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The future of female tech leadership is thriving—in the United Arab Emirates

A general view of the Jumeirah neighbourhood in Dubai, UAE December 9, 2015. Picture taken December 9, 2015.
REUTERS/Karim Sahib
Dubai is an unexpected haven for women in tech.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Women in tech have it tough, working in often-offensive bro cultures that dominate much of the industry. But as an American woman working in the blockchain sector, I’ve never seen a place so inspiring as the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular. It’s like being in a modern-age Kennedy era where a young nation sees its future through empowering youth and creating a culture of public service—and women are front and center.

Yes, it’s true that the Middle East has its fair share of challenges: According to the World Bank, 13 of the 15 countries with the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce are in the Arab world. However, what makes the UAE so unique to both the region and the world is women’s participation in tech leadership.

In 10 Arab countries surveyed by UNESCO, women graduating in STEM subjects represented 34% to 57% of graduates—much higher than the Western world. On top of that, 35% of internet entrepreneurs in the Arab world are women, compared to 10% worldwide. This talent is being cultivated, and the UAE has therefore become a regional hub ripe with opportunity where many of these women come to start and advance their careers.

Diverse perspectives are vital to developing and scaling 21st-century technologies. Women in the UAE make up 66% of the public sector workforce, of which 30% are in leadership roles. The 27.5% of women who make up the UAE cabinet all play key roles in supporting technology and innovation in the country. Here, women are not a stark minority in technology sector—they’re a part of all the major tech initiatives and, in many instances, leading them.

For example, much of Dubai’s innovation is being driven by the Smart Dubai office, which is led by Dr. Aisha bin Bishr. Innovation is in her blood: Her father worked closely with the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE before it was even officially a country. She grew up being inspired to serve the public through watching her father invest in building roads, hospitals, education systems, and infrastructure as a new nation was developed. Bin Bishr believes the strong representation of female leadership in her country is setting an example to the region of how to open new dialogues and rethink the positioning of women.

Working closely with Bin Bishr is Zeina El Kaissi, head of emerging technology and global partnerships for the Smart Dubai office. Dubai is implementing smart technologies into its city with the goal to become the world’s first paperless and blockchain-powered city. In speaking about such new innovations, El Kaissi mentions that women in the UAE are playing a leading role in developing emerging-technology sectors. “Women here are key drivers of the technology agenda in academia, research, government, and the private digital sector. They are directing the use of technology to create [an] impact for city constituents in all sectors,” she told Quartz. “This is a time of unprecedented opportunity in technology advancement, and women leaders such as Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr are pushing the boundaries of what is possible and positioning Dubai as an inclusive and thriving technology hub for the world.”

Then there’s Amal AlMutawa, who serves as the UAE’s chief happiness and positivity officer. She estimates that over 75% of employees in the prime minster’s office are women. “It’s awesome,” she said in Internet of Women. “You can see a female presence in everything that we do here that’s technical. It’s not a man’s world anymore.”

Dubai’s level of female leadership should serve as a positive example to the Western tech elites who frequently visit.

From advancing Hyperloop to building the world’s first flying drone taxis, Dubai has become a go-to place for tech visionaries looking to build the future with a government that’s bold enough to be a first mover. With only 2% of its revenue coming from oil compared to elsewhere in the Gulf—such as Saudi Arabia, where 45% of the GDP and 90% of export earnings are from the petroleum sector—Dubai aims to be hub creating new business models for technologies extending into South Asia, Africa, and the Far East.

Dubai’s level of female leadership should serve as a positive example to the Western tech elites who frequently visit. Take Elon Musk for example. In February 2017 he launched Tesla in Dubai and announced his plans to make millions of dollars in investments in charging services and support infrastructure in the UAE. Around the same time, Jeff Bezos visited Dubai, and shortly after Amazon announced the acquisition of the Middle East based e-commerce company

A key part to developing a thriving technology sector is supporting local innovation. Noor Sweid, a leading angel investor and venture capitalist based in Dubai, told Quartz that “the small but growing VC community in the region averages about 10% women, which is similar to Silicon Valley but far ahead other emerging economies.” She’s optimistic overall, saying that as tech moves from enterprise and analytics, which are traditionally male-dominated industries, into areas such as education and healthcare, which have more women in senior positions, there will naturally be more tech-inclined women decision makers. In the case of Dubai, Sweid believes that the significant number of women in tech-leadership roles will support and inspire the next generation of female leaders.

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