With friends like Saudi businesswomen who needs enemies?

Saudi businesswomen in the Eastern Province this week won a hollow victory when two women, Hana Al-Zuhair and Samira Al-Suwaigh, were appointed by Commerce Minister Abdullah Zainal Alireza to the Asharqia Chamber board.

The appointments are lauded as an historic victory and a step forward for Saudi women trying to gain a foothold as players in the Saudi business community. Alireza is to be commended for making two of his eight appointments women. Yet the appointments ring false. Neither Al-Zuhair nor Al-Suwaigh had run for election. The three women who did run – Suad Al-Zaydi, Fawzia Al-Karri and Dina Al-Fari – captured less than 100 votes between them.

Al-Zuhair and Al-Suwaigh have excellent business credentials to qualify for the chamber. It seems odd, though, that the three female contestants, who lost but did garner at least some backing from the business community, couldn’t muster the support of Alireza for an appointment.

Eastern Province businessmen and women share the blame for this failure to allow females a voice. The women candidates were tainted from the beginning when three Eastern Province men lodged a complaint with the Asharqia Chamber that the women should not run for election. The men claimed it was against Shariah. Although their complaint was denied, it served to validate the beliefs among many male voters that women did not belong on the chamber board.

A greater travesty, however, is the behavior of eligible female voters. One comes to expect male chamber members to vote for their male colleagues and business acquaintances. Social networking, word-of-mouth and telephone campaigning by businessmen bring votes to male candidates and freezes women out of the process. But only 60 of the nearly 900 eligible women voted in the election. The remaining 800-plus women were either too lazy or lacked the interest to bother going to the polls.

Certainly there is a percentage of businesswomen who took their voting cues from their husbands and fathers, but I suspect the majority of female non-voters simply did not care enough to see their sisters elected.

This means an uphill battle for the female appointees. Al-Zuhair and Al-Suwaigh are only two of an 18-member board. And they are two board members without a mandate from the business community. They are in a position where nobody has to listen to them.

The Eastern Province election follows a more dismal showing in the October board elections for the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI). Lama Suleiman was the only woman to win a seat on the board with 557 votes. Ousted by voters was Nashwa Taher, who made history a few years ago when she won a chamber board seat along with Suleiman.

This year’s Jeddah chamber contest had seven women candidates. No men voted for them and the entire lot received no more than a handful of votes among the more than 6,400 cast. An estimated 160 women voted in the Jeddah election.

As Saudi women continue to pursue greater education opportunities and insist that Saudi society find a place for them in the workplace, their voice should become greater and their contributions should become more significant.

Yet sometimes their all-consuming desire for that great job with those wonderful financial rewards, which obviously means independence for many, is undermined by the complete lack of perspective.

The women who have already achieved that financial independence by owning their own businesses are – whether they like it or not – role models for these young girls fresh out of college and looking for career.

These role models failed them when they decided to ignore the Asharqia election and failed to return Nashwa Taher to the Jeddah chamber board. By not waging a battle to bring more women to the chamber boards, they failed the girls who are following in their footsteps.

It’s great to have a postgraduate degree and a well-paying job, but young Saudi women will always be on the outside looking in when it comes to expanding their businesses and seeking domestic and foreign investors. Male business owners have a monopoly on that kind of networking. Their businesses will grow as Saudi Arabia becomes more of an international player in the global economy.

Eligible female voters in the chamber elections let slip through their fingers an important opportunity to slightly tip the scales of power. From the business deals conducted in the Jeddah Hilton lobby to the chamber board meetings, there will only be one voice making policy for the business community. And it won’t be a woman’s voice.

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About Sabria Jawhar

Sabria Jawhar is a Saudi columnist and reporter for the Jeddah-based English-language daily newspaper Saudi Gazette. She currently lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom, where she is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle. She is considered one of the leading female journalists in Saudi Arabia, where she covered breaking news events at a time when such news coverage was open only to men. Her news beats included the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior. In the summer of 2005, she earned a Fellowship at the prestigious Korean Press Foundation and Yonsei Communication Research Institute in Seoul, South Korea. In 2007 she was a panelist in the United Nations 15th International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East in Tokyo, Japan. She earned her bachelor’s of arts degree in English language and literature at the King Abdul Aziz University and a master’s degree in applied linguistics at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah. Her column archives can be found at her website http://www.saudiwriter.blogspot.com/

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