The courage of her convictions

Dr Nahed Taher, chief executive of Gulf One Investment Bank, says women will empower themselves in the changing Middle East by having the guts to start businesses.

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In the testosterone-fuelled world of investment banking, few would expect to encounter a woman calling the shots. Fewer still would expect to find her in Saudi Arabia.
As the chief executive of Gulf One Investment Bank, Dr Nahed Taher, 46, is among a handful of women who have reached the highest echelons of the sector.
But she says her rise to the top of the corporate ladder is a tale that many Saudi women can replicate nowadays.
"You don't need to be in a political position to make things happen," she says. "That's a paradigm shift that's happening in our economy."
Having the courage to start a business in the kingdom brought with it a surprising level of support from the government, and other women in the kingdom should seek to do the same, she says.
"I didn't face big challenges because I'm a female looking to do business," she says, rather incredibly.
Gulf One has grown since 2005 to a staff of 65, with its headquarters in Bahrain to attract international investors, but with the majority of its business in Jeddah.
Infrastructure deals are uncharted territory for investment banks in the kingdom. But it is in this area Dr Taher wishes to carve a niche - and set an example for women across the Arab world.
Such ambition is characteristic of Dr Taher, the first woman to be hired in the history of Saudi National Commercial Bank (NCB), the biggest bank in the kingdom by assets. "Among 4,000 men," she says without missing a beat.
After graduating with a BSc in economics in 1987, Dr Taher spent time as a financial adviser to a number of Saudi companies, including a chemical lining company and a support services company.
She then completed a MSc in financial economics and a PhD in monetary economics at Lancaster University in the UK, with a focus on the Saudi market, and returned to her home country in 2001, offering consultancy services to the kingdom's biggest banks.
She went directly to the biggest bank in the country and was given an appointment with Abdulhadi Shayif, the chief executive of NCB at the time, who hired her on the spot.
"OK, but I'm not going to be in one of the ladies' branches," she replied. Mr Shayif surprised her by appointing her to senior management, and she became the chief economist and chairwoman of the risk and portfolio management committee.
The move to an executive position meant a rethinking of priorities, as Dr Taher juggled work life and her three children. But her decision to start a family proved no impediment to the acceleration of her career, she says.
"I gave up a lot of social life, in terms of going out and partying or having fun, because I found my fun was with my kids.
"If you have good quality time with your kids, where you teach them how to be by themselves, how to be part of the society and convince them that you're working for them and for others, they'll support you more than they will miss you because you're absent from the home."
Dr Taher's own family background, where she was treated as an equal by her father and brothers and encouraged to travel overseas for her education, served as preparation for life at NCB. She won equal treatment from her colleagues at the bank by treating them with respect, not deference, she says.
"Everybody doubted the success of such a thing," she says. "The senior management were all educated abroad, so I had all the support of them, and they were very welcoming of the idea. They saw all the hope in me."
But in the patriarchal Saudi society, not everyone shared that hope.
"The other more junior people, especially religious people, were not so happy at the beginning seeing women mixing with men."
However, rather than allowing this state of affairs to persist, she took matters into her own hands, approaching unwelcoming members of staff directly and impressing them with her professionalism.
"I didn't wait for people to come to me," she says. "I went to them and talked about business and how we can improve things."
Former colleagues say Dr Taher rejuvenated the moribund NCB. "She was a breath of fresh air when she joined," says one.
However, by the time she left, Dr Taher felt the organisation was a poor fit for her ambitions in investment banking.
She left to found Gulf One in 2005, instantly becoming the first female banking chief in the Middle East.
"I left the bank because the bank is a retail bank," she says. "And what I saw is the need for an investment bank."
Could she have reached the top of the corporate ladder without starting her own company? Dr Taher dodges the question.
"It wouldn't have made me happy to be the CEO of an existing Arab bank," she says. "I am not that person that heads a retail bank. I believe more in investment, that's my nature as an economist."
But before leaving, she made sure to hire 50 women to leave a positive legacy at NCB for like-minded female bankers.
Gulf One is an entirely different animal from NCB. An investment bank focused on infrastructure projects, it is the only such bank in the Middle East.
With the kingdom's infrastructure in desperate need of an overhaul, Dr Taher is in the right place at the right time.
Approaching the peaceful villa where the company's Jeddah operation is based is difficult, because none of the pedestrian crossings nearby is functioning. A few blocks away, drivers career along the road to avoid a pothole big enough to swallow a Harley-Davidson. Someone has put an oil drum inside the hole as a warning to motorists.
But the dilapidated infrastructure has been costly for Jeddah's residents, who recently suffered two deadly floods in as many years.
The lack of a working public infrastructure is a national embarrassment for the world's largest oil producer. But it is this need that Gulf One seeks to address, and this is how the bank is making its mark.
Gulf One's biggest contract so far has been the US$2.3 billion (Dh8.44bn) Haj terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, but Dr Taher is eyeing even bigger projects in the coming years.
"It's a lot of work to make this happen, but that's where we see our success happening," she says. Saudi Arabia simply lacks the expertise. "The lack of investment banks that are specialised in this area makes it more expensive and higher risk."
Not only that, the kingdom has no established processes for public-private partnerships between government and international companies, meaning deals have to be approached from scratch and can quickly become bogged down in political manoeuvring.
Gulf One faces a significant challenge in attracting companies from overseas to build roads and power plants and run telephone lines, especially as some international companies withdraw from projects in the kingdom amid fears of a return of unrest.
On the day that Dr Taher received rapturous applause at the Jeddah Economic Forum for a speech on the investment potential of infrastructure projects, AES, a US power company, pulled out of the running for a contract to build and operate the 1,500-megawatt gas-fired Qurayyah power plant, which it was seeking to build and operate with Qatar Electricity & Water.
A growing awareness of political risk means that it may be harder than ever to find the international expertise to serve the vast infrastructure needs created by Saudi Arabia's plan to build 500,000 homes.
The 250bn riyal (Dh244.86bn) plan, announced by King Abdullah last month, is intended to be part of a wide-ranging spending plan designed to stave off unrest in the kingdom.
Dr Taher is effusive in her optimism in the economic environment after the regional turbulence, and the opportunities now available to women. "It's massive! Women are now educated and are fighting to have a role in the economy."
Although women in the kingdom once depended on their husbands for support, highly educated women are fast becoming a major driver of the Saudi economy, she says.
"Now they're educated in different ways, they're engineers, they're technicians, they're IT people. The new generation is penetrating the job market. So these people will be the major part of creating small and medium enterprises."
But Dr Taher's optimism about women's future seems somewhat out of place in a country where women are still barred from driving. It is normal for a chief executive to be chauffeured, she says, but for most women, driving is becoming a necessity.
"In the past, they didn't care about it because they had a lot of money, but now not everybody can afford a driver.
"What's really needed more than driving is public transportation. It's either a car, or you have no way to go."
But economic necessity is forcing Saudis to modernise and adapt, and that shift will bring big changes for the country's women, she says.
"Women used to rely totally on their men. They were queens of their home. But with the unemployment, the lower income per capita, a lot of the needs now make working a necessity.
"And they're much more educated, so they can deliver."
ghunter@thenational.ae