Dubai: When Suad Al Halwachi was fed up with being an employee all her life, she decided to start her own business.

"I wanted my own time," she said. "I wanted to do what I like and travel when I want to."

But the Bahraini woman, who's been living in the UAE for 30 years, didn't know that starting her own business was not going to be easy, especially not for a woman in a world where businesses are predominantly run by men.

A woman with no credit history, Al Halwachi couldn't convince any bank to give her the capital to start her new business.

"Banks would not give me a loan because I'm a woman," she said. "So I basically had to start my business on a shoestring."

Al Halwachi reached out to friends and family for financial support and later started her own education consultancy firm which trains schools and provides career counselling to students who wish to pursue their higher education abroad.

Contacts lacking

Another challenge for Al Halwachi was not having the right contacts for her business. But eight years later, Al Halwachi says her firm, Education Zone, is doing well serving students in the Middle East and Africa.

She spends most of her time travelling to the US and Europe to learn more about the best universities first hand.

When asked whether she would apply for the Emirates Women's Award that is open to nationals and expatriates, Al Halwachi said that hearing from her students after graduation as they call her "Auntie Suad" is the best reward in the world.

Al Halwachi is one of thousands of Arab women contributing to the region's economies whose efforts go almost unnoticed. The Emirates Women's Award is aimed at recognising their talent.

"Today there are over 11,000 Emirati businesswomen in the UAE," said Raja Easa Saleh Al Gurg, President of the Dubai Business Women's Council.

"Almost 3,200 are in Abu Dhabi and 3,000 are in Dubai."

Al Gurg, a well-known Emirati who has been in the business field for 20 years, also manages her father's company Easa Saleh al Gurg Group.

"Personally speaking, I never thought I would go into business," she said.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2009 from the World Economic Forum, on a scale of zero to one, where zero represents inequality and one represents equality, the UAE is rated at 0.62, an increase from 2006's rating of 0.592.

Al Gurg said that today Emirati women are proving that they can be successful regardless of their gender.

"The traditional business territory, which was an all-male affair, is now seeing a shift," she said.

When asked how businesswomen have been weathering the storm of the global financial crisis, Al Gurg said men and women are in the same boat.

"It's crucial that all women push their own boundaries and have the will to succeed," she added.

Help at hand

In Ajman, Emirati women are getting tremendous support to start small businesses within their emirate. A woman with a business idea can get a licence with a fee exemption valid for up to three years. The fee exemption includes fees that are regularly paid to the Municipality and the Chamber of Commerce in Ajman.

"The biggest challenge facing businesswomen today is the lack of capital," said Aisha Khalfan Bin Badr, President of the Ajman Businesswomen's Council. "At the Businesswomen Council we're trying to lessen the financial burden on businesswomen starters."

Since its establishment in 2005, the Ajman Businesswomen's Council has been able to help almost 150 women start their businesses, said Bin Badr. The council also holds workshops on small business management to help women become better managers. With women holding the positions of ministers and ambassadors today, it's fair to say that women in the Emirates can successfully do what has long been considered a man's job.

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