Raghda Shaheen: Bridging Two Worlds — America and The Middle East

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Raghda Shaheen, who works for the Dubai International Finance Centre, recently completed a four-week business and legal fellowship program at Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania law school. The program, funded by the U.S. Department of State Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and supported by America-Mideast Educational and Training Services (AMIDEAST), teaches management, business and legal skills to women from the Middle East and North Africa. This year, 22 women from 11 countries attended the program. Shaheen will spend the next three months working at the Chicago Chamber of Commerce before returning to the UAE. She spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about her experiences in Gaza City, Canada, the U.S. and the Middle East.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows. 

Knowledge@Wharton: Raghda, thanks for joining us.

Shaheen: Thank you for having me.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself? Where you were born, educated and where you have worked so far?

Shaheen: Sure. I am an Arabic girl, born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents. So I am Palestinian. I lived in Kuwait for seven years and then moved to Palestine. I grew up in Gaza City, and moved to Toronto, Canada, in 2001. I received a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I worked there for a couple of years and then moved to Dubai in 2008 and that’s where I live right now.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are you doing there?

Shaheen: I’m a business and process consultant at Dubai International Financial Centre.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why did you decide to come to the program at Wharton and Penn Law?

Shaheen: I always find exchange programs are fascinating because it’s my opportunity to break some stereotypes. I’ve been in similar programs before and I really enjoyed the experience. So I thought that I would use the opportunity to come again to the States and do more work on breaking stereotypes.

Knowledge@Wharton: What kinds of stereotypes are you talking about?

Shaheen: On both sides. I’m talking about the stereotypes of both Americans and Arabs [regarding] business behaviors, the people, the culture …

Knowledge@Wharton: So what’s an example on your side?

Shaheen: I find a lot of stereotypes about Arab women that I would like to break and about Arabs in general here in the States, because [most people] receive their [impressions] from the media. We all know that the media can be biased at certain times and does not reflect the correct image of the culture. So I came here to experience the American culture by myself through my [own] eyes, not through someone else’s eyes. And I try to transfer that to the Americans myself.

Knowledge@Wharton: So what would you think is a typical American image of an Arab woman and how is that image right or wrong?

Shaheen: They still have the image that Arab women may not be educated, that they’re suppressed, that they can’t work, they don’t speak, they are not cosmopolitan. So I try with my fellows here to break that stereotype. We tell them that Arabs in general, not just women, usually speak two languages at a minimum. We speak English as a second language in my country. There are other places in the Middle East, such as Lebanon and Syria, that speak French as a second language. The exposure to the West is very high in the Middle East, probably because of the political situation and the geographical location of that area. So we already know about other countries and civilizations out there in the world.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is it unusual for Arab women who are educated and have work experience like you to come to the States and take courses here and bring that [knowledge] back to their home countries?

Shaheen: I would say it depends. It depends on the family and it depends on the occasion. My aunt 30 years ago left to receive her education in medicine in Germany. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for most of the families. It depends on the family level of education and the country, the culture and the tradition. The Arab world is 14 countries and it’s diverse. I think this is the beauty of it, that it’s diverse. You would find all the cultures there.

Knowledge@Wharton: In Gaza City, would you consider yourself one of the more educated, more experienced women in terms of business background and career?

Shaheen: I wouldn’t say the most educated because … the education level in Gaza is very high. But I would say I’m one of the luckiest to have this exposure to opportunities out there in the world, because of the unfortunate political situation. Some of the people in Gaza are lucky to be alive…. So yes, I am blessed with opportunities. But the education [level] is very high in Gaza. I can talk about my personal experience. I was a senior in high school when the [uprising] started and the war. The political situation deteriorated in Gaza in 2001. That did not stop me from reaching my school, which was 45 minutes away. So I believe people living there definitely have a strong soul and are intent on [providing] education for their kids.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is this your first trip to the United States?

Shaheen: No.

Knowledge@Wharton: When were you here before?

Shaheen: I’ve been here a couple of times before. I have a sister here who lives in Boston and is chief of radiology at Harvard Medical School. And I’ve visited Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey during my previous job through Siemens Canada. So I received some training courses here. 

Knowledge@Wharton: You are now taking both business and law courses? Is that correct?

Shaheen: Yes. We have taken a couple of law classes.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the one thing that you’ve learned in your business courses that you feel has been especially valuable?

Shaheen: That’s an excellent question. I am an engineer by education. I haven’t had a strong exposure to finance and accounting. My job is consulting. I always face balance sheets and “no, we can’t” answers from the finance department. But now I understand what they’re going through because I’ve attended an excellent accounting class. It was a fantastic experience. It was taught in an unusual way. I think it’s a new [approach] even at Wharton and they were testing it on us. I’m telling you it’s fantastic. So my favorite class so far has been the accounting class.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there certain key subject areas or topic areas that professional business women in the Middle East feel they might need more exposure to on an international basis than they now have?

Shaheen: I don’t think it is Arab women only…. We [took] a course [aimed at] women [in general] in the workplace — the issues we face as women in our workplace and how we behave when we face challenges. I found this course very interesting. It would be excellent if we could promote it for women in general, not just for women in the Middle East.

Knowledge@Wharton: How can you relate that course to your personal experience in the workplace as a woman?

Shaheen: It was [about] being proud to be a woman and not surrendering or giving up because you’re a woman. You don’t need to work harder than your colleagues just to prove a point … to prove that you’re capable and qualified. I think that’s a fantastic observation.

Knowledge@Wharton: But I’ve heard from some Arab women that, in fact, they do need to work harder. They need to work two or three times harder.

Shaheen: Again, I don’t think it’s just an Arab woman’s challenge. It’s women around the globe…. I worked in Canada, as I said, and I worked in the Middle East. In both cases regarding the executive managers I’ve seen who are females, yes, that observation was true about them. They were trying to prove that they were qualified, capable and stronger than their peers so they had to work harder.

Knowledge@Wharton: In your business experience in the Middle East, have you ever personally felt discriminated against because you’re a woman?

Shaheen: Not at all, actually. I did face that fear, to be honest with you, because of the stereotype. I lived in Toronto for seven years so I wasn’t sure how the work environment would be in the Middle East. But I can quote for you the hospitality COO in my company, who is German. She said to me: “Raghda, as a German woman I face less racism and sexism in the Middle East than I ever faced anywhere else.” So it’s a very supportive environment. We have many executive women. I’m living, as I mentioned, in Dubai right now. There is a foundation for leadership for women supported by the ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid. To be honest, I’m very happy to be there to receive some of the support. I myself have been on an exchange program that supports me as a woman.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned that you’ve had a lot of contact with other women in the program here. Do you feel that part of the value of this program is to help you set up a network of women you will keep in touch with when you leave? And do you have that kind of opportunity in Dubai to set up these networks? Is that something that can happen there easily?

Shaheen: I’ve been always interested in such networks with women. Since getting my undergraduate degree in Canada, I have been part of a Women in Engineering program because I’ve always been a minority. Here, yes, I think that’s the main purpose of the program. But the network should not only be for women…. We should expand it because the world is not only women out there. We should extend our hand to help men also…. We should focus on the development of relationships between females and males in the workplace so that both can work together and prosper together.

Knowledge@Wharton: I have never been to Dubai. But I get the sense that you’re one of a rare breed of women in that area. You are very educated, very articulate. You’ve had work experiences in Canada, in the U.S. You’re going to be working in Chicago when you leave. But in Dubai you are definitely a minority in terms of the women there, correct?

Shaheen: It’s not true, but thank you for the compliment. There are a lot of cosmopolitan girls there and ladies. Actually, I’m the fourth one in this program from my company and the number is increasing. As I mentioned earlier, I was in an exchange program similar to this but it was both males and females with American businessmen and women. The observation was the same. Again, you would be surprised that we have females who are like those you mentioned — cosmopolitan, speaking good English, having exposure to the world. I think the world is getting smaller. Dubai is where everything is happening nowadays.

Knowledge@Wharton: Right, it is very cosmopolitan itself. 

Shaheen: It is a very cosmopolitan city. Again, as I mentioned, exposure to [different] cultures is very high in the Middle East. It’s close to Europe. It’s close to China, India, the Far East. I think the geographical location really helps.

Knowledge@Wharton: But is it generational? How old are you?

Shaheen: I’m 25.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you feel that women in your generation are having a very different experience than women who are 45 or 50?

Shaheen: I [believe that's true] everywhere in the world. Even here, the current generation is different than their parents. Yes, we’re developing with the media, and with the technology. We watch “American Idol.” We watch your TV shows. We watch “Oprah,” “Dr. Phil”…

Knowledge@Wharton: Is that a good thing?

Shaheen: I don’t know about that. [We watch] “Sex in the City.” So I guess it’s just that the exposure is getting higher and higher…. [Also], it’s because the media to a certain degree exposes you to the American streets, environments and buildings. So when we went to New York, most of us felt that we had there before. We saw the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. You feel that you’ve been on the streets of New York even if you’ve never been there because you always see it on TV. So that’s what increasing the exposure; it’s the technology. Believe it or not, the political problems are playing a good part here because we have to learn about what’s happening out there in the world. Most of the political situation in the Middle East is highly related to the U.S. So that’s why we’re highly exposed and are learning a lot about you.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about Gaza City, where you went to high school? Is that as sophisticated and developed as Dubai in terms of opportunities for women?

Shaheen: Opportunities for women in Gaza I would say are as bad as the opportunities for men. It’s not because of [gender]…. Unfortunately, the political situation is really bad down there. As I mentioned earlier, they don’t have the opportunity to [be] exposed [to other places] or to travel as much. But before the political situation deteriorated in 2001 was when I first started my exchange program. When I was 16, I was in a Norwegian exchange program, so we had the Norwegian students come into Gaza and we traveled to Oslo. So when the political situation was stable, yes, Gaza was doing well. I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to Dubai because Dubai is, relatively speaking, stable. It’s safe. There is no war there. The political situation is stable. Whereas for Gaza it is not, but hopefully it will be one day.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’ve probably come from a very supportive family as well. Is that correct? Your parents have been supportive so you don’t face any disapproval about what you’re doing or where you’re going or anything like that?

Shaheen: Of course. All the way.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you live alone in Dubai?

Shaheen: No, I live with them. Actually, they moved to come and live with me. They were supporting me all the way. When I was in Canada, my mom and my dad would take turns to come and visit me. They were living in Gaza so sometimes they would be back and forth between Gaza and Toronto. And then when I made the decision to move to Dubai, we thought that it was time for us to be together. So that’s why we moved all of us to Dubai.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is it fairly common for young professionals to live with their parents?

Shaheen: Yes. I guess the Arabic culture is like most of the Eastern cultures. They are very much family oriented. It’s not very common for girls to move out of their family houses, even guys, until they get married. That’s just how the culture is.

Knowledge@Wharton: So what are your plans now for the next few years? You’re going to Chicago?

Shaheen: For three months.

Knowledge@Wharton: What will you be doing there?

Shaheen: I heard that I’ll be working in green initiatives, which I’m very excited about because that’s what my graduation project here at Wharton is about. And I’ll be working on the submission for the Olympics 2016.

Knowledge@Wharton: That’s terrific.

Shaheen: How exciting is that? I’m very excited because I think I’ll be having higher exposure to this green technology, which is booming as well in the Middle East, especially in Dubai. And afterwards, I always had the plan that I wanted to go for my MBA. That’s why I was very excited about this opportunity [at] Wharton, which was always my dream school…. Now it’s time for me to start working on my GMAT.

Knowledge@Wharton: So you plan to apply to graduate school?

Shaheen: Correct.

Knowledge@Wharton: Will that be after you complete your work in Chicago?

Shaheen: Yes. I’m planning to enjoy the experience to the maximum and not study while I’m there. 

Knowledge@Wharton: What would you like to do after business school?

Shaheen: In the long term, I would like to work in the government and get some experience in the public administration sector.

Knowledge@Wharton: Where?

Shaheen: In Dubai…. Then afterwards I would like to teach and become a professor.

Knowledge@Wharton: An engineering professor? A business professor?

Shaheen: I haven’t worked much with [engineering]. I would like to teach in a business school. I would like to teach an MBA class.

Knowledge@Wharton: So, who knows? We could see you back here sometime…. I have one final question. There’s a story in The Wall Street Journal today talking about the steep declines in countries around the world, specifically Mexico, Germany and Japan, and how they are getting the brunt of this financial collapse. Are you feeling the impact of the financial crisis at all in Dubai?

Shaheen: I cannot deny that this financial crisis has hit the whole world hard. Dubai is a very global city, a cosmopolitan city. And it’s very highly related to the [rest of] the world economy. So, yes, it does affect investments in Dubai. However, the government is being very [supportive]. About a month ago, the government of Abu Dhabi issued bonds for 30 billion Dirham, which is almost $10 billion, to support the economy in the UAE. And since then, the situation – I’ve been here a month so far and I’m always in touch with my colleagues to understand the situation and I read the news — is starting to recover. So some companies are starting to hire again. Some [employees] are receiving their bonuses and their [annual] appraisals. So, yes, I think we’ve been affected. But also I think we’re having a stronger recovery there because the government has the funds to support it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Thank you for joining us and good luck in Chicago.

Shaheen: Thank you. It was my pleasure. 

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