Women in the Middle East continue to gain influence in financial matters. It is estimated that women in the region controlled US$385 million in assets in 2011. For some investors, real estate remains one of the safest investments, and in light of the ongoing unrest in the region, ownership of properties outside the Middle East has become attractive for those seeking safe-haven assets.

As vice president of Gatehouse Bank, a Shariah-compliant bank in London, Azeemeh Zaheer is hosting economic forums for women in the Arab world to educate them about financial investment options so they can exercise their financial clout.

Raised in Ohio and Texas, Zaheer worked in the oil and gas sector as vice-consul for the British embassy in Texas. Prior to that, she was director of marketing and public relations for an environmental engineering firm. She was also a founding member and officer for Women of Water, a nonprofit organization supporting women entering the environmental engineering and sciences industry. She began working in London two years ago. This fall, she worked with Nabila Al Anjari to host a panel in the second annual Gulf Economic Forum for Women in Kuwait.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What do Middle East women consider important that distinguishes their investing priorities from male clients?

Azeemeh Zaheer: Real estate has been the source of revenue and wealth for years. Many men in the Middle East have been investing in real estate both locally and abroad. Women, however, are relatively new in these types of investments and often refer to the men in households to make the final decision on a real-estate investment. This decision-making process has considerably shifted to incorporate women's interests and motivations as this segment becomes more financially independent and investments become tailor made to suit interests.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Why host a special seminar just for women?

Zaheer: As women grow in 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.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Regarding the forums for your clientele, you tailor it for an individual country. Why do that?

Zaheer: All the forums we have done or are planning are bespoke to audience and region. Every region is very different. Most Kuwaiti women travel abroad. They've been in business for many years. They've been involved in their family businesses. They're very business savvy. They've been in the workforce for many, many years. They're very different from women in other parts of the Gulf. So the presentation I'm giving in Kuwait is very advanced in that we can get into a little bit more technical detail, including yield shifts, location, primary versus secondary markets.

The forum we had in Jeddah included local businesswomen, women in the communities and students but the roles that the women were playing in Jeddah were not at the same sort of level that the women in Kuwait are at, for the most part.

And I'm generalizing here.Women in Riyadh are taking more lead roles, more CEO roles, deputy CEOs, managing organizations. And you would think that was just this the case in Jeddah as the City is known for being more open and liberal. You can take off your headscarf if you're sitting in a restaurant. In Riyadh, the laws are a little bit stricter. It's conservative when you walk around the street; you don't see as many women. The hotels are still very segregated. Yet, the women in Riyadh are taking a leading role in managing businesses.

I was very impressed to see the growth of women entrepreneurs and leaders in Riyadh; there is a huge paradigm shift and for the better. There are still a large percentage of women in Saudi that have little to no experience in investing, so we need to cater a more custom-built seminar for them.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do women invest in the same portfolio as your male clients or do you set up separate portfolios for women?

Zaheer: We provide the same portfolios and investment opportunities for both men and women. Our products are relatively low risk and aim towards long-term wealth preservation and income stream. Our low- to medium-risk profile is suitable generally for women, as studies have shown that women are more risk averse than men. As wealth increases, the proportion of wealth held as risky assets is greater for men. This appears to be so even when decision-makers of both genders have the same level of expertise and experience.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do Middle Eastern women invest in assets in the Gulf? Does it take a bit more knowledge and information to convince them that investments in Europe and America are worthy?

Zaheer: I don't convince my clients to invest in Europe and America. They approach me to find solutions to meet their investment objectives. Most of the ladies feel a sense of comfort investing into tangible assets that are in transparent regulatory environments and cities they have visited.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How has the recession in the U.S. and Europe affected investment decisions for women in the Middle East?

Zaheer: Most men and women still feel precarious about investing after the recession. However, after the Arab Spring, most of my clients are seeking safe-haven assets.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is real estate investment outside the Middle East considered a safe haven, in light of the unrest in parts of the Middle East?

Zaheer: Yes, absolutely. We look for assets that are located in good regulatory regimes, where there is transparency and a strong legal system so that their rights and their rights of ownership are protected. We also look at longevity and history.

Most of my clients feel very comfortable investing in assets in cities they've visited. If you look at the visits or tourism from the Middle East to Europe specifically, you see that eight out of ten wealthy families have come to London. That's just my estimation. They've visited London. They understand how the system works. They see these assets for themselves. They feel comfortable.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: By end of 2008, women in the Middle East controlled 22% or US$346 million in assets and that figure had grown by 11.5% to US$385 million by 2011. How did women attain such wealth in the region, given there are still debates about political participation and driving rights in some countries there?

Zaheer: I actually think those two issues are very separate. Women actually have a very strong voice in the Middle East. Kuwaiti women are members of parliament and they're very active in members in government. In Saudi Arabia, you definitely have movement but they have voices that have been heard through their families — their husbands and their fathers. They're quite influential in that way. More often, in the past decade, you see women going abroad, studying in the U.K. and the U.S., and bringing back new ideas and contributing to their family offices. As these offices grow and they add different businesses, a lot of the women in the families take ownership of some of the different divisions.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So these women are actually in charge of their finances?

Zaheer: I think women definitely have their own finances. Typically in the Middle East, they like to separate it from their husbands or fathers and keep a little allocation for themselves, but in large financial decisions, men are still definitely involved in a large number of cases.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: A global wealth survey concluded that 45% of wealth professionals in the Middle East would rather relocate to the U.K. than any other part of the world, including the U.S. Are there historic reasons for this?

Zaheer: I think there are historical reasons. If I look at my own clients or our own Chairman, he says, "I come to London now and I take my kids there. I remember being young, visiting Hamley's and just walking around picking out toys." London for them is like a second home. It's a lot closer than visiting the U.S. The U.K. is also friendlier, after 9/11, for investors. Walking around Mayfair or Knightsbridge, just for myself, it's not untypical to smell Middle-Eastern food. You would see women dressed in full burqas or hijabs. It's just seen as more inclusive.

I'm pretty much a bubble-gum American. But my mother is Burmese and Iranian and my father is Pakistani. So we're first-generation immigrants to the U.S.

When I worked in Texas, I worked for about four-and-a-half years for the British government. I was employed at the embassy but worked at the local consulate. I was a vice-consul. I was in Republican Texas, working in the good 'ole boys industry that was predominantly male-oriented and the men are usually 55 and older in that industry at that time. I had a name like Azeemeh and I was a young woman. They would say, "What the hell are you going to teach me?"

I would say, "I'm not going to teach you anything, but what I'm going to do is help connect you to the right people. Navigating through that industry was really difficult. The feminist movement has gone in cycles. Some of the women who have made it far up haven't always made it easy for other women coming into industry. But there are some women who have been really great.

The CFO of Marathon Oil, was one of my mentors. I looked up to her and she helped me navigate [through the industry.] I'd like to help other women and help level the playing field for women from similar backgrounds and facing similar issues.

Financial literacy is so important. One of the first things we looked at Gatehouse was yes, there was a huge potential in increasing our demographics of investors in the Middle East. But you can sell somebody a product and that's it. Or you can actually let them review, analyze, and understand what their products are and help them with family financial planning. What are they going to teach their sisters? It's much more useful promoting financial literacy rather than promoting a product. People will look to you as an advisor and that's exactly what wealth management is trying to do. That's what we're trying to develop at Gatehouse Bank.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You touched upon some skills you acquired maneuvering through a man's working world, which I think would be helpful to women going through business school. Can you talk about that some more?

Zaheer: Men and women are generally the same in my mind. We have similarities and in fact, women are getting more educated than men. I think statistics show women are getting more higher education degrees than men.

What women bring to the workforce is a [different] management style. Women tend to share information. They tend to be more transformational. They engage their employees in contributing their ideas, their interests.

Men tend to lead in a power-hierarchy type of style. Women are more inclusive. They create a culture for the environment that men can't create. Women have an advantage in fostering these types of environments.

It's also industry specific. I think the oil and gas industry, for instance, is different than banking. And banking is different than what you saw 15 years ago. You're starting to see an evolution. The Middle East is following on that. You walk into a meeting and the head decision maker is a woman. More often in Kuwait, and in Riyadh, you're seeing more women coming into meetings. It's such a refreshing change. The meeting tone is different. What they bring in, the ideas, are completely different.

One of my first experiences in the Middle East was really interesting. The first time I visited Saudi Arabia I went to a meeting at a very large financial institution. I got into the elevator and two gentlemen behind me were speaking in Arabic. I don't speak Arabic. I continue to wait in the elevator but the door doesn't close. And I heard, "Go, go, go." I said, "Go, where?" And they said, "Outside." I said, "OK." I go outside and I'm wearing full hijab. I wonder, "Oh gosh what do I do? There are no women in the lobby. I walk around and finally see a ladies' list and a picture of a lady. And I go, "A-ha." Lesson one: Women have separate elevators. By the time I get into the meeting, the men that are in the meeting are so respectful and so professional. There's a stereotype of Saudi men but I would say they can be just as, or sometimes more, respectful than the men in the U.S. in the way they treat women.

Lesson two: Don't get excited when you see a restaurant full of men. You can't sit with them. I came back to the hotel after a long day of meetings. I went down and sat in the middle of the restaurant. And a man said, "Excuse me, madam, you need to sit in the family section." And I said, "I need to sit here first to start a family?" as a joke. I get kicked out of the restaurant. So I realized I have to be very careful. I don't have a "get-out-of-jail free" card in Saudi.

There are definitely some cultural nuances. There are challenges for women, just walking around, or sitting in restaurants. Their voices are heard in other ways. Living my whole life in the U.S. and coming and seeing a completely different culture, I didn't feel they are oppressed. I don't feel they are lacking opportunities. I see they are gaining it in a different traction, in a different space than what we have in the U.S. but the movement is happening. There is a paradigm shift going on in Saudi Arabia, especially in Riyadh.

I hosted a dinner for the finance minister's daughter and some other female CEOs. They were just fantastic, super, super intelligent. They really wanted to help develop the other women in the country, and put together a forum for them. There is a change occurring. This is the best time to get into that and participate and really make a difference in the Middle East.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: This is the second year you're hosting the Gulf Women Economic Forum in Kuwait. Why was it necessary and important to specialize for women?

Zaheer: Real estate in particular is important. Real estate has been the source of revenue and wealth for years. Many men have been investing in real estate locally and abroad for a very long time. Women from the Middle East are relatively new in international real estate. In the past, they've deferred to men to make decisions in real estate. So the decision-making process in the past five years have significantly shifted to corporate women in terms of motivation and interest, so the female segment have become more financially independent. So we need to provide them with other solutions to diversify their portfolios.

We as an organization are big into promoting women in the workforce. Our chairman's wife is a very powerful and smart woman and runs her own company in Kuwait. She's the chairperson of a production company that has made two films. So from the top down, our management has promoted women in the workplace, contributing to the overall environment.