Interview: Crescent Group MD and Pearl Initiative founder Badr Jafar

The authors of Game Changers speak to the managing director of the Crescent Group, Badr Jafar



Apart from being the managing director of the Crescent Group, Badr Jafar serves as the chairman of Gas Cities LLC and of Pearl Petroleum. Jafar also founded the Pearl Initiative, a private sector venture developed in cooperation with the United Nations Office for Partnerships, that promotes a corporate culture of transparency and accountability. The World Economic Forum honoured Jafar as a ‘Young Global Leader’.

In your view, which part of the world is the most advanced in terms of gender diversity and equal opportunities for career growth and leadership?

“Although we have seen great transformation across the world, and at various rates, when it comes to gender diversity and opportunity, we can’t say that any one country has achieved equilibrium. While we should celebrate change and progress, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels in any society, as we seek to increase female representation across all streams of life. I have seen great strides made throughout the Arab world to celebrate the value that women can bring as consumers, employees, managers and leaders. The concerted efforts by the government and private sector in recent times has led me to be able to refer to the UAE as the most advanced in our region.”

How do you see the current status of Arab women as opposed to 30 years ago or 100 years ago? How do you see it evolving?

“Everywhere I look, I see gifted, strong, driven and inspiring women in business. This has been brought about by a structural change in attitudes and an improvement in gender-neutral education provision. More than that, I look to the next generation of young Arab women and see that they have a number of role models to provide them with inspiration. They know that with hard work and determination they will have the same opportunities as their brothers to succeed in business and other important parts of society.

“In December 2012 the government of the UAE made it compulsory for companies and government entities to appoint women to their boards of directors. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, made the announcement tweeting his ambition for women to have a ‘strong presence in decision-making positions in our institutions’. This declaration demonstrates the significance the UAE cabinet places on the issue, and not without merit. Indeed, in the UAE businesswomen are already being credited for their achievements. A recent poll of the 100 most powerful Arab women awarded one quarter of all the places to Emirati women. And it’s not just the private sector; the UAE cabinet is made up of 22.5 per cent women, while for example the UK cabinet is made up of only 14.5 per cent women (at the time of writing). The UAE is a great example of the changing attitudes towards women in business in the Arab world.

“Life is very different today for women in the Middle East compared to what it was 30 years ago, and even more so 100 years ago. That said, we still have a long way to go, and I am confident that we will reach that place in time, as attitudes and societies develop and embrace this change.”

What are the biggest challenges female leaders face today – regionally and globally?

“Although we are starting to see a significant increase in women in the workplace there is still great scope for an increase in the number of women in senior positions and on boards of directors. Companies often lose high-performing women at mid-management levels, as they leave to have children, feeling they cannot combine work commitments with family commitments. This does not have to be the case. Organisations in the region that manage to successfully retain and promote women do so by providing strong HR collaborative support at pivotal points in their careers, creating structured mentoring programmes and developing networking opportunities.

“More companies and organisations should consider offering part-time or flexible working hours to allow mothers to work around their family commitments. The law in this area was updated in 2011, with the introduction of the region’s first part-time work permit as announced by the Ministry of Labour, but this is not yet a widely used system and many are not aware this option is open to them. According to a recent study of 7,876 women by the Federal Authority for Government Human Resources, there is a growing need for better HR practices that benefit working women in the UAE, since 72 per cent of those surveyed said they would prefer the option of part-time employment to enable them to dedicate time to their children.

“An increased female presence in the boardroom along with the suitable policies in the workplace, hand-in-hand with the clear message from the leadership of the UAE and the rest of the Gulf in support of these goals, will undoubtedly create many more role models for our future generation of young women leaders.”

What does the word feminism mean to you? What is the first image that comes to your mind when you think about it?

“Feminism is about women reshaping and redefining sometimes long-held perceptions of women through their achievements in all fields, especially business and enterprise. Feminism is not a concept that should exclusively look to women for support. It is the responsibility of society as a whole to work together to instil the concept and values of feminism to help women claim their rightful role in society and the field of work.”

What advice can you offer an individual looking to start a career in your industry?

“As the Arab world experiences a period of unprecedented change, the statistics facing our youth can be daunting. The lack of economic opportunities means youth unemployment is on the rise and with the region’s bulging population, 75 per cent of which is under 30, this can seem overwhelming for young Arabs entering the job market. However, research shows that most new, net job creation in developed countries is driven by small to medium sized enterprises, which generate between 60 and 80 per cent of positions. The number of SMEs currently operating in the Arab world is well below the global average; so my advice to young people out there is if you have any great business ideas, don’t be afraid to put these into practice. Seek the right guidance and backing and pursue your entrepreneurial spirit in creating your own career in a crowded market place.”

Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future is published by Motivate and is available at all good retail outlets and booksarabia.com