Why Omar Bdour made it his business to champion Arab women's rights

The Jordanian-born chief executive of the London Arabia Organisation reveals that it all began out of love, gratitude and respect for the illiterate homemaker who was his mother

Omar Bdour, chief executive of the London Arabia Organisation, has come a long way from the hilltop village of his childhood, but his reasons for empowering women very much stem from that rustic upbringing. Photo: Omar Bdour
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Every day during the Ramadans of Omar Bdour’s childhood, he was roused with his six brothers and two sisters just before dawn by a gentle whisper from his mother, Radwa.

Suhoor is ready,” she would tell them, prompting the sibling posse to gather amid the aroma of bread baked freshly in the limestone oven outside the family home in the ancient village of Samad, north Jordan.

“She would have everything ready for us,” Mr Bdour tells The National, recalling the lavish spread lovingly set out for the family ahead of a day’s fasting. “We're talking about 3 o'clock in the morning without an alarm clock or mobile phone.

“That's something I still think about now: how did she wake up?”

They are treasured memories for Mr Bdour, now 47. Looking back, it is little wonder that he now presides over the Arab Women of the Year Awards as chief executive of the London Arabia Organisation (LAO).

While the LAO’s mission is to promote Arab culture in London, the annual awards strive to empower women from the Middle East and North Africa region and counter negative stereotypes.

The 2022 awards ceremony held at the Carlton Tower Jumeirah hotel in Knightsbridge focused on education, gender parity and ending violence against women.

A Yemeni human rights activist who escaped two child marriage pacts, an Abu Dhabi women’s sports advocate and a Kuwaiti eco campaigner were among the high achievers honoured.

“We recognise all women – from a young refugee at a refugee camp, to a disabled young artist in Iraq, to a princess,” Mr Bdour says.

The glittering event, attended by royalty, dignitaries, diplomats and celebrities, would seem a world away from where Mr Bdour grew up, in a tiny community of 500 atop a hill in the rugged Aljoun region.

But his reasons for championing women stem very much from that rustic upbringing. The raison d’etre of his mother, a housewife who never learnt to read or write, was nurturing her large family – preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week while her husband, an army veteran, ran a grocery store.

One of Mr Bdour’s biggest regrets is never telling Radwa, who died in 2011 at the age of 78, how much he loved her and that she was the inspiration for his life’s work.

“Even though she knew little about the world, she’d say: ‘You have to think outside this village because otherwise it will always limit what you have in life.'”

The words may have made little sense to the young Omar, but he says now that they reflect the wisdom inherent in millions of Arab women who strive to set an example for their children.

His education – something that is a source of pride for Jordanian parents – began at the village school a few minutes’ walk from his home and then, from 15, a bus ride away in the city of Irbid to complete secondary studies.

Afterwards, Mr Bdour went to Beirut to complete a course in political science at the Lebanese University, a move that opened his eyes to a very different way of life in which boys and girls mixed freely.

With education such a high priority for the government, though, thousands of jobseekers were pouring into the labour market as he returned to Jordan to try to find work.

The scarcity of employment options compelled Mr Bdour to take up a post as a junior reporter in Amman, writing articles on whichever topics he was assigned, from politics, to society and the arts.

“I didn't decide to go into journalism,” he says. “That was the opportunity I had, and then I came to enjoy it.”

However, when the work dried up, he was forced to take a job at a hotel, toiling for 12 hours a day on a minimal wage to make ends meet.

While the shifts were long and tedious, the foreign guests from Europe helped him learn a smattering of English – a linguistic skill that became very useful when friends offered him the chance of freelancing for their media organisation in London in 1999.

The relocation was another culture shock as he sought to adapt to what he found to be strange customs, such as people walking along the street eating food, or the complicated bus routes that took him months to learn.

“I felt like a stranger – everything was different – the buses, the roads, even the traffic lights,” he says.

He soon landed on his feet, meeting and marrying his wife in the city in 2002 and later setting up Local Arabia, a bilingual newspaper, with some media contacts.

The team thought to offer Arabs a voice in the community, hopeful that the news enterprise would attract advertising and become a successful business.

“But it wasn’t as easy as we thought,” Mr Bdour says, describing himself as “a failed journalist” after poor sales forced the publication’s closure.

“It was very sad because you have dreams and you think this is where I am going to go big.”

Instead, he turned his attention to a role as public relations and events director for the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce (ABCC), raising the organisation’s profile through delegations to the Mena region and hosting visiting parties.

The ABCC focused on Britain’s trade and investment ties with the Arab world, but didn’t promote the bilateral cultural connections nor the role of women in this exchange, Mr Bdour says.

Subsequently, Mr Bdour found a surprise ally in his mission to strengthen the cultural links between the Arab region and the UK – Boris Johnson, the British prime minister who at the time was mayor of London.

“He really wanted to work with the Arab world and to bring in investors and visitors from the region,” he says.

“That’s not the case now with the current mayor, but at the time that was the big push and Boris’s support was great.”

At the inaugural Women of the Year Awards in 2015, Mr Johnson sent the foreword for the event’s brochure, supplying another message for LAO’s first Art & Fashion Week a year later.

The fashion event, held annually in collaboration with Dubai hotel group Jumeirah, and luxury brands such as Harvey Nichols and the Bicester Collection, features up-and-coming Arab designers, artists and writers.

Meanwhile, the Arab Women of the Year awards’ focuses on the empowerment of women, with this year's event featuring the Unlock Her Future campaign, a one-year programme with Egyptian actress and influencer Yasmine Sabri as its ambassador.

Working with institutions, individuals and organisations, it aims to protect young girls from becoming victims of violence through child marriage and honour crimes, and ensure they have access to health care and education.

The latter is particularly important to Mr Bdour because it was denied his mother. “She never had that opportunity,” he says.

It’s not, though, just about teaching women but also teaching the world about Arab women – breaking the stereotypes that persist in the West that they are belly dancers or live in fear under oppressive regimes.

In his position at the LAO, Mr Bdour has lost track of the number of times he has had to respond to questions about Arab women’s rights and female empowerment.

Yet he puts his hand up to confess that his own thinking as a man is far from the opinions he held as a young boy on that hilltop in Jordan. It has, he says, been a long and, at times, painful journey.

He always felt more loved as a boy than his sisters were, and recognised that women simply did not have the same opportunities in the job market as those that he enjoyed.

More shockingly, he isn’t proud to recall that he once admired men responsible for honour crimes.

“It was within the community,” he says. “If someone committed an honour killing, that guy is a hero, he's respected and people thought, ‘Wow, what a man’.

“You can imagine how I see myself now and how disgusted I am that I thought it was OK to do that.”

With education came an altered mindset. No one can change simply by moving to Europe or deciding to adopt a new perspective, he says. “You have to change from within.”

A defining moment occurred when Mr Bdour was invited to Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border to meet The TIGER Girls, which stands for These Inspiring Girls Enjoy Reading.

The programme, created by the UNHCR, the refugee agency, uses technology to educate adolescent girls in the camp who, in turn, go on to teach others.

Mr Bdour was so impressed by the young girls’ eagerness to learn when they had no access to the outside world that he created a special LAO award for them that year.

“Their story reminded me of my childhood,” he says.

“The camp was like a small village, a closed community and, for these young girls, their community, their parents, education is important.

“That was very important for me because I always feel a guilt towards my mum, because there's a lot of things I wish I’d told her and helped her with when she was alive,” he says.

The principle of education gave rise to his 2021 book, Trust Me, I'm an Arab: Unwritten Rules for Doing Business in the Arab World. It was, Mr Bdour says, a “big, messy project”, harder than he originally thought but more rewarding than he could have imagined.

The aim of the book was, again, to address negative stereotypes but also to explain to westerners the customs associated with conducting business transactions in the region.

“If you go to Jordan, for example, my book explains how to act in a meeting, and when to expect people to be late – something very common before, but now it's changing,” he says.

Creating change is at the heart of everything Mr Bdour does. As a father of three, he says that having two daughters has greatly influenced his outlook, particularly with respect to women.

“I’m working on myself to change completely and I'm so proud of myself,” he says, “because the only way to see a better future for my daughters is to change who I am.”

It’s a path of discovery he wants to encourage others to join him on, telling the male guests at the LAO’s awards ceremony last month to listen to the female voices around them.

“Where do we even start to reach these girls, to inspire them, to protect them, to unlock their futures? I don't have all the answers,” Mr Bdour admitted, “but I know we are done waiting for society to change.”

Updated: August 11, 2022, 8:16 AM