Why female real estate entrepreneurs can thrive in the UAE

Photo Credit: Prestige Magazine

“Are women allowed to drive there?” is, unfortunately, a question I am sometimes asked when I return home to Boston on visits from my adopted home of Abu Dhabi. The question comes from well-meaning, well-educated friends, and it underscores just how much the wider world still has to learn about the UAE. It also demonstrates to me that women are missing out by staying ignorant to this country’s vast opportunities.

On a recent Thursday, Prestige Magazine gathered seven women at the top of their game and in leadership roles at some of Dubai’s best real estate firms and property management companies.

I listened to their stories, about how they got here, their breaks from the ranks to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs, and what it takes to succeed in a country where women not only drive, they are at the wheel in more ways than one.

Here are the things I found these women have in common: after living in Dubai, they all realised it would not only be possible but profitable to run their own company; each one weathered the 2008 recession and say they are stronger for it; and they all attribute much of their success to the UAE business environment. But from there, their paths diverge, because there is no one single story about how women find success in a male-dominated world.

Worth noting is the disparate number of men in Dubai. As of late 2016, seventy percent of the foreign workers in the emirate were male, according to the Dubai Statistics Center. Women are certainly in the minority.

However, efforts by the government and the leadership of women in the private sector (these women in real estate as proof positive) are creating a new face of female in the Middle East, one that dramatically departs from typical, damaging stereotypes and Western assumptions. As of November of last year, 9 of 29 UAE government ministers were women, and Shamma Al Mazrouei, at 23, is the youngest government minister in the world.

At the same time, the UAE is just shy of breaking into the Top 20 countries when it comes to ease of doing business, according to the latest ranking by the real estate consultancy Knight Frank. It jumped five spots to 21st this year as its Gulf neighbours did not fare as well: Bahrain was ranked 66th and Saudi Arabia 92ndof 190 countries on the list.

Louise Heatley, Managing Director of Exclusive Links Real Estate Brokers, arrived to the country in 1996 as cabin crew for Emirates. Within four years she had reached the top rank of purser, and was unsure what to do next. Real estate proved to be her opportunity, and she went into business with a local Emirati woman who sponsored her fledgling property management company in 2005. She now oversees 40 staff. According to her, the UAE is on a steep learning curve at all times, but rolls with changes and learns from mistakes.

Dubai is laser-focused on continued improvement. Dubai Plan 2021 lays out the plan for the emirate to be a “pivotal hub of the global economy” with the audacious goal of being the most business-friendly city in the world, and the addition to being the top destination for foreign investment, according to Bloomberg Research.

Hind Jouini, the Managing Director of Real Choice Real Estate, sees firsthand the regulatory wheels turning in the right direction. “Everything is settled,” she says, citing efforts by the Real Estate Regulatory Authority and Dubai Land Department. “Now we are working primarily with end-users, operating smoothly. It’s time to grow.”

That optimism is hard-won. Jouini came to Dubai from Tunisia in 2001, as an employee of a stamped concrete company. She felt overworked and underpaid, and so after only a year in the UAE, she started her own business. Fifteen years, one recession, and millions in transactions later, she helms a healthy brokerage with hundreds of listings and a team of 30.

It’s a promising market,” Jouini says. “A woman will find success from what she puts in, both in work and in faith in herself. If she has both, she will make it.”

Strong proof of that theory is Khadija Meziane El Otmani, Co-founder and Partner of Driven Holiday Homes. In four years she has built a business partnership with Abdullah Al Ajaji through sweat equity in the company. Her part of the business is a critical component to Driven Properties operations, with her concept of short-term rentals in holiday properties that are typically serviced and furnished.

Of the women I talked to, gender has played the biggest role for El Otmani. When she started Driven Holiday Homes in 2014, she says at first she hired only women because she found it difficult to find men who seemed willing to be managed by women.

“I felt that especially in real estate, you have to have a strong personality, you have to be a hustler,” she says. “My background is as an Arab woman, a Muslim woman. I still had this bias.”

At first, she recognised those qualities most in the women she interviewed. Over time, her opinion evolved, and now the company has gender parity.

That doesn’t mean she isn’t still leading a women-first operation. Recently, she tried to allocate office space for children and their caretakers to come in and have a place to play and spend some time during the workday nearby their mothers. She also wanted the space to serve as a nursery and nursing room for new moms on her staff.

But her company is growing too fast, and the space she had was soon taken over for meeting space. Still, it’s on the top of her priority list.

Looking to the future, much still depends on how well regulations are implemented to make it more attractive for businesses – women-led businesses included – to be in the UAE.

Louise Heatley put it most succinctly to me: “I’ve never met anyone who regretted moving out here.”


Written by Kelsey Warner, Editor, Propertyfinder Group

This article was originally published in Prestige March / April 2018 edition – click here to read the e-book

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