EWI Leader: Haifa Al Kaylani

News | February 07, 2012

EWI board member Haifa Al-Kaylani, founder and chairman of the Arab International Women's Forum, speaks with Thomas Lynch about her experiences with the institute and her thoughts on the future of women in the Arab world.

How did you first become associated with the EastWest Institute?

I was first introduced to the EastWest Institute by Mr Saad Abdul Latif, CEO PepsiCo AMEA, who nominated me based on my personal mission and that of the Arab International Women’s Forum – to promote sustainable empowerment for women and youth in the Arab world. PepsiCo has had a longstanding and close relationship with the EastWest Institute, and PepsiCo is also AIWF’s longest standing supporter and our exclusive Benefactor. It is with PepsiCo’s generous support that AIWF is able to carry out its mission and vision of "Building Bridges, Building Business." Mr Abdul Latif saw that my life’s work thus far has much in common with the objectives of the EastWest Institute in this important and extraordinary time for the region. I have always had the deepest respect for the Eastwest Institute’s vision and therefore, when nominated, I agreed to become a Director in order to make a contribution to the valuable work that the institute is doing, not only in the Arab region but across the world.


How did the Arab International Women’s Forum come about?

My background and experience of the Arab region together with my knowledge and experience of gender issues internationally, brought me to believe that there was an important niche to be filled in working for women’s empowerment on a different level of advocacy and connectivity.

As a development economist, I have always believed that there can be no social or economic development in the region or anywhere without optimizing all resources, and women are the Arab world’s most valuable resource.

In this light, I gathered together Arab and international women leaders from a wide range of sectors, all of whom had achieved personal success in their fields, to form a Board of Directors. They were all keen to join me in efforts to encourage, help and mentor other women to realise their potential and become empowered to make a significant contribution to their economy, their country and their society.  

Together, we launched the Arab International Women’s Forum in the spring of 2001 as a not for profit, non governmental, non political organization. In the decade since, the Arab International Women’s Forum has served as a voice for Arab women: showcasing their development, promoting cross cultural diversity and creating greater public awareness of women’s success and prospects in the Arab world but always with an international context.


What international relations and public policy issues are you most passionate about?

Since our inception in 2001, AIWF has called consistently for the region to fully utilize its most precious resource – its human capital, stressing in all our annual programs and initiatives the importance of developing a viable middle class, while advocating for equal opportunities to be offered to all Arab citizens. Indeed, entrepreneurship and the creation of viable business environments where SMEs can flourish have been common keystones of our Annual Programmes and Conferences over the years, held in Paris, London, Brussels, Madrid, Cairo, Amman, Washington DC, Damascus, Dubai and Sharjah.

Significant events in the region in the last 18 months have afforded AIWF with a unique opportunity to face up to the challenges of a new era, examining the Arab world from a new and exciting perspective, and exploring the potential and future ramifications of change within the region with a view to securing the partnership of women and youth – and indeed, all Arab citizens.

Ultimately, we are dedicated to creating and showcasing the Arab role models that will inspire the next generation. By actively promoting women’s successes in the MENA, highlighting their accomplishments in the media, honouring their achievements and encouraging valuable experience exchange between successful Arab businesswomen and young entrepreneurs, AIWF is effectively breaking stereotypes and challenging the barriers that are denying Arab women a prominent voice as engines of economic growth in the region.

By partnering with some of the world’s largest companies, and working closely with governments, AIWF has members in over 40 countries and seeks to promote investment in youth through education, training and the development of leadership skills, building new levels of competency and confidence in young Arab women leaders. We do this by connecting key change agents from across the Arab world with their international counterparts, always addressing how governments and the private sector can work together to ensure that skills education and workforce development becomes a permanent priority on the Arab economic agenda.


What are some examples of the Arab world embracing women’s rights? And how can such an example be used to effect wider change?

The achievements of Arab women in the last fifteen years are truly remarkable. There are more Arab women serving in company boardrooms, political cabinets and the regional and global media than ever before. The number of women holding ministerial-level positions and other roles in public life has also increased in the last decade, which has seen more women exert a strong, positive and lasting influence on their communities by taking on prominent roles as decision-makers, participating in their economies and societies as educators, professors, university deans, businesswomen, journalists, judges, lawyers, media figures, bankers, medical professionals, scientific researchers and government ministers. Women in the MENA represent 50% of the SME enterprise sector, and overall wealth held by women in the MENA region is estimated at $500 billion, with wealth managed by women in the six GCC countries alone estimated at $385 billion.

However, women are still underrepresented in the region overall, especially in the sciences, in sports, media, medicine, engineering and law. Despite the increase in parliamentary representation in many MENA countries, gender barriers continue to prevent women from having any major impact as yet on some of the region’s key institutions, and female entrepreneurs in all Arab countries still struggle when it comes to access to finance and networking opportunities, skills and confidence building and specialist training, and integration of advanced technology and marketing trends.

Of course, it is important to remember that these challenges are by no means exclusive to the MENA region, but to effect broad and sustainable change, for true and long-lasting empowerment, it is vital that we build upon these successes, promote successful role models in the region, and work consistently to develop, actively recruit and train the next generation of Arab women leaders.


How do you see the role of women in the Arab world evolving in the coming years?

One of the things that makes AIWF unique is our consistent commitment to connecting Arab women leaders with each other and with their international counterparts. What we are discovering is that in the last few years especially, as the world has become more interconnected than ever before (thanks largely to the phenomenal advances in technology and social networking), Arab women leaders are holding themselves to world-class standards of leadership and governance.

We clearly see, with every conference we host and every seminar we hold, that Arab women are among the most resourceful, tech-savvy, sustainability-focused business leaders in the world. Given the global economic crisis in 2008, from which many of the world’s economies are still struggling to recover, and recent geopolitical shifts in the region after the Arab Spring, we believe that true and sustainable empowerment of women and youth is no longer a matter of political correctness – it is a social, economic and political imperative.

In response to the challenges of a new era for Arab women in business, in 2012 The Arab International Women’s Forum, in partnership with AIWF global partner PwC, launched a series of one-day interactive conferences entitled “Young Arab Women Leaders: The Voice of the Future,” held in Amman, Beirut and, this coming December, in Dubai.

The conferences aimed to assist young women leaders across the region to further optimize and strengthen their personal business skills and overall contribution to the business world and community at large. Designed to assist young women leaders in understanding the role of gender equality in shaping political, economic and social opportunities available to women in the Arab world, the main objectives were to provide the ideal opportunity for participants to gain key insights into best practice methods that transform challenges and barriers into success stories and various opportunities for development and enhancement.

The conferences, which have given us so much hope for the future of the region, have also served as a platform for the generation of young aspiring women in Lebanon to support, engage and network with other women in pioneering political, economic and social leadership roles in the Arab world while learning more about the qualities of leadership for women in the 21st century.

The road ahead is still uncertain for many in the Arab world, and by no means is the region’s transition to democracy complete, but this at least is clear to all of us at AIWF – educating Arab girls, empowering Arab youth and supporting the role of Arab women leaders is the utmost priority if we are to achieve true and lasting peace and prosperity in the Arab world.