Dubai, United Arab Emirates
FOR Sheika Lubna al-Qassimi, the most memorable moments typically happen in
the shopping malls and public gatherings of this rapidly growing nation, not in
the halls of power she navigates every day. They come when young Emirati women
approach her to take their photograph with her, tell her their dreams or, best
of all, ask her for career advice.
During those moments, she says, she realizes how much has changed for women
here since she first started out in business, but she also sees how much farther
they still have to go.
“I had to prove that stamina and delivering have nothing to do with gender,”
she told a group of young entrepreneurs recently. “We are the ones who usually
discourage ourselves even before anyone else discourages us.”
After decades of pushing the barriers in a region where women have
traditionally been kept out of the public sphere, Sheika Lubna now towers as one
of the country’s most influential women. She is the first woman here to be a
minister, but no less important, she is the minister of economy and planning, a
particularly important position in a nation that is a major oil producer and
relies so heavily on foreign investment, and where the economy continues to
On any given day, she may be shuttling between world capitals to sign trade
agreements, or between cities in the Emirates to garner support for her
policies, or to lend support for a cause. She has pushed for the deregulation of
cross-border trade while answering calls for greater oversight over the
investment sector and stumping for foreign investment in her country.
But throughout, she has remained conscious of her role in chipping away at
the restrictions women face in this region.
“Every day and night, I think about how the girls need to change,” Sheika
Lubna said emphatically. “Ultimately, I am out there for them.”
THE United Arab Emirates have one of the fastest growing economies in the
Middle East, and also have one of the most open societies in the Persian Gulf.
Women are afforded many freedoms and are encouraged to work and take part in
public life. But ultimately this is a traditional society for local women, where
marriage and family are still central in a woman’s life, where the law favors
men in issues of family and where many women opt for reliable government jobs or
simply choose to stay at home.
But with the outside world crashing into Emirati homes, and divorce rates on
the rise, women must be better prepared to take care of themselves than their
mothers’ generation, Sheika Lubna and other women here argue.
As a woman who challenged all the societal rules in the 1970s, working her
way up the ranks as a computer engineer, then a chief executive and a government
minister, she has sought to prove to women here that they, too, must begin
assuming a greater role in public life.
Her family is the ruling family of the emirate of Sharjah, the emirate
neighboring Dubai; her uncle is the ruler. As royalty, she faced even more
traditional demands than most. Moreover, she never really needed to work, and if
she chose to, she could have opted for a low-key job in a ceremonial role or as
She chose the hard way, however. When other women were staying home in the
late 1970s, Sheika Lubna left for California to study computer engineering,
becoming one of the first Emirati women to travel abroad for study.
“She has always been a woman in a man’s world, and maybe some of these things
might not have looked right at the time,” said Farouk El-Baz, director of the
Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, who is a confidant of the sheika and
a close friend of the family. “She’s a person who cannot take ‘no’ for an
answer. She would think about any challenge thoroughly, then begin to tackle
When she returned in 1981, she took a job as a programmer for an Indian
software firm called Datamation, working as the sole woman on a team of mostly
Indian programmers — something virtually unheard of in the day. She parlayed
that experience into a job at the Dubai Ports Authority, where she rose to being
an information technology manager, developing a documentation system that helped
reduce the time needed for paperwork from one hour per ship to 10 minutes.
That led to the creation of an online marketplace for supporting purchase
orders for companies in Dubai’s free-trade zones, and later led her to start a
business-to-business auction site, Tejari, on the eve of the dot-com collapse.
That company survived the rout, and today it does business throughout the Middle
BUT when she received the telephone call in late 2004 asking her if she was
willing to be nominated as a minister, Sheika Lubna was surprisingly ambivalent,
she said. She had been planning to enroll in a Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the
high-stress position would have delayed her studies, she said.
“When I got the call I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this. I want to go to
M.I.T.,’ ” she said. “But the call for the country never goes away. It would be
the first time a woman took a powerful position in cabinet. I was a change
agent, but I would now become a role model.”
This spring, when American senators and representatives got up in arms over
the planned sale of some operations at major American ports to DP World, Sheika
Lubna’s former employer, she traveled to Washington without an entourage and
became one of the most public faces of the United Arab Emirates.
As she set out to advocate for the Emirates, people at home, especially young
women seeking to break out of the traditional mold, saw a different message: it
was time to rise to the challenge.
“We were misunderstood because no one knew anything about us,” Sheika Lubna
said as she recounted the political firestorm that erupted over the ports deal.
“But we have a responsibility to explain ourselves and who we want to be.”
She won over many Americans with her folksy, girl-next-door charm, seeking to
settle stereotypes and misconceptions about the Arab world and usher the United
Arab Emirates onto the world stage.
When an American businesswoman asked her if women could work in the Emirates,
she answered, matter-of-factly, “I was the C.E.O. of a company,” and continued
When another asked her if women could drive in her country, she noted that
she had spent years commuting between her home in Sharjah and Dubai, but she
admitted wryly that she was glad to now have a driver.
“Women always told me, ‘you’re a sheika; why are you doing all of this?’ ”
she said with a degree of amazement. “But when you break out of the mold, you
can break all the taboos. I had nothing to refer to, but I did have a blind
belief that this is the right path.”