Women looking to advance their career and have an adventure should look to Saudi Arabia, says Michelle Smith Motiwalla. No, seriously. Saudi Arabia.
"This is really about reality versus perception," Ms Motiwalla said. "I'm not an HR person but there is a quiet revolution going on there. You will be surprised." The marketing executive has been working in the Middle East and the Gulf for 30 years and first travelled to Saudi Arabia in 1992. She said there was opportunity, even for women, to excel professionally. The days of needing travel letters or notes from husbands or fathers to go to different parts of the country are gone, Ms Motiwalla said.
She cited statistics from the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce that show there are 25,000 businesses owned and run by women in the country. Ms Motiwalla's remarks were part of a series of seminars sponsored by the legal firm Fulbright and Jaworski on issues affecting women in business. Carl Denny, the executive director of the recruiting company Management Solutions International, said placing candidates in Saudi jobs accounts for about 30 per cent of his firm's business, double the rate in previous years.
Mr Denny said most of the requests he received were for men, but he was seeing more women take an interest in working there. Amal al Olayan, a Saudi woman who works as a human relations manager there, said it was not always easy. "Men here don't admit the ability of a woman working as well as" they do, Ms al Olayan said. There is a belief that the "perfect place for a woman is her house to raise her kids".
Ms Motiwalla also warned that working in Saudi Arabia "is not a game for the timid". While Saudi society has evolved in the 17 years since her first trip to the country, cultural norms are still different from what most westerners are used to. "Just let it go," she advised. "If you say, 'This is wrong', you'll never get past immigration." On the subject of women having to cover themselves, Ms Motiwalla said it was not a big deal. During her talk, she put on the abaya and shaila she wears in Saudi Arabia, covering herself except for her face. Then she asked the audience: "Am I the same person now?"
Ms Motiwalla said her experience working in Saudi Arabia had been enriching but not always easy. "I was arrested when I first went there," she said. She had business in Jeddah and took a flight directly there, even though she did not have a letter of travel. At that time, women needed letters for each place they were to visit and she had one only for Riyadh, where her visa was issued. An immigration officer pulled her out of line and told her to wait in a room. She refused to go in, concerned that the authorities would lock her in.
Ms Motiwalla told the officer she would sit in a chair outside the room and wait for whomever she needed to in order to take care of the issue. Be polite and firm, she said. It also helped that she could speak Arabic. In Saudi Arabia, age does matter. "Basically they see you as a man" after age 40, she said. And she admitted that being a westerner also meant that she is given some leeway that she would not get if she were from the region.
Ms Motiwalla advised women with assignments in the kingdom to keep their focus on the work. She said she had found that strategy ensured she was taken seriously. "You're not there to change anyone's life but your own." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org