The UAE’s Obsession with (women’s) Rankings and its consequences when things go wrong

Is it right to trumpet the times when you come top and make excuses when you're not?

Is it right to trumpet the times when you come top and make excuses when you’re not?

Everybody loves a good ranking, especially when you’re ranked at or near the top of the listings. If you’re doing a survey, a list or a table then you’ll always be welcomed in the UAE. The country has leveraged off its rise up the rankings of global surveys to promote inward investments and position itself as the leading destination in the Gulf and the wider Middle East region for all things consumer and business-related.

However, things don’t always turn out so well with surveys. A recent Global Gender Report published by the World Economic Forum ranked the UAE 107 out of 135 countries listed in the report. The response from one writer, Shaikha Al Maskari, was to list what the UAE has done for women, and to showcase why Emirati women are pioneers in their field.

Rather than review the article (which was actually entitled ‘The Happiest Women in the World’ in print) I’m going to quote selectively. Enjoy the read while this writer throws her toys out of the pram, belittles the rest of the region and the strides the Gulf’s women have made and harps on about what her country has done without really saying much. Or maybe it’s just me…

“The question of women equality in the UAE is always brought under the limelight with a negative connotation that they are oppressed, discriminated against and constrained — especially in the social, cultural, economic and political perspective. To the UAE, it is just a stereotypical challenge; to other Arab countries, the problem is much more complex.”

“The constitution clearly states that women have equal rights as men and it ensures that they are provided equal opportunities in employment and advancement and equal pay at the work place. And in many cases, a female is favoured over a male candidate — form of an unannounced affirmative action.”

“…we have achieved what no other Arab country has in decades. It is no wonder that we take pride in calling her our model and “Mother of the Nation”. Emirati women enjoy vast privileges that are envied. Based on Islamic rulings, the man is the care provider for the family and financial responsibility rests with him.”

Block and Bridge the SABIC way – an example from the World Economic Forum

Al-Mady is a media veteran and knows how to handle journalists through the use of techniques such as block and bridge (picture source:

There’s few companies which have a better reputation in the Middle East than SABIC. Founded almost forty years ago, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation has grown to become one of the world’s largest chemicals businesses and one of the top 100 corporations worldwide. SABIC is the largest public company as listed on Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange.

But no matter how well you try, there’s always some things that you can do better. SABIC’s CEO Mohammed Al Mady was at the World Economic Forum last week which was held in Jordan. Al Mady was speaking on a panel discussion alongside Saudi Arabia’s Princess Ameerah al-Taweel, the wife of Al Waleed Bin Talal and one of Saudi Arabia’s most outspoken women when it comes to female rights and the issue of change in the Kingdom.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of women’s employment in the Kingdom came up. This topic has been a major issue of debate over the past couple of years as the Kingdom has pondered how best to get women into work without upsetting cultural sensitivities.

The below quotes are from an article on Arabian Business which are a discussion between Princess Ameerah al-Taweel and SABIC CEO Mohammed Al Mady. It makes for an interesting if embarrassing read.

While a member of the audience during a separate WEF session on the Arab employment crisis, Princess Ameerah challenged Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) CEO Mohammed Al Mady to explain why his company had not “opened the door” to Saudi women.

Al Mady defended the company by saying it had employed 50 women, but the audience laughed when it was revealed SABIC had 20,000 employees.

“We have been slow for sure,” Al Mady conceded.

“That was not really by design that we want to be against women or anything, but we want to get the best practice done in Saudi Arabia because there are many mistakes that have happened and it really gives bad names for the employees and the employers.

“Now we’re in a position to get the best practices and do it in our company and you will see a big change.”

Well, yes, it’s not the best publicity for SABIC especially when one considers that most of SABIC’s plants are in the Eastern Region where women have been employed in mechanical roles by Saudi Aramco. However, what Al Mady did was a classic public relations tactic; he blocked and bridged. The technique is well-known and allows the interviewee to switch attention back to a key message or talking point. And Al-Mady spoke about a perennial favourite, military conscription. Below are quotes from both Arabian Business and

“The countries have to work very hard in how to change the perception of their youth so that they can accept the existing jobs.

“How do we change them? Governments have to probably draft them into the military for six months before they go into the job market … [to] give them resilience, [teach] them how to be modest, how to work, how to take the ladder step by step until they reach what they want.”

“It gives them resilience… they have to take the ladder step-by-step before they get what they want. The countries have to work very hard and have to change the perception of their youth so that they can accept the existing jobs… The people themselves need to change.”

While I’m not completely sold on the concept of military service (it hasn’t done many favours to Egyptians, Syrians or Lebanese) Al-Mady’s block and bridge captured more headlines than the female employment gaffe and it says a great deal about Al-Mady’s media skills. If only more CEOs had his media abilities (maybe that’s a subject for another, future post).