The Force Behind Women Empowerment in the UAE

Rosa M Panadero

Vania Henry says because the Benelux countries are ‘smallish countries,’ there is an understanding for the kind of challenges the UAE is facing. Delores Johnson / The National

Vania Henry is the outgoing chairwoman of the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) Business Council in Abu Dhabi, the first female to hold the post.

Ms Henry, who gained experience in France, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Belgium, is passionate about empowering women in the UAE. At least 20 per cent of the Benelux Business Council Abu Dhabi is comprised of females. Most work in oil and gas, health care, construction, services and hospitality.

Oil prices started to fall almost two years ago. How do you view the response? What are the positives on the horizon for the UAE economy?

Even before the drop in the oil prices, the country had been anticipating the fact that it shouldn’t be relying solely on oil and gas. Dubai did a lot to diversify its economy, and Abu Dhabi is on the same track, it is more affected but if you look at all the culture that Abu Dhabi has put in place, that was definitely a vision about “we need to take the country into a different direction. And, of course, you have the [planned] introduction the VAT [value added tax] and [other] taxes to compensate the loss of income.

Because all the Benelux countries are “smallish countries,” there is an understanding for the kind of challenges the UAE is going through and probably closeness in the way we respond to business. I found that this time people are more cautious in their approach [of] coming to the UAE but I don’t see that in a negative way. I think it is very positive that people prepare in a better way, measure the risks as well, and in doing that, very often they come to us, to the trade offices, to the embassies, and we can help with introductions, with people from the same industry and have an experience already in the market to tell them how it is really. [The UAE)]remains very attractive, there are still a lot of opportunities here but people are just more cautious, and it is good to build the business in the long term.

What is the biggest hurdle to setting up business in the UAE?

I think it is finding the right vehicle to do it: do they do it with an investment partner or with a local partner, with a trade zone, what kind of investment they need to do? They need to find what works best for the company. There is a lot of information available, but it is not always in the same location. About two thirds of our members are having a fully fledged national local partner in Abu Dhabi, between big corporations and small businesses.

What do you tell your members about Emiratisation? What do they tell you about it?

Everyone understands that Emiratis need to take a leading role in their economy. There are lot of very capable Emiratis, both men and women. I have met a lot of them, and I think our members understand also the strength of having Emiratis on board, because they understand the country, they have the connections. It is a win-win situation because there is a complementarity between each other. When Emiratisation is seen as an obligation it is sometimes difficult for smaller businesses. On the whole, there is a real thirst for more connections with the Emirati community.

What would you recommend a young Emirati to do to succeed in the job market?

I would really advise to build their personal brand through networking, social media and presentation skills, and to understand how to market themselves to a foreign company, and it comes in both directions. Foreign companies also have to understand how to appeal Emiratis and how to make it work for the Emirati culture. I see a lot of talented people who don’t know how to market themselves with the CV, their LinkedIn profile … there are a lot of personal elements that go into their personal brand and they do not necessarily have a career in vision, and that plays against them.

What would you suggest to a company to help them succeed in Emiratisation?

To show what value you are bringing to them [Emiratis], because we talk a lot about competition between the public sector and the private sector that offer different advantages, but as a private sector company, I will definitely focus on the advantages and what they will learn from you. Also, show them that you respect the culture, what is important for them, so simple things like there is a prayer room in the facilities, talking openly about Ramadan timings, that makes people feel comfortable, to feel valued and respected.

Is the number of women increasing in the Benelux Business Council?

There is a slight increase and I brought also another lady on board, so every increase counts. This year the Benelux BC participated for the first time in the International Business Women Lunch that is led by the International Business Women Group [IBWG] with other business councils, and that was something really close to my heart. We also have been present at the Dubai International Global Women Forum last February and in May there is the Women in Industry Conference. We show women that being part of the business council is not a male thing, women also need to grow their network, they need to be visible and can benefit from a wider network. I think that having a woman on board means having more attention to actively seeking engagement with women. I don’t think men are against [this] because any proposition I make in that sense is very welcomed by my male board members. I think when you get men and women together you get something stronger than if you get only men or only women.

Do we need to create any sisterhood to empower women in business?

There are already different business groups, and some of the largest business groups have a section for women. I am also a passionate advocate about men and women working together. I don’t want a room full of women talking about women’s issues, because if the men are not present in the room, there is no conversation, no sharing, no discussion. There is no point.

How do you see the role of women in this post-oil dependency era?

I think women see an opportunity in a way, they are lucky to be a little more resilient in certain circumstances. They will also show creativity and different ways of addressing issues. That’s a real opening for women. Last year there was a conference during [oil & gas exhibition] Adipec about women in oil and was highly successful, plenty of talented ladies, Emiratis, expats, from the region and the world. It was very energetic and creative about how to do things and face new challenges.

Do you promote engagement between Benelux businesswomen and Emirati businesswomen?

I would say the curiosity is on both sides, also Emirati ladies are keen to talk to expat ladies working here. The challenges are very similar, what we face as women is not “Emirati specific”. Very often, I find Emirati ladies are at the forefront. When you hear Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid [Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai] saying, “I want a woman in every board,” there are not many nations where your leadership takes such a strong position on women’s empowerment. When you see what Sheikha Fatima [Chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation and President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood] has done to empower women, I really think Emirati women are at the forefront.



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