Lubna Qassim is a standard-bearer for the new generation of Gulf Arab women who feel empowered and enabled to pursue a top-level career in business and government. But you approach the detail of female advancement with her at your peril.
When we were making arrangements for our meeting in Dubai, setting the terms of the agenda, she told me: “I’d rather be seen as an articulate woman on these subjects, rather than discuss ‘being a woman.’ I hope that makes sense!”
It did, and for most of our very pleasant interview — over lunch in the splendid Peruvian restaurant Coya in the Four Seasons Hotel in glitzy Jumeirah — I think I managed to observe the rules. We discussed a host of crucial subjects on which she, as chief legal counsel for one of the biggest banks in the region, Emirates NBD, is an expert.
Then I made a near-fatal error. “So, with your very busy career and professional responsibilities, how do you manage to look after your home and children?” I asked. She thought for a couple of seconds, then shot back with her own question: “Would you ask a man that question?” I felt immediately chastised and changed the subject.
She was right. I would never ask a male executive, in the middle of a business interview, about his childcare arrangements. As a self-motivated, highly professional executive with a track record at senior levels of UAE government and business, Qassim has perceptive insights on subjects far more important than nanny talk.
She comes from a traditional Emirati family, but her upbringing was far from traditional. She credits her father for the fact that she saw a good deal of the world at an early age, from boarding school and university in the UK, and an early career stint with the international legal firm Clifford Chance in London and Dubai.
All this rounded off an upbringing that included time in Singapore and Switzerland. “I learned at an early age about different cultures and how they work,” she said. She speaks five languages — Arabic, English, Farsi, French and Hindi — and is working on Mandarin.
She feels a respect for, and an affinity with, women in Saudi Arabia. “The Saudi women I know are very talented and sophisticated. Many have been educated in the West and sometimes don’t want to go home after that. Dubai benefits from that. Dubai is a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the West for many of them,” she said.
The transformation taking place in the Kingdom is on her mind, culturally and professionally. Emirates NBD is in the process of opening three new offices in Saudi Arabia to catch the wave of transformation there.
“We’re all very excited about the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. It shows bold and pragmatic leadership, and an openness to embrace the new wave of change in the region. I know some people have questioned whether they can actually achieve it, but I see no reason why they shouldn’t. It will need sensible collaboration with the right partners, regionally and internationally.
“The challenges will come from the old school, the clerics and so on who resist change. But do the Saudis have the talent and resources to achieve it? Of course they do,” she insists, pointing to recent appointments of women to senior levels in the Saudi banking and financial sector.
But she recognizes that the Dubai model might not be entirely appropriate for the Kingdom. “I don’t think Saudi Arabia should just try to imitate Dubai; it’s a different country with different traditions. But some of the same conditions are present for both. Dubai had the great advantage of a strong, entrepreneurial leader who was open to ideas, in the shape of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. He was inspiring and courageous in what he did for Dubai. (Saudi Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman has the same qualities, but he’ll need a strong team and the right governance,” she said.
“As a woman in the UAE, I’m extremely lucky because we have a leadership that believes in women. It’s a top-down approach that’s visionary with regard to women. But it can’t just be top-down; there’s also a bottom-up approach in which we have an infrastructure where women feel safe and secure.”
Government has the responsibility to ensure safety and security, but it must be reinforced by good governance, which she has made her speciality and her passion.
When she finished in private law practice in 2007, she joined the Dubai Economic Council, a government advisory body, as executive director for legal and regulatory affairs. “I’d always anticipated working for the government in some capacity or in the legal landscape of the UAE, but I was thrown in at the deep end really, and I had to adapt very quickly.” she said.
This was at the tail end of the boom years ahead of the global financial crisis, but already she could see that the UAE needed legislation to cope with the impending crash. “There was a call then for a distinctive bankruptcy strategy. About a third of the executive team said ‘just don’t go there, we don’t need it, we’re too good for that, it’s tainted with failure.’ Then came the crisis, and it became apparent very quickly that it was necessary. Institutional investors needed the reassurance and the confidence,” she said.
After a stint as a consultant to the World Bank and more studying at Georgetown University in Washington DC, her skills were again in demand in the UAE. “The economics minister of the UAE, Sultan Al-Mansouri, called me and said ‘come on board.’ I replied: ‘Are you sure you want me? I’m a disrupter.’ He said ‘come on board anyway,’ so I joined the ministry. By the end of 2010, the new company law had been talked about for 20 years and was already in draft. We got it approved in a year. The guiding principle was: What’s best for the UAE? The old laws had to be changed and we needed modern economic laws,” she said.
Chalking up new laws is one aspect of good governance, but Qassim believes it goes much wider than that. “What’s the right governance? It’s not just about ticking boxes. It’s not just a cosmetic thing. It’s not like a bright red lipstick you put on to make you look good. Good governance is far more essential.
“Look what happens when you don’t have it. The global crash of 2009 happened because of poor governance, and we’re still learning from that. We’re learning that short-sightedness, greed and the urge to meet financial targets aren’t good things for any of us. It’s not just a regional issue but a global one. Governance is like an eco-system; it’s about the way you conduct your basic decision-making.”
So what constitutes good governance? “The basic elements of good governance are the business culture of the organization, its policy regarding diversity, and its succession. These are key. Is the region getting it right? I think the UAE can lead the field in this. We’re one of the fastest-growing international trading hubs in the world, and we can be a leader in governance techniques too. The West brought in lots of regulations after the crash, but I think a lot of that was box-ticking. It’s very important that good governance and regulation is ingrained into business life.”
Sometimes she had to fight against ingrained orthodoxy, but the challenge did not deter her. “I’ve always had a resilient attitude and I bounce back from opposition, no matter how hard the wind blows against me. I’m proud that in three years we put through new laws on companies, small businesses, bankruptcy, arbitration and foreign investment,” she said.
In 2014, the focus changed again. Emirates NBD, the biggest bank in the UAE by assets, was under new executive direction and undergoing a change of philosophy. “I was the first woman on the executive leadership team, and saw diversity as one of my main goals. Now there’s an equal number of men and women on my team, and it’s very diverse in nationality. I’m attracted to anything that disrupts and restructures,” she said.
Restructuring the bank’s secretariat and legal department was her mission, and she went about it with determination, cutting the departmental headcount by 60 percent. “One of my mottos has been ‘adapt, adopt or sink.’ Emirates NBD had its group offices overlooking Dubai Creek, so we could see the potential for sinking very clearly,” she recalled.
Away from the world of finance, two other connected issues are on her mind. The first is an extension of her fascination with governance, but updated for the next generation. “The cyber and digital sector, with artificial intelligence and robotics, is moving so fast on a global level but it needs to be better regulated. This has to be done on an international level, and I think the UAE and the Middle East can be at the forefront of it,” she said.
The second priority is the place of youth in the region, where unemployment for young people is an issue for policymakers as the role of the public sector comes under economic pressure. “I worry about the youth. We were lucky and privileged, but now there are greater challenges. That means Emirati parents have to be active partners in their children’s upbringing. You can’t leave that to our expat friends,” she said, pointing out that the UAE has a 22-year-old female minister for youth affairs, Shamma Al-Mazrui.
We seem to have come full-circle in our conversation at Coya. Qassim does not want to discuss childcare, but she is adamant about the importance of responsible parenthood. “My father said his best investment was in the education of his four daughters. He was an individual who worked hard all his life, but he always said ‘physical wealth was never secure, it could vanish, but education would always be there’.”