Arab oil money: Empowering Women

Jane Williams |

Empowered by education, the internet and a $40 billion nest-egg, a new generation of Arab women is forging its own path to financial and social independence.

Covered in a stylishly-cut, black abaya, a Louis Vuitton handbag resting by her expensive heels and a Mac Pro at her manicured fingertips, Amina Al Dossari looks more accustomed to discussing fashion than real estate but the Kuwaiti-born daughter of Saudi parents has been buying, selling and renting property for six years.

Like many of her friends Al Dossari brought her own wealth into her marriage. And that money, according to Islamic law, is hers to do with as she will. While clothing and accessories are important, she’s keen to make use of her business degree to put this money to use on more than just the consumer front.

“I’ve invested in a small internet sales company set up by friends but technology is changing so quickly, it’s difficult to know what the next big thing will be,” she says. “I’m just watching now really; what I want to do is set up something for myself.”

Al Dossari is part of a new class of Arab women: the second-generation born into oil wealth, whose forward-thinking parents encouraged education, raising tech-savvy, smart, independently wealthy daughters.

Today women are estimated to control 22 percent, or about $500 billion, of the region’s investments, growing at eight percent a year, according to a recent BCG Global Wealth report.

Who are these wealthy women?

The majority of these ultra-wealthy women live in the oil-and-gas-rich nations surrounding the Arabian Gulf: deeply patriarchal, Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE where women hold more than US$40 billion in personal wealth. Last year’s GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) Federal report showed Saudi women alone held US$15 billion, mostly in cash accounts and trust units, while women in the less populated countries of Kuwait and the UAE had amassed a total of US$18 billion.

The attitude towards these women’s new position in the outside world is divided. While conservative elements in the Muslim world disapprove of women working outside the home and actively contributing to the nation’s economy, other equally devout Islam devotees point to the example of Prophet Mohammed’s wife Khadija, who was a successful businesswoman in her own right while still supporting her husband. Today, though domestic life is still steeped in traditional family values that see men dominate politics and religious life, women are using their newfound inheritance and education to find their own way.

“In the last four or five years women have really moved forward,” says Sara Mohamed, the CEO of Al Bashayer Investment Company, a UAE-based company targeting high-net-worth women in the region. “They are very successful entrepreneurs, they hold very high positions in government and private companies and they are taking over control of the wealth in family companies.”

Most governments outside of Saudi Arabia are committing significant resources to training women and supporting their rise in business, recognising the significant input they will have to the region’s economy. And families, mindful that in the modern world husbands cannot always be relied on to support their wives according to the law of Islam, are ensuring daughters receive a fair share of their inheritance in either cash or real estate.

While the dynamic, educated daughters of the rich elite with their fast-paced lifestyle and ready access to the internet, are using the money to set up their own businesses and investment accounts, many older women sit quietly on their riches. Up to 75 percent of the US$80 billion held by women is still tucked away in simple savings accounts, claims Mohamed, a quietly-spoken, elegant women with 20 years of experience as a wealth manager in the Gulf region at major international banks Barclays, ABN Amro, Merrill Lynch and Abu Dhabi’s The National Investor (TNI).

“Wealth in the Gulf countries only came into being, for women in particular, about 20 to 25 years ago when women started inheriting cash and real estate from their families,” she explains. “Not all of them were very well educated or very well informed. They didn’t understand inflation or that their money was actually devaluing in the bank. But their children now are different.”

Today’s female Arab investor is more informed and up to speed in managing her wealth than ever before. Technology and the internet have done women a huge favour, notes Mohamed.

“Today women in the Middle East are beginning to see themselves as part of a global network. They’re connected to the international market and they know their options.”

Speaking of money…

Unlike their mothers, these women speak openly about money, investment and financial opportunities and the need to secure their financial future. Topics that were one considered immensely private are now discussed freely over coffee.
“It’s amazing the openness that’s hitting women in this part of the world,” says Mohamed. “If you sit now with today’s woman it is very different than if you sat down five years ago. Then she would have been very shy, reluctant, worrying about saying the right thing and about not being well informed. Today’s woman tells you exactly what she is doing, what she is up to.”

Financial institutions in the Gulf region where many older, more conservative women are reluctant to mix with men outside their families, have been tapping into this niche women’s market. Ladies-only banks have operated in Saudi Arabia for decades and 10 years ago ABN Amro and First Gulf Bank extended their services offering female-only products and packages to other Gulf nations. Islamic Banks were quick to pick up the trend with the latest, Ajman Bank, based in the UAE’s smallest emirate, launching its Mahra – Arabic for “filly” - ladies service in June this year.

Along with ladies-only branches, softened décor and a focus on privacy, these banks allow women to access special rates on safe deposit boxes, dedicated car and home finance options and women–only credit card deals promising luxuries such as free concierge and valet parking services at shopping malls, discounts on lifestyle options and spa membership.

Educating the female investor

Western banks, such as HSBC, UBS and Standard Chartered say surveys show women now expect more than this and genuinely want to understand and have input into how their money is being invested. UBS and Standard Chartered hold regular seminars educating women on investment and business opportunities.

Standard Chartered, which recently opened its Arabic “Women in Business” website aimed at assisting and educating aspiring entrepreneurs in the UAE, has a very structured approach in tapping the wealth of its richer female customers, hiring women relationship managers to target and meet their growing needs.

The bank is committed to educating women and empowering them to make their own decisions, Deanna Othman, General Manager Priority Banking, Standard Chartered UAE told INSEAD Knowledge. “Woman have become more financially independent in the past few decades,” Othman says. “They're also getting more involved with long-term financial planning. As more women become serious investors, they really are looking for an education in how to manage their growing stockpiles of money.”

Arab leaders such as Qatar’s first lady Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Misned are looking at Arab women’s contribution to the long-term economic and social development of their nation creating organisations such as the Qatar Business Women Forum and drafting policies to pave the way for more widespread social acceptance of women’s equality.

“Women are equal, but that does not mean we are the same (as men),” Mohamed says. “When something happens to a family it is women here who suffer the most. Your husband may take a second wife, he may divorce you or he may die, you don’t know what will happen, you need to anticipate, that is why it’s very important for women here to make sure they are financially secure.”

Othman says female Arab clients at Standard Chartered preferred to make their investments close to home and look for an advisor who can help them make empowered decisions. ‘Women investors typically study the product more thoroughly before investing; and go into details of the product and seek clarifications. Women like to take a balanced portfolio of different types of stocks and diversify their investment options. They prefer investing in reputable financial institutions and banks or firms with whom they have developed a trustful and faithful relationship,” she says.

Women also want to feel special, according to Mohamed. “They like to come into a room that is calm and nice they don’t like to enter a room that is too crowded. They like to have a personal relationship with their managers so they can sit down and discuss very deeply their financial situation and how they want to go about it. It’s not always easy for women especially the older women, to share this kind of information. It takes a lot of relationship building.”

Al Bashayer has taken a long-term approach to wooing their clients, offering personal finance and business advice, often at no cost to clients.

“I’m going to get her investment, her cash at a later stage, but first I’m helping her to build her business which in turn is helping to build the wealth and the trust between us,” she explains. “It’s not a strategy that’s making a lot of money for (Al Bashayer) at the moment, but if you hold a woman’s hand when she’s in need with her business she will begin to trust you with her personal wealth. Then she will come to you with her whole family, sisters, brothers, children, cousins. She will recommend you through word of mouth, that’s very important here.”

Funds for women

Founded in 2006, Al Bashayer was the brainchild of Mohamed and Fatima Al Jaber, a prominent Emirati businesswoman and high profile ambassador for women’s causes. The pair met while Mohamed was working at TNI, where Al Jaber was a board member. They watched many wealthy women floundering, not knowing what to do with their wealth, and in 2005, under the auspices of TNI, they set up the AED 100 million Dana Women fund.

“It was the first fund set up by women for women, and at the time it was very successful” Mohamed says. “When we started promoting it we got allocations from everywhere and subscriptions from so many women we didn’t even know. They were asking for more, and that gave us the idea that if you do something specifically for women and you go directly to women, you can really do a very good business.”

One year later they opened Al Bashayer Investment Company, with shares held by a group of institutions and individuals from across the Gulf region and paid up capital of AED50 million.

When the economic downturn hit the UAE in 2008, Al Bashayer faced the same challenges as banks across the globe losing customer trust as share prices fell and investments deteriorated.

“After 2007 when the economy started sliding, women became very cautious, some of them lost a lot of money,” Mohamed says. “A lot of investors closed their accounts: they don’t want to do investments anymore. They’d rather keep their money in cash and deposits. But we’re patient, we’re a small company and, unlike large banks, we can afford to wait and develop relationships with these women. Eventually they will come to us with their money.”

To support itself while it woos its high-net-worth female clients, Al Bashayer has taken on corporate and institutional clients, managing portfolios and arranging private equity and corporate financing, but the future of the company lies with women’s wealth management.

“The concept of a wealth management service which looks after all an individuals overall financial needs not just their investments, is available in the international market,” Mohamed says.

“But here where women are really just beginning to take control of their financial interests, we’re still looking at a very untapped market.”

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