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Gatehouse Bank's Azeemeh Zaheer was interviewed by Arabiyat Magazine in KSA

The banker Azeemeh Zaheer: on Saudi women being a key component in the renaissance of Gulf commerce

Arabiyat Magazine: Mohsen Hussein

The Vice President of Wealth Management at UK Bank (Gatehouse) is a woman who possesses considerable experience and vision specialising specifically in Real Estate Investment and Islamic banking. Gatehouse Bank is currently focusing on building the link between investment opportunities in the United Kingdom and potential GCC investors. Arabiyat conducted this interview with Ms Azeemeh Zaheer the economic expert asking various questions concerning businesswomen in the GCC, as well as her own opinion/vision of Islamic economy compared to the global economy.

For the original interview please visit Arabiyat Magazine online


1) How did your relationship between potential women investors in Saudi Arabia start/blossom?

I travel often to Saudi Arabia, and the majority of my clients were male. I wanted to reach out to women because in this generation, women are ever growing their careers, it is important for them to manage their wealth and invest wisely. Growth capital and family businesses are key for the Gulf region, with the latter accounting for more than 90% of commercial activity. The region counts more than 5,000 family firms, encompassing more than US$500 billion in assets, and women are playing more influential roles in these family offices. The first women’s institution I reached out to was Dar El Hekma.

2) What is your ethnic origin? And have you got any Arab roots?

I am American but my mother is Iranian and Burmese, and my father is Pakistani.

3) What is your expertise within your current field at Gatehouse Bank?

My core expertise is in the principles of Real Estate and Islamic Banking.

4) From your point of view, have you found that business transactions in Islamic regimes were welcoming in Britain?

Islamic finance is emerging as a rapidly growing part of the global financial sector. Islamic finance is not restricted to Islamic countries, but is spreading wherever there is a sizeable Muslim community such as the United Kingdom and Japan. In fact, there are currently more than 300 Islamic financial institutions spread over 51 countries, plus well over 250 mutual funds that comply with Islamic principles. Over the last decade, this industry has experienced growth rates of 10-15% per annum – a trend that is expected to continue. Islamic banking has evolved but there is still lack of uniformity in financial structures and practices. This has made it difficult for the industry to realise full potential. Western societies, especially the UK, are embracing this principal based banking system and have appointed dedicated teams within the Financial Services Authority to aid and regulate its growth.

5) Saudi women in comparison to men have a need for flexibility in their working hours. With this in mind, do you feel that women in Arabia will be able to compete within a European Investment market?

Women in Saudi constitute 45% of Saudi Arabia’s population and have a literacy rate of 79%. Despite this, only 65% of them are employed. This reveals the huge potential for utilising Saudi women in the labour force and broader economic development. Although female labour participation is limited in Saudi Arabia, Saudi women are ahead of their male counterparts in terms of obtaining higher education. Over 93% of employed females hold either a secondary qualification or a University degree versus around 60% of employed men (according to a Booz & Co. Report published in 2010). I feel personally that with the advancement of technology, businesses must allow flexible working hours for women. The ability to work from home is paramount to for women to succeed in the workplace and with their families.

6) What are your future plans to attract more GGC business women in general?

Dr Suhair Al Qurashi, President of Dar Al Hekma Ladies College signed an MOU with Gatehouse Bank last month. She has been a great advocate of financial training and skills transfer to Saudi women. In Kuwait, we work very closely with Ms. Nabila Al Anjar, CEO of Leaders Group. In addition, we have also had a number of interns at Gatehouse Bank, including Miss Hind Al Nafai from Jeddah and also Aisha Ahmed Al-Ishaq from Doha. Yes, we plan to continue classes in Jeddah with Dar Al Hekma as well as more training and development workshops for Gulf business women in Kuwait and Qatar.

7) Gatehouse Bank is compatible with provisions of Islamic law, what are the main forms of trade and do they conform to Islamic law?

As a Shariah compliant bank, all Gatehouse investments are ethical in terms of the sectors invested in and are contractually inclusive of the profit sharing and risk bearing principles creating an equitable basis for the distribution of risk and reward. In addition, all investments are transparent and devoid of speculative manoeuvring. Cumulatively, Gatehouse investments allow investors to allocate their surplus resources to better and more deserving uses in turn not only benefiting the investor but also the end user of that capital as well as the local economy by creating jobs and improving facilities. This conforms to the higher objectives of Shariah (Maqasid al-Shariah) and of an Islamic moral economy namely, efficient allocation of resources guided by moral Islamic filters and the equitable distribution of wealth.

8) As a banking expert, what are the main disadvantages of banking in the Arab world from your point of view? And how can these flaws be remedied?

Today, the Islamic finance industry is officially recognised within the global financial arena as an independent and entirely feasible financial system. The market and demand for Islamic finance exist; it is significant and poised for further growth and expansion. However, if Islamic finance is to reach its optimal potential, a critical priority now is to ensure that the industry is firmly entrenched within a sound operating framework that forms a solid foundation for future development. There is no doubt that the Islamic financial industry needs a uniformity and standardisation as well as more regulatory, supervisory and transparency procedures that will improve its position within the global financial market. Uniformity and standardisation will promote a sound and stable Islamic financial system and make it a viable and credible component of the global financial system, while the supervisory and regulatory standards will bring about the credibility of Islamic finance.

9) The Saudi Arabian economy has not been shaken by the international economic crisis; how do you explain this as a British economist?

A few Saudi banks were moderately affected by the global financial crisis in 2008-2009 but the Saudi domestic financial market continued on a stable and profitable path. The banks in Saudi Arabia were well capitalised and there was a large debt redemption before the crisis by good government policy. The Saudi corporate bond market was still in its infancy during this period and not impacted. The Kingdom’s strong domestic infrastructure projects and real estate growth kept much of the capital inward and not exposed greatly in the US and EU economies.

10) What was the result of your seminars and lectures at Dar El Hekma College in Jeddah about property investment? Why don’t you encourage Saudi women investors to enter competitive investment in different investing fields?

The three day course covered real-estate from an “investment perspective”. Having a strictly academic / theoretical class does not prepare the girls for the real world. Dar Al Hekma is very forward thinking and understands the value for the students to get exposure to the corporate world. We not only taught the fundamentals of real-estate but we taught them how to apply it from a Bank’s perspective. We do encourage diversification. Real-estate should only comprise of 25% of an individual’s investment portfolio.

11) In your opinion; what is the best investment fields in Britain that Saudi women can invest in, other than the property investment market?

I would look into investing in asset classes which hedge inflation, and in the SUKUK Market.

12) From the perspective of an expert, and a woman, who is more advanced in managing its wealth and its investment, women or men? Internationally?

Even with the same level of education women are more risk adverse than men. Research has shown that women like more simple products such as cash account and personal real estate versus more complex investment plans preferred by men. This is because psychologically, women get anxiety when making an investment decision, and most men get excited or a thrill factor when investing. In general terms, men enjoy learning about investments whereas women have tended to prioritise other aspects in their lives. Studies report that women are also more realistic about investment decisions – the most interesting study I read indicated that women are happier to make donations than to invest. It is easier to get a female to donate than to invest. The only way to level the playing field for investing is by increasing financial training and literacy.

13) As you study the features of Islamic finance: what are the good and bad differences that your find exist between the Islamic economy & other international economy’s?

First, Islamic investments are ethical investments which excludes sectors that are deemed immoral, unfair and disruptive to human harmony and well-being by Islam. Secondly, Islamic finance at its core encourages investments in the real economy which engender tangible socio-economic benefits such as trade finance, investing in private equity, project finance and real estate investment. Thirdly, the Islamic worldview is that all private and earthly (public) resources is endowed to mankind on trust and therefore should be consumed and distributed efficiently and equitably without a monopoly. This also implies that resources should be consumed for ‘need’ fulfilment as opposed to ‘greed’ fulfilment. The Islamic economy is underpinned by such notions unlike the international conventional economy which is based on mainly capitalism and without any superior/divine moral filters to guide it.

Unfortunately, the Islamic finance industry has moved away from its core purpose in recent years and has helped to increase global debt levels.

14) What do you find interesting about Arab women? Do you find some people in Britain give an untrue image about the stereotypical Arab woman?

Stereotypes nowadays are often showing women as submissive wives – it should be noted that often this is considered a mirror of the society and its events. Stereotypes influence how people formulation their knowledge, attitudes, stands and practices – and shifting the portrayal of women in a more positive and realistic manner can be influenced by the media showing how strong, tenacious and warm Arab women truly are. Not just in their households, but among society.

15) From your personal financial perspective, which one of the two sectors, private or government sector can guarantee fast and strong economic progress in the Arab world?

Neoliberalism, which adopts laissez-faire economics as its frame of reference, is based on the claim that economic development depends on the creation of an enabling environment for the private sector, including free markets and free flows of trade and finance. Promoting fiscal stability at the expense of public investment in social and physical infrastructures and relying heavily on indirect taxation in contrast to progressive and capital gains tax is perceived to contribute to development mainly through the transfer of resources from governments to the private sector. Given these conditions, it is assumed that the Arab world’s economy will naturally grow.

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