Dubai: The wealth of women in the Gulf region is often compared with “Swiss bank accounts”.
Their fortunes are shrouded in secrecy. The actual size of their fortunes is not known. Yet, their wealth is big enough to draw the attention of investors and influential enough to be included in the forecasts of economic analysts.
In the absence of specific figures of the size of wealth owned by women in the Gulf, estimates put their capital at nearly $400 billion (Dh1.47 trillion).
“Approximately, 50 per cent or 60 per cent of it is in Saudi Arabia,” said Ammar Shata, chief executive of Alkhabeer Capital, a Saudi investment and asset management firm. He equated the wealth of Gulf women to Swiss bank accounts, meaning they prefer to keep it confidential.
“I expect women’s fortune in Saudi Arabia to be in the range of US$200 billion to US$225 billion. I believe this is a reasonable figure if we calculate the number of properties, companies and stocks owned by women,” he told Gulf News in an interview during his recent visit to Dubai.
A considerable number of rich women in the Gulf, which is rich in oil and gas, have inherited all or part of their wealth from their fathers and immediate male family members, and the value of the fortune continues to grow from one generation to the next, investors said.
The fortune of Gulf women constitutes the majority of women’s assets in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, researchers said.
Quoting Meed, Shata said the size of assets controlled by women in the Middle East stood at about $385 billion in 2011 — about 25 per cent of the region’s total assets under management (AUMs).
Labour force participation
Okaz, an Arabic daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, estimates that women represent 33 per cent ownership of brokerage houses and 40 per cent of equity invested in family businesses. Yet, female participation in the labour force remains low, at around 16 per cent, while the global equivalent stands at about 25 per cent, Shata noted.
Around 75 per cent of the wealth of Middle East residents — both men and women — is concentrated in safe assets, where women’s share of safe assets in their portfolio is likely to be much higher than men, mainly in cash, fixed deposits and bonds, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
As an example of the evolving presence of Gulf businesswomen on the investment map, nearly 32 per cent of those who seek the expertise of Alkhabeer Capital are Gulf businesswomen, Shata said. The normal percentage, he told Gulf News, should be around 50 per cent.
However, Gulf businessmen are more visible, especially in the media, than their female counterparts while foreign businesswomen are more seen in public than their Gulf peers.
“This visibility is very important,” said Mounira Jamjoom, a senior research specialist at Ideation Center, Booz & Company’s thinktank in the Middle East. “Why? Because this [visibility] motivates businesswomen in the small and medium enterprises to come forward and develop their businesses,” Jamjoom said in an interview with Gulf News.
Most women look for “boutique investments” where opportunities are niche and especially tailored for them, Shata said. “If you ask this question to somebody in a western country, you could raise eyebrows,” said Shata when asked about fields that women prefer to invest in. “The reason is simple — they have reached a certain level of social equality between men and women.”
However, in the Gulf region, such equality has not materialised yet. Men seem more experienced in investing their money than women. Many male investors do not mind taking risks when it comes to their investments. On the contrary, many businesswomen prefer to invest in properties because it is perceived as risk-free.
The desire to seek safe investments arises from a lack of adequate experience and knowledge. “But this situation [has] started to change very rapidly recently,” Shata said.
Today, the number of educated women are increasing as well as those who travel abroad to pursue higher education. Social development has helped shed light on women’s participation in economic development.
There are successful and well-known Gulf businesswomen in the public eye “but in small numbers and from a certain [social] class. So, it is important for their numbers to increase and to hear successful stories,” Jamjoom said. “It is important to focus on stories of success.”
Meanwhile, boosting women’s participation in economic development at different levels requires education, supporting them to reach leadership positions and enhancing their presence in the private sector, analysts said. More efforts are also needed to boost women’s participation in the business sector, including supply of credit and diversifying businesses from the current focus on micro finance and services sectors. More projects to train women in soft skills and business skills will lead to greater participation, Jamjoom said.
Building confidence “in communicating with others and … [presenting] her ideas with confidence coupled with critical thinking” will advance women in their careers, Jamjoom said.
“Allocating capital for investment in women’s businesses is fruitless if women do not have the education and training to run a business successfully, or the cultural perception that they can compete economically with men,” said Laila Hoteit, a principal with Booz and Company in a report published in October 2012.
Discrepancies in educational programmes for women and men in terms of content hinder the entry of women in the labour market, Jamjoom said.
“Women’s regional labour force participation is at just 26 per cent, and they hold ownership positions in only 20 per cent of businesses in the Mena region,” according to Booz and Company’s October study. “Only about 9 per cent of women in this part of the world actually start businesses.”
If the extent of women’s participation in the economic sector matches that of men, the gross domestic product (GDP) of most countries is expected to receive a boost, the Booz and Company report said. For instance, in the UAE and Egypt, the GDP could see a 12 per cent and 34 per cent fillip respectively.
“Despite amounting to almost 1 billion worldwide and rivalling the populations of India and China — this fast-growing group of people has not received sufficient attention from key decision makers in many countries,” the global management consulting firm said.