I've been hugely fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit a number of Arabic countries over the last two years as part of my business adventures as a Shoe.E.O. of Shoes by Shaherazad. The run up to my first two Arabic visits were fraught with unnecessary worry about local etiquette and the safety of women travelling alone in places which are, often in the UK, seen as hugely patriarchal. So, this post will bust those myths based on my personal experiences, so that you can travel safely and with confidence.
My recent business travels have taken me to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Oman thanks to the support and guidance of the Department for International Trade. All were very different countries from a business perspective, but all were similar in how I felt as a woman negotiating business in these countries. That is ...
I felt empowered; I felt in control; and I felt happy.
The myths I had worried about were hours unnecessarily wasted. So, here's my top tips.
5 Myths Busted and My Top Tips
Myth 1: "Women are ignored in meetings so take a man along to support the conversation"
This myth needs to be totally busted. Arabia is a huge hub for modern business and cultural norms mean that time is taken in all meetings for each party to get to know each other better. In the UK, we exchange pleasantries at the start of a meeting and then launch in to discussions. This is not so in most Arabic countries, where the process of "getting to know each other" takes longer.
As a woman, your business voice is not being ignored when the first half an hour of a meeting is taken with sipping Khawa (Arabic Coffee) and eating dates. You will find that your business partners will leave the room mid conversation (usually in response to the call to prayer); answer the phone when it rings (even if they are mid-sentence) and generally not be mindful of agenda'd finish times; the meeting will take as long as it takes! This is a cultural norm demonstrated by locals to both men and women - so don't take it personally. Enjoy the coffee, enjoy the conversation and accept that it will take time to arrive at the meeting objectives. My top tip here is not to schedule back to back meetings as every business discussion will take longer than you anticipated.
Myth 2: "Women taking taxis alone in Saudi Arabia will be arrested"
This myth caused me a lot of anguish. It is true that Saudi Arabia is a hugely patriarchal country; to the point where local women are not allowed to drive and not allowed to leave the home without a chaperone. I had read on various news websites beforehand that even getting a taxi alone as a woman would result in imprisonment and had worried about how I would carry out trips I wanted to complete alone. In light of this I am hugely pleased to report, that having been to Saudi, this is a huge myth.
I tentatively told the concierge at the hotel in Saudi Arabia about my worries and asked how I could get around. My fears were met with a uproarious laughter as a taxi was beckoned for me. My top tip here is not to believe everything you read. Taxis are safe for non local women travelling alone in Saudi. Unfortunately I am unable to clarify the situation for locals.
Myth 3: "Keep your head covered at all times"
In Saudi Arabia, this is true. In Oman, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait it is only true if you visit a Mosque or are joining communal prayers. The clothes I wore to my meetings were exactly the same as I wear in the UK - dresses, trouser suits and maxi dresses. As long as your skirt is to your knees and your tops aren't sleeveless (short sleeves are fine) you will fit right in. It also has to be said that I saw many women in eye poppingly short dresses and backless tops and, although not a cultural norm, was not frowned upon. My top tip here is to dress in a way that makes you most comfortable.
I'm pictured here in a Boardroom in the UAE, wearing my own block heels and a Michael Kors maxi dress with short sleeves. I must stress that women in Arabia love their heels. It's very rare to see any one going out in flats unless it's to exercise so my 18 Hour Heels are perfect here too!
Myth 4: "Arab women spend most of the day shopping"
From what I have seen, lots of Arab women do love to shop. Whilst I was exploring the Chanel store in Kuwait I was taken aback by the number of teenagers who were buying Chanel handbags for school as easily as teenagers in the UK would shop at New Look. However, there is another reason why the malls are always packed. When exploring the malls you will see some women in high heels and others in training shoes which peek out from under their abayas as they walk.
In Kuwait in particular it is too hot to exercise outside and gym memberships are not as prolific as here in the UK. Many women (and men!) don their training shoes and take a walk around the shopping malls; they are huge buildings and it has become a way of getting in 10,000 steps a day without melting in the 50 degree heat outside. My top tip here is to spend time in the cities you visit properly understanding the opportunity for trade. Had I not figured out the exercise norm in the malls I might have selected the wrong places to do business based on footfall numbers alone.
Myth 5: "In Arabia, women are never in charge"
It is true that in Arab countries there are very few women in senior leadership roles compared to men. But that is also true of the UK. Whilst on my trips I have met many inspirational women in pioneering leadership positions, paving the way for future generations of women to make their mark in business. One such woman is Noor Al Qatami, the CEO of SaveCo in Kuwait who kindly invited me to her office to chat all things business and women's empowerment. My top tip here is to get out there and actively meet as many women as possible.
We do not need miracles to change the world, we only need each other.
Enjoy your travels to Arabia.
Shoe Empowerment Officer