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‘Thought process in Kuwait has retrogressed’ Discrimination against women cultural not Islamic

AMBITION, competence, and determination do not come with gender labels, but unfortunately, though women climb the corporate ladder fast enough, they steadily vaporize from the higher strata of management hierarchy. Despite an improvement in gender diversity, the oil and gas industry continues to be male dominated in Kuwait and elsewhere. With an ever increasing global demand for energy, it becomes imperative that the oil and gas industry improve its work force profile, in which female employees especially in leadership positions are the minority. In Insight, Arab Times discusses the lack of representative female component in leadership positions in oil and gas, with Sara Akbar, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Kuwait Energy, one of the fastest growing independent oil and gas exploration and production companies in the Middle East.

According to Akbar, despite the presence of qualified and experienced women professionals, there is hardly any female representation at the top management of the oil sector. One reason for this is discrimination against women. “If there are two people who are equally qualified in every respect and there is one senior job, it will always go to the man.” An inspiring role model who belies the popularly held notion that Arab women are weak, and suffering, Sara Akbar’s life is a fascinating narrative of the determination of a Kuwaiti woman to contribute to her country’s success and development. After the invasion, when the sky above Kuwait was overcast with dark fumes spewing out of the burning oil wells, Sara Akbar, participated in the massive firefighting operations that doused the raging fires. Over the years, Kuwait’s own homegrown ‘Iron Lady’ has earned a special place for herself in the higher echelons of the oil industry not only in the Middle East but elsewhere. Here, she recalls her journey and speaks of the need to encourage and promote women into leadership positions.

Question: Is it a popular notion outside the Middle East that Arab women are suppressed and deprived?
Answer: Yes, I think there is still a stereotypical image of women in the Middle East as second class citizens, without all their rights. To a great extent, this impression comes from a misunderstanding of the Islamic culture. People do not realize that if there is suppression, it is not because of Islam, it is because of the culture in these countries.

Q: What is the situation here in Kuwait?
A: Kuwait is a country where people can speak their minds; they are allowed to criticize the government or perhaps some action that has been taken. At present, there are some people in jail in Kuwait because of what I call their ‘misbehaviour’. These people were jailed not because their criticisms were constructive or destructive but because they used bad language. That is my opinion. So, as I said, in Kuwait we have an open society, people can say anything. In fact, Kuwaitis think they are experts in every aspect of life, and they criticize anything and everything. Sometimes they are taken seriously, at other times, they are ignored. In the last couple of years, people have gone to the extreme using horrible language, and that should be punished.

Q: Talking about suppression of women, you are a stirring example of leadership among Middle Eastern women. How long have you been working in the oil industry?
 A:For about 33 years.

Q: What brought you to the oil sector?
 A: I have been around oil all my life.

Q: In what way?
A: I was born near an oil field, I lived around an oil field and I played around oil refineries in my childhood.

Q: Was your father also in the oil sector?
A: Yes, he used to work in KOC.

Q: Were there other women studying with you when you decided to study chemical engineering?
A: Yes. The college of engineering is one place where women have always joined in large numbers. Until today 70% of the students in the college are women. And this is something the college struggles with because they would like to have more men. They do accept more men, but more men tend to drop out, as well.

Q: In fact I remember, you told me a few years back that the college had raised the cut off marks for women to encourage more men to enter the engineering college. Is that right?
A: Yes. That rule still applies.

Q: But did this change help more men to become engineers?
A: No. I don’t think so.

Q: Women still make it to the college despite high cut off marks?
A: Yes, if you look at the high schools more women are in the top levels than men.

Q: Was it difficult for you as a woman in the initial stages?
A: No

Q: Were you the only Kuwaiti woman in your field of work?
A: No, there were many women who were engineers and geologists. They worked in many different areas. The only restriction was that women were not allowed in the fields, and we managed to get through that, as well.

Q: I remember you say that you wanted to work in the field, but the management refused to support you because of your gender. Was it a tough struggle that time?
A: Yes, it was tough because they were not used it, but I think men in those days were far more open minded. Truly, the Kuwaitis in sixties, seventies and eighties, were far more liberal and acceptable of gender equality, more respectful of women than they are today.

Q: Why do you say this?
A: Kuwait had a very open society in the past. Look around you today. Look at the Parliament. They issue laws like women cannot work at night. The thought process has regressed in Kuwait, and if the government does not take any steps, Kuwait will change into a closed society. The situation has really deteriorated in Kuwait. From a cultured, civilized society, we have gone backwards.

Q: Why is this so?
A: There is a change in the composition of society, with more of a tribal influence. I cannot say that the change is due to people becoming more religious because this has nothing to do with religion. Society is more tribal and conservative with women being targeted the most.

Q: I come back to your professional life. You were the first Kuwaiti woman to be sent to an offshore oil rig. How was your first day out at the oil rig?
A: The agreement I had with the company was that I would be allowed to work in the oil fields only during day time. When I went to the offshore rig, it took me some time to get there. I reached the place at 1 p.m. I was looking forward to doing this job, but 4 pm was our cut off time, and I had just started work. I called my boss to ask him if he would send my replacement. He said that the weather was rough for the boat and asked me wait till they managed to send a crew boat with the replacement. The crew boat arrived at 10 at night, but the substitute engineer refused to get on the rig because the weather was rough. He decided to go back, and I had to continue on that job till the next day. So I spent on that first job something around 20 hours. I was very excited, and it felt like home on that offshore rig. It was a beautiful rig.

Q: Is it true that you knew each of the 800 oil wells like the back of your hands?
A: Yes, I knew them well. You know, I think I had a special relationship with the oil wells.

Q: In what way?
A: I used to give them names. Each well has its own character. In my opinion, oil wells are just like humans with their own fingerprint. Each well has its own electrical log, its own quality of crude. There is no two well that is exactly the same. Ever.

Q: Which one was your favourite?
A: It was Magwa 119. It was a special deep well with sweet crude and high pressure. It was one of the good wells. I worked a lot on that well.

Q: Were there other women professionals, while you were with KOC? What kind of job did these women do?
A: We had geologists, engineers, civil engineers, project managers and so on. We had women in all disciplines of work.

Q: Why is it that despite so many qualified women professionals, we hardly see women at the top management of the oil sector?
A: I truly believe this is because there is discrimination against women. If there are two people who are equally qualified in every respect and there is one senior job, it will always go to the man.

Q: What is the reason? Do they think women cannot be good leaders or is it a cultural issue?
A: I think it is cultural. They think this is a man’s turf, and they will not allow women in. It is very unfortunate. In the past, there were senior women even in the board of KPC, in the senior management of KPC, at all levels of KPC, and today there are only two women EMDs on the board.

Q: Apart from KPC how many women are there in top management in Kuwait?
A: I think there is about four to five percent, and they are mostly in the health and education sector.

Q: No, I am talking about oil.
A: In oil? There is none. There are no woman leaders in the oil sector. There are only two women in senior positions. Only two, and probably we have a few managers in the whole sector, but not many.

Q: What is strange is that this phenomenon is not isolated to Kuwait. There are hardly any women decision-makers in the oil industry in the Middle East in general. Why is there a glass ceiling as far as women are concerned?
A: There are some women in various sectors even in Saudi Arabia in Aramco in administration. There are a few engineers, as well.

Q: In Saudi Arabia?
A: Yes, there are plenty of Saudi women working in Aramco, but again they do not get to the top.

Q: They are stuck in middle management?
A: Unfortunately, Yes. There some women in top management in UAE where they have issued a law saying all oil companies should have 30% women on their boards.
Arab Times: So they have introduced a quota system in Dubai?
Akbar :Yes

Q: What can one do to change the situation in Kuwait? Do you think a quota system will work?
A: Quota system could be a solution which will gradually give women positions of power. There should be equal opportunities for women on boards, and in senior management. There should be a system to ensure equal opportunity.

Q: Do women make good workers?
A: Usually women are very good workers, they are very dedicated and honest. They have all the qualities to push them into senior management. I think there are two factors behind women getting sidelined. One is the male chauvinistic factor but the other reason is due to women themselves. They get involved in family, children and so on. This distracts them especially when it is time for senior management positions. That is one area which women have to learn to handle. They have to create that work-life balance which will help them achieve these positions.

Q: You are a wife and mother and yet as a professional you have reached great heights. You managed to balance your own personal life. How did you do that?
A: The first trick is to get support from your family. That is essential. Seek support from your husband, mother, sisters and even sisters-in-law. The aim is to work as a team rather than as an individual. Travelling and leaving my children would not have been possible if I was not sure of somebody looking after them. I was very lucky to have my mother look after them. My husband and family are very supportive. The rest is your own hard work.

Q: Those who are new to Kuwait may not know that after the invasion when the sky was darkened by heavy smoke from the burning oil wells, you were one of the firefighters who helped douse the fire. How do you recall those days? How did you manage to convince the management to send you in?
A: The whole team worked together to put up a convincing case to the management to give us a chance to put out the fires in the oil wells. It was a spontaneous decision on our part. We felt we had to help, though we were not a professional firefighting team. By July, we managed to convince the company to send us in.

Q: What prompted you to join?
A: I was in Kuwait during the invasion and I had worked with the same people all that time. We were like friends. After liberation, we worked to recover data, supported the firefighting team. Moreover, I had been a field engineer for ten years, so it was natural for me to join.

Q: But you were the only woman there?
A: Yes I was the only field engineer.

Q: What was it like when you went into the burning oil fields? It must have been a furnace.
A: It was hot, but the heat was not an issue, the problem was with the smoke. We could not breathe, nor could we see. It was very dark. The road was slippery with oil, and there was ammunition everywhere. It was very risky.

Q: When and why did you start Kuwait Energy?
A: In 2005, I worked to set up the company with a group of people. By that time, I felt I could do something better in life than just work for the government.   

Q: Wasn’t it a big risk to leave a government job?
A: It is always risky when you are dealing with investments. It is also a struggle to raise funds, fulfill your commitment and make the project profitable. It is a huge challenge.

Q: Is it difficult being the Chief Executive Officer of one of the largest oil and energy companies? Has your gender ever posed a problem?
A: I will not call it a problem, but there are always challenges in life. A CEO’s job is to overcome challenges; this is how I see it. The main challenge is how to manage people and make them work together.

Q: Your mother has played a huge role in your success. I have spoken to many successful Kuwaiti women, and almost all of them have this in common. There has been a strong female presence in their lives. In a way, can we say that women in Kuwait should back each other up both in personal and professional relationships to achieve success?
A: I think it is very crucial for women to support each other. There may be women who may not be the best people to promote to positions, but even then you need to support them rather than criticize and push them down. They may have their weaknesses, but they also have their strengths, and you need to capitalize on that. In my opinion, it is very important for women to promote women, highlight their strengths and help them understand their weaknesses and overcome them. At present, we have very few women in leadership positions, and to get more women decision-makers, we need to promote them.

I go back to your point about my mother. I think what is so special about mothers is their infinite love. They know the shortcomings and strengths in their children, but they help and support them. And this is exactly what I am talking about. It is this ‘motherly’ nature that has to dominate, and this is the kind of culture we should build where women support women and the community. I believe, we will be able to solve many problems if we are able to do this.


Sara Akbar is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Kuwait Energy, a multi-national, independent, Oil & Gas Exploration and Production company. She has over 30 years of experience in upstream operations, with senior positions within Kuwait Oil Company and Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Co (KUFPEC). She joined Kuwait Oil Company in 1981, progressing rapidly towards various technical capacities and positions. In December 1999, she joined KUFPEC as Manager-New Business Development, where she played a major role in many of the Company’s accomplishments.  In 2005, her entrepreneurial interests drove her to cofound and steer Kuwait Energy.

Many awards for her key role as the only female in Kuwait’s Wild Well Killers Team responsible for extinguishing the country’s oil well fires post the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The heroic act earned her the designation “Firefighter” and a “Global 500 Award” presented by the United Nations Environmental Program. 

Awarded with the prestigious ‘Leader in Energy’ award in 2009’s ‘Women in Leadership’ Awards and Forum (WIL), which recognizes her as the first and only woman leader in the Oil and Gas industry within the Middle East.

In 2013, she won the Charles F. Rand Memorial Gold Medal for her wisdom, bravery, and leadership that made her a hero, accelerated her advancement at Kuwait Oil Company and led to her cofounding Kuwait Energy establishing her as a role model and leader in the Oil and Gas industry.

By Chaitali B Roy
Special to the Arab Times


By: Sara Akbar

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