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Exclusive interview: UAE’s Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi

Exclusive interview: UAE’s Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi

This winner of this year’s Gulf Business Lifetime Achievement Award discusses the growing influence of Emirati women and the strength of the nation’s youth

We recently celebrated Emirati Women’s Day. How impressed are you with the growing achievements of the nation’s women, and what more can be done to encourage their development and empowerment?

“We celebrate Emirati Women’s Day to commemorate and honour the achievements, contributions and vital role Emirati women play in society. Emirati women have contributed to societal growth, working with their male counterparts in strengthening the cultural and economic fabric of the nation.

“Today, thanks to the guiding principles of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, our nation’s founding father, and the continuous support of our President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE’s Armed Forces, the presence of women is felt across all professions in industries as varied as aviation, the military, medicine, information technology, media, property development, marketing and aerospace technology, among others.

“Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the mother of the nation, has always actively promoted the role of Emirati women and worked tirelessly to raise the status of women in society, both at home and abroad. She recognised the importance of enhancing the role of women through employment and was an early adopter of initiatives that encouraged women to join the workforce.

“The UAE has established itself as a regional role model for enabling women to enter the business world and establish their own enterprises.

“The UAE National Strategy for the Empowerment and Entrepreneurship of Women in the UAE 2015-2021 was launched to provide a guiding framework for all governmental institutions – both federal and local – and civil society organisations. The strategy specifically developed plans and programmes to encourage Emirati women to proactively participate in business. Recent statistics from the Ministry of Economy have shown that over 23,000 Emirati businesswomen run projects worth billions of dollars, and occupy 15 per cent of positions on the boards of chambers of commerce and industry nationwide.

“Women now represent over 43 per cent of the labour force in the UAE with 66 per cent of employed women working in the public sector of whom 30 per cent are in senior positions. The UAE today boasts nine women in its National Cabinet and 27 per cent of the UAE Cabinet are women.

“Today, women serve across diverse fields, such as the Armed Forces, customs and the police. Women such as major Mariam Al Mansouri, whose heroic efforts have ensured her place in the UAE’s history when she became the first woman pilot to operate a military aircraft and engage in overseas missions, are paving the way for others in careers that, until now, were typically dominated by men.

The numbers keep growing and if the given trend continues, then the vision of seeing the UAE as a leading nation in the region with an economy that consists of equally-strong contributions from both women and men will not simply be an objective to be achieved but a reality to be lauded. Such developments will add a new dimension of growth to the nation as a whole.

The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan was a great supporter of Emirati women and praised their continuous achievements, firmly believing that “The woman is half of the society, any country which pursues development should not leave her in poverty or illiteracy. I am on the woman’s side; I always say this in order to uphold her right to work and participate in the building process of her country.”

“This is reflected in the UAE government’s determination to ensure the inclusion of Emirati women in all areas of UAE society and government whilst encouraging Emirati’s women’s involvement within emerging STEM fields in the UAE in the areas of aerospace, atomic studies, technology, and so on. In fact, according to a study by the management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, increasing the number of Emirati women participating in STEM fields to equal those of their male counterparts could boost the UAE’s GDP by an estimated 12 per cent.

“Both the private and public sectors are expected to create a hospitable environment for women to get decent jobs to start and grow a career path or a business. This, however, will rely on the implementation of a wide range of policies to provide women with the support required to maintain a healthy work/life balance that acknowledge obstacles women face in pursuit of career goals, including equal pay, parental leave schemes and childcare initiatives for working parents.

“Creating and promoting an environment for Emirati women that celebrates their achievements is also a key component of the UAE’s growth. Introducing a National Achievement Award for Exceptional Emirati Women who excel in their fields, as well as honouring the academic excellence UAE female students across all stages of education, would be great additions to the annual Emirati Women’s Day celebrations.”

What is your advice to aspiring businesswomen in the country?

“The UAE’s leadership is highly focused on the empowerment of Emirati women in all fields. Such support is determined to provide Emirati women seeking to advance in their career path or business every opportunity for growth.

“I advise women to start by believing in themselves, following their passion and developing a diverse skillset that will lead to definitive positive outcomes. Our nation depends on everyone, women and men alike, for continued success and the dedication and support of our citizens is highly valued as a result.

“However, in my experience the business world is not easy to navigate and often difficult to succeed in. Women must, therefore, understand their market through careful research, continued assessment and pursue their goals with determination no matter what setbacks may appear on the path to success.

“However, the one trait that I believe is essential for businesswomen is consistency. Keep believing in the magic you’re creating, move forward and face the obstacles that you encounter with patience and intelligence and, believe me, you will achieve your dreams.”

What were the challenges when you entered the government as the first female minister? How did you approach this pioneering role?

“I was keenly aware, as I took my first steps towards such a prominent position, that my appointment was not only important on a personal level but would also help pave inroads for women’s employment in the UAE. I had the opportunity to make a positive impact and set an example for young women with an interest in governance and leadership. This was a responsibility I took seriously.

“To be an effective leader you must work to the rule of ‘we not me’, therefore, as a minister in multiple capacities, I focused on team building which required patience and dedication; but that investment in my team really paid off. There is nothing more satisfying than that moment when you realise you and your team have made an impact on the community and contributed to a sustainable future for all of the UAE’s citizens.

“However, regardless of where you are in your career or which career path you choose to follow, the most important lesson I would hope for other women to remember is to stay true to your values, no matter the circumstances.”

You have served as Minister of Foreign Trade, Minister of International Cooperation and Development and Minister of State for Tolerance. Which would you say has been your most challenging role?

“Every role I have had the privilege to undertake throughout my career has provided its own unique set of challenges. Whether it was overseeing the development of policies, negotiating with diverse stakeholders or convening meetings with foreign dignitaries or members of state, I firmly believe that every task, no matter how small, provided an opportunity for growth and I learned from every challenge I faced. In the course of my career I have found that there is always a lesson to be learned in every situation and have been able to learn something from the people in every organisation I have worked at, even before taking on government posts.”

You have also been very influential in the business world. Where do you see the opportunities for those seeking to help the UAE develop in the coming years? Are you encouraged by the talent coming through the country’s schools and universities?

“Continuous growth and development is evident across every sector of industry and the UAE is paying great attention to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also known as Global Goals – a set of 17 goals that aim to provide better living conditions to all.

“The SDGs are based on the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UAE is taking several steps to achieve the SDGs both at home and abroad.

“However, in the next few years the one sector that will become of greater interest to those in the business community with an eye for opportunity will be the Artificial Intelligence industry.

“The second largest economy of the Arab world is now in the process of transitioning from an oil based economy to one that is more diversified. Artificial Intelligence is a pioneering sector that will aid in this transition; so much so that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, has launched the UAE’s first Artificial Intelligence strategy, marking a new level of innovation built on Smart Government. The UAE has recently appointed a minister of Artificial Intelligence, the first such acknowledgement by the Arab world that these technologies are, indeed, going to shape economies around us.

“The UAE aims, through the implementation of the Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031, to see an increase in investments in the latest AI technologies to enhance government performance and efficiency which will further the UAE Centennial Plan 2071. This will allow the UAE to become the foremost country in the world by creating a new market which will boost GDP by a projected 35 per cent and reduce government costs by 50 per cent through the use of an integrated smart digital system that can overcome challenges and provide quick efficient solutions, resisting up to 90 per cent from any financial crisis, and much more.

“Referring to the second part of your question, yes, I am highly encouraged by the fresh talents we’re producing and proud of the achievements that have been made by young Emiratis. We have, for instance, HE Shamma bint Suhail Al Mazrui who, at the age of only 22, was appointed as the UAE minister of state for youth affairs in the UAE Cabinet, making her the youngest minister in the world.

“Alia Al Mansoori is a true inspiration who is committed to advancing the sciences. Alia won the Genes in Space competition before she turned 15, with her experiment of applying DNA analysis to real-life challenges in space exploration that was selected as the winner out of 110 impressive entries. Alia is working towards her dream of becoming the UAE’s first astronaut, and her hope that more young Emiratis will follow in her footsteps and adopt STEM-related careers is a credit to the UAE.

“Adeeb Al Balooshi is another great example. Adeeb is remarkable as he invented a prosthetic limb for his father, a robot to assist his mother with household chores, and an innovative cat flap at the tender age of 10. He then set to work creating a device that could save the lives of drivers with heart ailments by sending automatic alerts to family members, hospitals and the police if there was a fault in the driver’s heartbeat.

“We also have Amani Al Hosani who is the first female Emirati nuclear scientist. At the age of 26 Amani had the forethought to move from a career in the non-renewable oil industry to the next generation form of energy, realising that it was going to play a greater role in the future of the UAE and global energy needs.

“These are just some examples of young Emirati achievers who broke barriers, created new records and pursued nothing but excellence in pursuit of their goals.”

The UAE aims to be the most futuristic and forward-thinking country in the world. How is Zayed University helping to facilitate this? How are you preparing young people to be global leaders?

“Every one of our students has the potential to be a leader in the community, their chosen profession, and even national and international levels. Their time with us at the university is brief, so we try to help them establish a foundation that they can build a lifetime of accomplishment and continuous learning. By providing excellent and innovative teaching, strong advising, co-curricular and extracurricular activities, we ignite their interests and passions.

“Zayed University’s array of assistive technology services unsurpassed in the UAE. Our travel-study opportunities expand our students’ horizons, and our community service opportunities remind students of their obligations towards their society and the world on a larger scale.

“Zayed University has a strong reputation for high-quality educational programmes, and this reputation extends beyond the UAE. Accreditation by the Middle States Association, reaffirmed in 2013, and programme accreditation by numerous disciplinary accrediting bodies, attest to the fact that Zayed University is serious about its mission to offer programmes of study that match international standards. 

“But building these programmes and getting them accredited is not enough.  They are the beginning, not the end, of our constant pursuit of academic excellence. In the coming years, as we develop even more programmes and improve existing ones, we must continuously innovate, constantly update our skills and knowledge, and ensure that Zayed University graduates continue to be the preferred graduates of employers.

“Let me re-emphasise the importance of an education that combines technical skills with broad competencies.  The days are gone when it was good enough to enter the workforce with only a set of specific job-oriented skills. In the evolving 21st century knowledge-based economy, two kinds of skill sets are required: disciplinary and interpersonal.

“I am glad that in Zayed University’s academic programme model, attention is on building relevant, high quality, accreditation-worthy major programmes, combined with a strong commitment to a set of common learning outcomes for all students. These include such traits as critical thinking, technological literacy, and leadership.

“Zayed University is geared at regularly reviewing the UAE’s policy for science, technology and innovation, as well as providing decision-makers with advice based on scientific knowledge.”

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