But many women still avoid face-to-face meetings with unrelated men. That makes the male-dominated world of banking particularly hard to penetrate.
There are ways of getting round the problem. Saudi retail banks have set up segregated branches that only women can enter. “Ladies' banks” are also cropping up in the UAE. Segregation is a controversial issue, but the facilities at least allow women to manage their finances independently of prying fathers, brothers or husbands. Rising divorce rates give added motivation for women to hide away some money, skeptical of the help they will get from mostly male judges.
Increasingly, wealth managers are also realizing that women in the Gulf region are sitting on fortunes in cash, land and even jewelery. According to Amanda McCrystal of Bramdiva, a London-based wealth-consultation service for women, a few years ago there was a boom in online share-trading by women in the Gulf, since they could do it from the privacy of home. Many were singed by a regional crash in 2006. Some will not return; many of those who do may seek professional advice.
Sandy Shaw, who heads Middle Eastern operations at Coutts, a private bank based in London, says about a quarter of her clients are female, and are keen to keep control of their affairs, especially to ensure that their estates will pass to their children when they die. Aware of this, a small number of Western female bankers now travel regularly to the Gulf to hold meetings with female clients. Again, one of the attractions is privacy; they can visit a Saudi woman at home without her husband present, which a male banker normally could not do. Women may require different products from men, too. In Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, they have more of an appetite for lower-risk, capital-protected investments. But this is likely to change as they become more experienced investors, says Ms Shaw.
In the UAE, Dubai World, a government holding company, has set up Forsa, an investment company run by women for women. Its staff scorn what they call “pink-ribboning”: superficial changes to market products to women, like making a credit card pink. Across the region, more such firms would be helpful. This is not only because women need opportunities to work. The finance industry needs them, too: it is growing so fast that it is struggling to recruit and retain staff.
The message has sunk in in Bahrain, where a third of finance-sector employees are female, and in Kuwait, where, including property, the figure rises to 40%. Some employers there say they find female bankers work harder than men. Yet in Saudi Arabia, official statistics indicate that just 5% of Saudis working in finance and property are female. And across the region, it remains hard for female businesswomen to get loans, especially if they are not from prominent families. Even in Bahrain, where nearly one-third of businesses are registered by women, “sometimes women can only get a business license in their husband's name, especially if they have less capital,” says Aamina Awan, who is researching female entrepreneurship in the region.
Cross-posted at J2TM.