and was honored by the Qatari Businesswomen Association with an Award for her contributions to the growth and development in the Arab region. She was named one of the 20 leading Muslim women in the UK in The Equality & Human Rights Commission Muslim Women Lists 2009-2012 and received the United Kingdom Muslim Woman of the Year Award in 2013. Haifa Al Kaylani was also  the recipient of the Global Inspirational Leadership Award 2013 and was honored for individual achievements as a role model such as an award for the role of women in Emerging Economies by the Georgia General Assembly.


Haifa Al Kaylani was named as one of the "21 Leaders for the 21st Century" by Women's eNews of New York in 2006. She was recipient of the 2008 World of Difference Lifetime Achievement Award presented by The International Alliance For Women.


She is advisory board member of The Middle East Institute, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, The Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, Lebanese American University, Beirut, She is Board Director of the EastWest Institute and Board Member of The Arab British Chamber of Commerce in London. She is the first Honorary Member of the Euro Mediterranean Association for Cooperation and Development, since 2012, and serves as a Freeman of the City of London and is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of World Traders. Mrs Al Kaylani also serves on a variety of corporate boards


Haifa was born in Palestine and was raised and educated in both the UK and Lebanon, where she studied Economics at the American University of Beirut and later returned to earn a Masters degree in economic development. She also completed a Diploma in the same subject, at Oxford University, and then took up the post of junior economist for the United Nations for a period of 2 years.


Leadership, achievement and success on par with men are not easy for a woman in the Arab world. Haifa Al Kayani shares her views with LEADERS Middle East about the challenges faced by Arab women in the workplace, the policies needed for their empowerment and the work and home life pressures that a woman needs to overcome.


Mrs. Al Kaylani, for the last 13 years you have campaigned for greater gender equality and economic opportunity for women in the Arab world. Do you feel that Arab governments, private sector and regional development groups are doing enough to promote women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship?

According to the 2013 Global Competitiveness Report, more women in the MENA intend to launch new businesses compared to men – more than in any other region in the world. And in the same report, we find that women in the MENA region are more innovative than men, with 23% of female entrepreneurs marketing an innovative product or service (compared to just 18% of men).


Recognizing the exciting potential for women entrepreneurs to stimulate economic growth, boost regional productivity and create much-needed jobs, Arab leaders and economists are beginning to fully acknowledge the important role that women play in the region as business owners and develop the skills, rights and freedoms of women entrepreneurs.


In the last two decades, and prior to 2011, Arab governments have moved rapidly to remove cultural constraints to gender equality through education, entrepreneurship and some political empowerment, in an effort to respond to the aspirations of women and youth in the region by linking economic strategy with broader plans for societal progress. They have invested heavily in education.


Thanks to significant investment in education in the Arab states and the narrowed gender gap in the last two decades, we have been witnessing a new, empowered generation of Arab women entrepreneurs with a strong, proven appetite for expansion, poised for leadership like never before but in need of the capital, information and training to grow and lead their businesses.


Despite the unsettling effects of the Arab Spring, women all over the region are ready and capable of playing a critical role at the forefront of economic growth that could potentially transform the MENA region. At a time when the world’s governments are redrafting economic strategies to restore long-term growth, and expectations for increased transparency and accountability in both the public and private sector are rising among young Arabs, it becomes ever more important for Arab governments to respond to the aspirations of women and youth by linking economic strategy with broader plans for societal progress.


AIWF believes that entrepreneurship is key to this process. Currently, women run only one of every four start-ups overall in the Arab world, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor's 2012 Women's Report. At start-up competitions, a third or more of the entrepreneurs often are reported to be women. At the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition, 48% of the 4,500 teams included women.


Achieving the advancement of women’s participation in the political, economic and social spheres in the Arab States requires interventions at all levels, from reform of traditional legal and justice systems and the creation of a conducive policy environment based on international women’s rights norms and instruments, such as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.


A gender-neutral policy environment should not only allow, but also encourage, women to participate in the work force and in public life. It could include temporary special measures, such as quotas in all public institutions. Education, training and skills building are also essential. The policy environment also must focus on preventing violence against women at home, harassment at the workplace and in public spaces, so that women and girls do not fear any repercussions for partaking in public life.


The private sector has a critical role in creating a fair and supportive environment to support young women entrepreneurs, helping them to develop their access to resources, knowledge, capital, networks and mentors. The media also has an important role to play in transforming cultural biases and fighting back against misconceptions in the international marketplace about the skills and capacity of young Arab business leaders by promoting the region’s many success stories.


A study by the World Bank on women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) debunks the myth that women-owned businesses are small and low-tech. It reveals that they are as fast-growing, technologically savvy and connected to global markets as companies owned by men.


So with women in the Arab world acquiring the world class skills in the fields of technology, engineering, and sciences necessary to compete with men in these new and emerging markets, why are they still unable to find sound employment in the private sector after graduation and why are they not enjoying the same opportunities as their male counterparts to succeed as entrepreneurs and job creators.


Women in the MENA region face a set of formal barriers manifested in regulatory and legal challenges, and informal barriers in the form of cultural and social constraints. Whilst women have made remarkable strides in recent years it has taken decades to shift deep-rooted cultural attitudes towards gender and women’s participation in any sphere other than the home and family.


You have promoted the belief that “a society cannot truly prosper without utilizing the resources of its women..” How has your own experience as a woman, an economist, a mother, wife and prominent role model for Arab women, shaped this belief?

As an Arab woman, born in Palestine, raised in Lebanon, and educated in England, I spent years travelling the globe, accompanying my husband Former Ambassador of Jordan to Tunisia and India before settling in the UK in 1976. During that period I witnessed first-hand the positive, tangible impact of bridge building and innovative collaboration in a truly international context.


My advice to young women is threefold: firstly, I believe that with knowledge comes better understanding.  I truly believe that, wherever we come from in the world, we have much more in common than what divides us. Prejudices often arise from ignorance. I am, therefore, a great believer in education and cross cultural understanding.


Secondly, I believe in action. We need to combine what we have learned with our work. We must apply our knowledge and skills to good ends.

Thirdly, I believe in giving. I grew up with highly educated, loving and giving parents. They led by example, and I learned from them. I am the eldest of 4 sisters and we were brought up to seek education at the highest level and also we were encouraged to enter the workforce and acquire financial independence.  My late husband, with whom I have had the privilege to share 41 years, was of the same mindset, highly educated, hard-working and a great giver. He supported and inspired me. So my advice for young women is: pursue your education, never stop learning, combine what you have learned with your work, and try to make a difference in your immediate family and wider community.


I have always believed that there can be no social or economic development in the region or anywhere without optimizing all resources, and without women playing their rightful role. Hence the importance of building bridges of knowledge and understanding between women in the Arab world and the international community.

Working with Arab and international women leaders from a wide range of sectors, all of whom had achieved personal success in their fields, I moved to establish a Board of Directors for what would become the Arab International Women’s Forum. These remarkable women were all keen to join me in efforts to encourage, help and mentor other women to realize their potential and become empowered to make a significant contribution to their economy, their country and their society.


Together, we launched the Arab International Women’s Forum in the spring of 2001 as a not for profit, non-governmental, non-political organization that serves as a powerful platform for Arab women.

My personal mission has been to encourage a greater cultural understanding between Arab and international communities, supporting a strong role for women in that process.


This is a critical time in the Arab region, a time of great challenges but also a time of many opportunities. Every country in the region faces a long and uncertain few years ahead, but there are unprecedented opportunities for women to claim a critical role in shaping the frameworks that will set legal, political and social precedents for the decades to come. Already, there are signs of progress, and we must acknowledge these successes, move them forward and ensure that momentum in the region is not lost.


An increasing number of women are becoming leaders in the Middle East, in government, private sector and civil society. Do you believe that women have become more accepted in leadership roles? What is the greatest challenge for a female leader?

The achievements of Arab women in the last fifteen years are truly remarkable and are a testament to the investment in education by Arab governments. We see more Arab women serving in company boardrooms, political cabinets and the regional and global media than ever before. Literacy rates for women throughout the region are now higher than those of men, and education statistics for women and girls show substantial gains in primary, secondary and tertiary enrolment, with women outnumbering men in higher education and accounting for up to 75% of students enrolled in colleges and universities in the Arab world. For example, women in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia constitute 67%, 63% and 57% of university graduates respectively.

The number of women holding ministerial-level positions and other roles in public life has also increased in the last decade, which has seen more women exert a strong, positive and lasting influence on their communities by taking on prominent roles as decision-makers, participating in their economies and societies as educators, professors, university deans, businesswomen, journalists, judges, lawyers, media figures, bankers, medical professionals, scientific researchers and government ministers.


Not only has that, but the number of women choosing entrepreneurship over traditional employment is growing impressively each year. Women in the MENA represent 50% of the SME enterprise sector, whilst women’s workplace participation has also risen from 10% in 1986 to 33% in 2008. Qatar has the highest level of national women in the workforce at 35%, with 30% in Bahrain, 28% in the UAE, 25% in Oman and 17% in Saudi Arabia.


The Boston Consulting Group estimates overall wealth held by women in the MENA region at $500 billion, while MEED, a Middle East business media company, estimates wealth managed by women in the six GCC countries alone at $385 billion.


Looking at the impact of The Arab Awakening, coming on the back of the 2008 global recession, AIWF believes more than ever that job creation is the crisis of our time. Entrepreneurship and the creation of viable business environments, where SMEs can flourish, have been keystones of groundbreaking AIWF Annual Programmes and Conferences held over the years. Our aim is to bring together Arab and global leaders to address this timely theme.


AIWF continues to pursue with confidence its enhanced Programme launched in 2011 during our highly successful 10th Anniversary Commemoration   for ‘’Building Bridges, Building Business: Emerging Economies, Emerging Leaderships’’, and is reinforcing its commitment to promoting the role of women and youth in the Arab world. A key focus is on formulating a viable roadmap for sustainable development in the region, emphasizing the importance of education, leadership training, capacity building and self-development for women and young citizens in Arab and emerging economies.


The ultimate goal is for women to be more accepted in leadership roles regionally and internationally.


Women are still vastly underrepresented in the region overall, especially in the sciences, in sports, media, religion, medicine, engineering and law.  However important to note that women are especially active in the agricultural sector in the Arab region, maintaining the regional rural economy and, thus, food security, but the role and contributions of Arab women in rural economies have never been fully recognized and indeed are often downplayed.


The Arab woman, just as many other women all around the world, is traditionally expected to be the primary care giver and home maker for her children and husband in the family home. Despite advances in the education of Arab women and increases in women’s’ entrepreneurship and participation in politics, the pressure of the traditional role remains, while the pressure of her working life increases. What does the future hold for the role of an Arab woman in the home? How can a woman be successful in both spheres of life?

Madame Christine Lagarde, Chairman and Managing Director of the IMF, said that the empowerment of women and equal opportunities are crucial for driving a stronger global economic recovery and that the global economy is not utilizing women effectively, “tossing away economic growth at a time when it cannot afford such wanton waste.”

There should be a focus on introducing work life balance policies and flexible work policies by Arab governments and the private sector which will allow Arab women to work from home is critical for Arab women’s success in both spheres of life.


Clearly, education is important, both in the form of professional support for those already working, and for extending opportunities to the younger generation of women thinking about starting a career. The region has a very young demographic and a huge skills potential that must not be wasted.


The Arab Awakening has provided a significant opportunity for the contribution made by women to the stability and prosperity of their communities throughout the Middle East and North Africa to be enlarged and enhanced.  Faced with the renaissance that is taking place in the region and international recognition of the need for wider employment opportunities, the Arab world needs to optimize its richest asset – the human capital – and count women and youth among its vital resources if it is to achieve sustainable growth and more stable and prosperous communities.


It is clear that Arab women are a key economic resource in the region, and that one half of the Arab world’s most precious resource - its human talent - has been under-utilized for far too long. Empowering women should no longer be seen as a secondary debate but an integral factor in smart policy making and part of the strategy to jumpstart prosperity, growth and equal opportunity in the Arab marketplace. We also believe that women’s entrepreneurship is absolutely essential to the sustainable development process.


As the Chairman and Founder of the Arab International Women’s Forum: What has been the impact this forum has brought on an international level? How would you describe the Forum’s achievements so far?

Since its inception in 2001 in London as a not for profit, non-governmental, nonpolitical organization with the motto ‘Building bridges, building business’, The Arab International Women’s Forum has served as a voice for Arab women; showcasing their development, promoting cross cultural diversity and creating greater public awareness of women’s success and prospects in the Arab world but always with an international context.


AIWF is A Development Organisation Leading The Way Forward.  The Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF) has a clear aim to support and enhance the role of women in the social and economic development of their countries and across the Middle East region.


AIWF has members and contacts in more than 45 countries and links Arab business leaders with each other and their counterparts in the international community to exchange knowledge, experience and develop their business potential. In many ways, AIWF has been an agent for change for women in the Arab region encouraging their potential and has received international recognition in the Arab world and internationally as a powerful advocate for women in business and their empowerment. Pioneering International conferences have been held in London, Dubai, Paris, Damascus, Washington DC, Madrid, Brussels, Sharjah, Cairo, Amman and Beirut examining strategies for job creation, inclusive sustainable growth, economic competitiveness, development of human capital, increased innovation and collaboration through public-private partnership.


 AIWF believes that there is no economic or social development without women playing their rightful role in the economy and society.  We also firmly believe that we are living and working now in a world without borders.  Hence, the exchange of knowledge and experience is absolutely vital in achieving progress and development leading to peace and prosperity in all our societies.


AIWF works across the board with both governments and the private sector to facilitate a greater role and a lasting impact for women in the region, uniting and supporting high-level participants to power change, create partnerships and promote viable business alliances between women leaders in the Arab World and their counterparts in the international community.


Working at the highest levels, the Arab International Women’s Forum’s growing role is acknowledged in many leading international organizations, among them, the United Nations, the European Commission, the World Economic Forum, UNESCO, the British Council, UNIFEM, the Women’s National Commission in the UK, and the National Council of Women in Egypt.  The Arab International Women’s Forum was proud and honoured to collaborate with the League of Arab States for the AIWF on two major conferences held in 2004 and 2005.  


Since our inception, AIWF has called consistently for the region to fully utilise its valuable and talented human capital, stressing in all our initiatives the importance of developing a viable middle class.  Entrepreneurship and the creation of a progressive business and social environment in the region where women-led SMEs can flourish is a keystone of AIWF’s work.


AIWF’s focus continues this year on the need for job creation, the importance of education, leadership training, capacity-building and self-development for women and youth throughout the Arab world and within this focus has accepted invitations to participate in high-level regional events in the Middle East and the United Kingdom, as well as in political and economic forums with global institutions and organisations.


We have also developed strong relationships with global and pan-Arab media over the years to ensure that we are constantly challenging harmful stereotypes and advocating fair and honest reporting on the opportunities and challenges faced by women in the region. We have assisted numerous publications including the Financial Times with four Special Reports to recognize the Arab world’s emerging women business leaders.  We also partnered with the World Bank on the publication of Domains of Influence: Arab Women Business Leaders in a New Economy, the first AIWF book of its kind and a unique testament to the impact of Arab women in today’s global environment of entrepreneurship and economic empowerment.  Our relationship with responsible media is being strengthened all the time.


AIWF will continue to work tirelessly to promote the strategic encouragement of women from all sectors to contribute effectively to the global knowledge economy; through increased access to information, education, media and technology; the promotion of cultural diversity; proactive business fellowship and advocacy; and through exposure to invaluable international business prospects, strategic alliances, and best practices.





Related Posts
Rixos moves to Dubai
  With the announcement of Mr Bugra Berberoglu as the new CEO of Rixos HOTELS, comes an influx of change aimed at poising the brand for further global expansion. Antalya is home ...
Royal Jet Confirms new Delivery
Abu Dhabi, 8 December 2014: Royal Jet, the Middle East’s foremost private charter company, confirmed a new Bombardier Learjet 60 XR business jet (A6-RJE) and a Bombardier Global 5000 business ...
Interview with Harris Georgiades
Harris Georgiades was born in 1972 in Nicosia. He is the Minister of Finance of the Republic of Cyprus since the 3rd April 2013, having been appointed by President Nicos Anastasiades. ...
Dubai’s prime for Film Production
Jamal Al Sharif, the man behind much of what’s happening in film production in Dubai. Jamal Al Sharif is Chairman of the Dubai Film & TV Commission. He is also Managing ...
HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal
  Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was born in Riyadh and educated in the U.S. He obtained a degree in Business ADMINISTRATION and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Menlo College in 1979 ...
Gulf Oil & Gas
MENASA comprises 22 countries, encompasses over 25% of the world’s population, and has a combined GDP of over US$5 trillion.    The Gulf Region, comprised of the six countries of the GCC ...
Saudi’s economic outlook
  HE DR. IBRAHIM BIN ABDULAZIZ AL-ASSAF The global economic recovery is beginning to expand to include more of the developed countries. However, a number of challenges remain, particularly the monetary ...
UAE’s economy standing strong
  “Our vision is to transform our nation into a knowledge economy driven by a culture of innovation and creativity - this is in fact one of the strategic pillars of ...
An interview with Holger Schroth, General Manager of Emirates Palace
Since its inception in 2005, VIP guests, celebrities, heads of states, and royal families from all over the globe have enjoyed the service truly befitting of kings and queens. As Abu ...
Qatar’s economic strength
How is fiscal policy being developed to attract investors within non-hydrocarbons sectors? KAMAL: The Ministry of Economy and Finance has undertaken numerous initiatives to improve Qatar’s fiscal policy. In 2009 Qatar ...
Rixos moves to Dubai
Royal Jet Confirms new Delivery
Interview with Harris Georgiades
Dubai’s prime for Film Production
HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal
Gulf Oil & Gas
Saudi’s economic outlook
UAE’s economy standing strong
An interview with Holger Schroth, General Manager of
Qatar’s economic strength