Education and women in leadership take centre stage at Harvard conference on Gulf

Event highlights need for regional co-operation in creative industries

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Leading voices from across the region converged on Harvard University at the weekend for the first Gulf Creatives Conference.

The event in the US state of Massachusetts highlighted the need for regional co-operation in creative industries and was organised by The Diwan, a student-run organisation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“We want to celebrate the greatest minds from the Gulf, showcase our creatives and our talents,” said Abdulla Almarzooqi, one of the conference organisers and chairman of the UAE Committee at The Diwan.

More than 1,000 people packed the university’s science centre to hear from about 100 speakers.

Speakers included Maryam bin Theneya, second deputy speaker of the UAE Federal National Council; Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashid Al Khalifa, Bahrain's ambassador to the US; and Jasem Al Budaiwi, Secretary General of the GCC.

The conference included 30 discussion sessions and five workshops covering issues including public policy, innovation strategies and the future of health care, among others.

“It has been a lot of work. We started working on this conference in December of last year so it's been six months,” Mr Almarzooqi told The National.

“Our target initially was 100 speakers but once we started sending out invitations and telling people about it and promoting it, there was lot of enthusiasm and excitement everyone wanted to be a part of it and so we couldn’t turn people away.

"We're calling this a celebration instead of a conference.”

Panellists tackled some of the most pressing issues facing the region today, including ways to bolster education systems across the six Gulf countries, women in leadership, globalisation, innovation and cyber security.

“At such times, having a unified theme for the GCC to tackle key challenges in the creative industries space [is crucial], so we have education, innovation, technology, arts and culture,” said Hilal Al Riyami, head of national Initiatives at the Royal Academy of Management in Oman.

“I think we need to have that collective hat, that we're looking at the GCC as one entity moving towards those industries.”

That sense of connectivity among Gulf countries and a shared path forwards was felt throughout much of the conference.

Mr Al Riyami said the location at Harvard was inspiring, but what mattered most was that it allowed those attending to break from their routines and connect abroad.

“It gives us that space to connect, share ideas and thoughts and challenge each other,” he told The National.

On a panel focused on exploring globalisation and innovation in the GCC, Sheikh Abdullah highlighted how Gulf countries were sending out students to learn abroad only to see them return because of the opportunities presented in their home countries.

“The region is, again, moving through a transformational stage." he said.

"We can learn a lot in class, out of class, but then at the end of the day, we find it necessary to go back and to find a future for our families in a region, which is moving through a very opportunity-driven time.

"That is beneficial for all."

Women in the Gulf

A major focus of the event was women's leadership and economic participation in the GCC.

Fatima Al Kaabi, a young inventor from the UAE, told The National that the conference served as a valuable stage for illuminating the unrecognised achievements of Gulf women.

At a session on breaking gender barriers in the private sector, Sanaa Jlidi, co-founder of Advancement of Arab and Gulf Women in America and enterprise account executive at Salesforce, shared insights into the tech sector and the challenges she has faced.

Henadi Al Saleh, chairwoman of global supply chain giant Agility, highlighted the significant gender disparity in financing in start-ups, as two thirds of funding goes to male entrepreneurs.

Wafa Al Obeidat, chief executive and founder of the Playbook app, pointed out the failure of educational institutions to bridge the gap between academic success and professional advancement for women.

Despite often outperforming men academically, women rarely ascend to top corporate positions or receive substantial venture capital funding.

That is particularly true in the Middle East and North Africa region, where women attract less than 2 per cent of investment, said Ms Al Obeidat.

Updated: May 13, 2024, 10:36 AM