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Saudi Arabian businesswomen woo the West: a 21-strong delegation of Saudi Arabian businesswomen stole the show at the Women in Business International conference, held in London in December. The head of the delegation, Princess Loulwa Al Faisal, daughter of the late, much revered King Faisal, talked to Pat Lancaster.

THEY WERE AN IMPRESSIVE BUNCH by any standard, elegantly attired in designer named business suits with matching accessories. They mixed freely with the other speakers and delegates as if to the manner born, but then many of them were.

"Where did she say she was from?" I heard one European delegate enquire of another as one of the kingdom's most impressive young oil experts returned to the conference hall after a chance three-way conversation on management training schemes during the coffee break.

"Saudi Arabia," replied her European colleague.

"That's what I thought she said," responded the first speaker with a perplexed look.

"I didn't think they had women like that in Saudi Arabia. I didn't think Saudi Arabian women were allowed out of the house!" Such is the level of ignorance that prevails about the kingdom's women in the West.

To be fair to the European women, their conversation took place during the early stages of the two-day conference. By the closing session there was no one who remained in ignorance of the drive, determination and sheer dynamism of the Saudi delegates. Their presence, obvious skills, confidence and self-belief endeared them to every audience before which they appeared.

At breaks and meal times they mixed freely and enthusiastically with all comers, striking a positive hit for Saudi Arabian public relations.

Some of the kingdom's most prominent women, who are actively prompting change and development within Saudi Arabia took part in the conference, including economists, oil experts, educationalists and successful entrepreneurs.

Princess Loulwa bin Faisal, head of the delegation and a keynote speaker at the event, is keen that the ignorance about her country is redressed. "People in the West were interested to know about Saudi Arabia up until the events of 9/11. There were programmes on the television and radio about Saudi Arabia, about women in Saudi Arabia, all kinds of things, then suddenly after 9/11 it all stopped. It was as if there had been an erasure of Saudi Arabia from the collective consciousness. I was even asked on a recent trip if we had schools for girls! It is quite extraordinary when the education system in Saudi Arabia has been working for half a century for boys and girls!"

Princess Loulwa agrees that this seachange from fascination to apathy could have something to do with the fact that the architect of the attacks of 9/11 was a Saudi national, Osama bin Laden. But she feels this is unjust, insisting that Bin Laden is no hero to the vast majority of Saudi Arabian people. "What he did was the worst thing anybody could do. His actions have affected all Muslims and all the Muslim countries. By using our religion, Islam, for political reasons, or personal revenge reasons, or whatever reasons he had, is completely against all we believe--the worst offence he could have committed against us. He wanted to ruin Islam and Moslems."

Princess Loulwa has done much to promote the image of Saudi Arabia abroad and works tirelessly to attract investment to the kingdom, mostly under the auspices of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce. A tour of the United States was held last year and later in 2006 Princess Loulwa will be back in the UK with a team of experts hoping to stimulate interest in the many business opportunities the kingdom's new diversification programmes will offer in the market place. "We are diversifying into all areas of business in Saudi Arabia and I think there are great opportunities for investment at the moment."

The kingdom's drive towards diversification and its planned privatisation programme will also open up increased investment opportunities to Saudi nationals and once again, women are expected to play an important part.

As Princess Loulwa explains: "Historically, men and women have always played an equal part in business in Saudi Arabia. In Islam the wealth of a woman is acknowledged to be hers to do with as she wishes, so in business and trading, whether large or small operations, women have always had a presence."

According to financial analysts, the use of Internet dealing has encouraged many Saudi women to invest in the local stock market. Newly enabled to control the buying and selling of shares from the comfort of their own homes, women's presence in the market has had a big impact.

"Don't forget," Princess Loulwa notes, "a lot of liquid money is in the hands of women and, where it may once have been left in the bank, now they are using it. They have placed a lot of money in the markets."

The princess agrees that since 9/11, a great deal of money once invested on western markets has been repatriated to the kingdom. "Most Saudis have come back, they have pulled their money out of other countries and re-invested it in Saudi Arabia. And this is the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia that we have seen this happening. Usually, when there was a boom of any kind, Saudi Arabians went overseas for investment, but not any more.

"Doing business in Saudi Arabia is changing, especially for women. As I said, women are free to do what they wish with their wealth, form a company or whatever and there are no limitations on the amount they can invest. There is a certain amount of red tape involved in getting any business off the ground but now the laws are changing, the government is working to make the process easier, less bureaucratic. There is still red tape to be dealt with but less of it and the same rules apply to men as to women.

But once a woman has established her business, that's it, she is free to get on with it.

"Don't forget that in the past most of our business was family business and within those families there were some great businesswomen working hard for the good of the family firm. Now, many of them are more independent, perhaps heading their own enterprises and they are able to do that freely and without restraint. Business is business in Saudi Arabia, there is no difference between men and women in that respect and never has been except perhaps that women--as they do everywhere--put much more effort than men into what they are doing. They have many more responsibilities so they do a better job, they are more focussed, they know what they want and they get it."
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS & FINANCE
Author:Lancaster, Pat
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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