Nahed Taher is the founder and CEO of Gulf One Investment Bank
“Do you mind working with men?” Nahed Taher recalls being asked before taking a job as the only woman amid 4,000 male employees at Saudi Arabia’s largest lender, National Commercial Bank.
Less than four years later, the Saudi-born Taher, 43, became the first Arab woman to set up a bank, and the only woman in the Gulf to run one - Gulf One Investment Bank, which is gathering $10bn for infrastructure projects and doubled first-half profit this year.
She still isn’t allowed to drive, even though she’s financed the air terminals that handle Hajj pilgrims visiting Islam’s holiest cities. Though almost half her staff are women, Taher says too few of her gender are willing to defy Saudi cultural norms and earn a living.
“Women need to work harder,” Taher said in her Jeddah office, dressed in a black trouser suit, red shirt and no headscarf or veil as there were no men in the room. “I have a very open-minded family that respects men and women as equal.”
Though Saudi Arabia last month granted women the right to vote in some local elections, Taher’s career path remains exceptional in the oil-rich kingdom, where mixed-gender offices are rare, some government buildings are off-limits to female visitors and women need permission from a close male relative to work, travel and get an education.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index ranked Saudi Arabia the least democratic country in the Middle East.
Although Gulf One is based in the more liberal nation of Bahrain, Taher works from Jeddah, the Saudi commercial capital, to tap economic growth in the world’s biggest oil exporter. First-half profit more than doubled to $3.2m at the end of June from $1.2m a year earlier, according to Gulf One’s financial statements, published in June. Revenue rose 51 percent to $10.3m.
Taher, who says her investors have nicknamed her “Desert Rose” as she raises funds, usually wears the mandatory black abaya, or cloak, when she goes out in Saudi Arabia. She favours Western clothes when travelling abroad.
“Even if you go to the UK, it’s difficult to find a female CEO of a bank,” said Taher, who turned down a job at the International Monetary Fund to return to her native country. “It’s not just rare in Saudi. It’s globally. I’m used to dealing with men as human beings and colleagues. That’s why I don’t have a problem being amongst men.”
At NCB, Taher says she hired 50 more women to join the ranks. As chief executive officer of Gulf One, Taher has hired some 30 female staff among the total workforce of 75. Ranked 72nd in Forbes magazine’s list of the “Most Powerful Women in the World” in 2006, Taher earned master’s and PhD degrees in economics from Britain’s Lancaster University and a master’s in economics from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul-Aziz University.
“I really would love to see more professional women coming up,” she said. “Everybody I meet is supportive because they see that I’m professional.”
After working as a senior economist for NCB for three and a half years, Taher set up Gulf One in 2005 with $1bn in capital. Co-founder Ziyad Omar is head of investments. Founded in Bahrain as there was no Saudi bank regulator at the time, the firm now has licenses in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Germany.
Gulf One started seeking $10bn for infrastructure in 2007, a sum Taher hopes to have fully raised by the end of 2012. The bank has financed terminals to serve pilgrims at airports in Jeddah and Medina, a desalination plant in Jeddah, and companies developing technology to reduce carbon emissions, health projects, and oil and gas projects in Africa. It also owns a stake in Singaporean water company Moya Asia.
“Whenever Gulf One goes into a project, we have three objectives - making money, job creation and it has to be environmentally friendly,” Taher said. “If it doesn’t have these three elements, we won’t invest. People are looking for ethical investment after the financial crisis.”
The bank also follows Islamic principles that bar paying interest.
Taher says that Gulf One is studying potential acquisitions both in the six oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council nations and further afield, and that the bank is planning to sell shares to the public once the Saudi market improves. The benchmark Tadawul All Share Index has fallen about 7 percent this year.
The bank recently introduced a $100m fund targeting small-and medium-sized enterprises in countries including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. Taher said women are capital-rich and should be starting their share of businesses, given they own 40 percent of Saudi real estate and have close to SR20bn ($5.3bn) in local bank deposits.
“A lack of knowledge means that they are unable to exploit and invest their money in a much better way,” she said.
Gulf One’s other projects have included an industrial technology fund in Germany, which returned 128 percent last year and 50 percent this year, she said.
Taher owns 2.7 percent of the bank. Major investors include Kuwait Investment Co, a unit of the emirate’s sovereign-wealth fund; Saudi Basic Industries Corp., the world’s biggest petrochemical company; and businessmen including Hilal Hussein Saleh Tuwairqi, head of industrial company Al Tuwairqi Holding.
King Abdullah, who came to power in 2005, opened the first co-educational university in 2009. He appointed the kingdom’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, in the same year. He recently decreed only women were permitted to sell lingerie and make-up, prompting several retailers to start training women to replace their male employees.
Easing more women into banks has proven a harder task in a country where they cannot drive themselves to work.
Though Taher called for a “quick and aggressive” move to put women behind the wheel, she said a lack of enthusiasm for the workplace is equally to blame for female unemployment. The nation’s jobless rate exceeds 10 percent, state figures show.
“Women should work harder to make their economy better, especially now when you have high unemployment and high poverty in such a rich country,” said Taher. “They should be part of the solution. If you ask some women if they want to work, you’d be surprised. They don’t want to. Men need to open doors, but things have to start from the woman herself.”