An Interview with Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi
By Marion Harmon
Named one of the world’s 100 most powerful women by Forbes magazine, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, minister of foreign trade for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and 1981 computer science alumna, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science at CSU, Chico’s 2009 Commencement ceremony.
“I still carry vivid memories of my days at Chico State,” said Sheikha Lubna. “I was far away from my family, but here I found a second family among my friends, my classmates, the community of Chico, and my professors who encouraged me.”
Sheikha Lubna was one of the first women in the UAE to obtain a technology degree, and in 2004 she was appointed minister of economy and planning, the first woman minister to serve in the cabinet. A member of the royal family of the emirate of Sharjah, she lectures throughout the world on economic, gender, and equality issues, and in 2005 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
How would you describe the United Arab Emirates to someone who is unfamiliar with it?
The UAE is a success story beyond compare. I am proud of our past, our rich culture and heritage, our spirit of enterprise, our political stability, our visionary leadership, our religious and cultural tolerance, and our relentless pursuit of quality and excellence. The UAE is a land of opportunities for everyone, irrespective of your nationality, culture, religion, gender, or ethnicity.
From an economic perspective, the UAE has grown at a phenomenal rate in recent years, diversifying significantly from an oil-reliant economy and launching several pioneering development projects, especially in health care, education, real estate, and infrastructure development. The policy of openness adopted by the UAE’s leadership has been the prime driver in establishing the UAE as the second-largest Arab economy.
What are your top priorities as minister of foreign trade of the UAE?
My first mission as minister of foreign trade was to strengthen our trade relations with key countries around the world, especially within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). That’s why one of my priorities is to make sure that the UAE maximizes the benefits of the GCC Common Market. Aside from the obvious benefit of enhanced regional trade, the common market strengthens our negotiating position with international economic blocs.
My ministry is also coordinating at the GCC level as an economic block to achieve free trade agreements with key trading partners and assume a solid role alongside the World Trade Organization. An important factor for convincing our allies to enter into commercial agreements with us is to further intensify our diversification efforts, to expand the number of businesses we engage in.
Given the present downturn, another focus is to discourage protectionism within the region and throughout the world. We need further stimulation of the global economy to expedite the recovery process.
What is the most important trade issue in your country’s relations with
the United States?
Today, the UAE is home to more than 30,000 Americans and more than 750 vibrant American-owned businesses. Even in terms of trade relations, we maintain a strong association with the U.S.; we are in fact the single largest export market for U.S. goods and services in the Arab World. Our bilateral trade with the U.S. in 2008 was around $15 billion, representing an increase of 32 percent over 2007’s $11.5 billion.
We are also heavily involved in several university and non-governmental organization partnerships with the U.S. that promote knowledge transfer while advancing local capacity. Prominent U.S. universities that have established their own programs and facilities in the UAE include New York University, Michigan State, George Mason, and Harvard University. Moreover, faculty from Johns Hopkins and partnerships with Cleveland Clinic, Harvard Medical School, and Mayo Clinic continue to advise us on public health issues.
You have given lectures around the world on gender issues and equality. Why is it important to you to talk about gender issues? What is the most important change that needs to happen to improve the treatment of women worldwide?
I am a firm believer that the true progress of a society or a nation can be determined by the way it treats women. Progressive thinking and economic prosperity are meaningless unless women are given the respect and honor they deserve; women should always be considered equal to their male counterparts. This is another area where the UAE is setting a fine example for regional countries. In the UAE today, women have proved their worth in every domain, be it medicine, engineering, media, sports, finance, or politics.
During my first cabinet post as minister of economy, my initial challenge was to demonstrate the ability of women to lead and to participate in governance. Today, women in the UAE hold four seats in the federal cabinet as ministers and occupy nine seats in a total of 40 seats in the Federal National Council, the country’s supreme legislative body. This is in addition to a large number of key posts women hold in various ministries and local governments.
Did your time in Chico impact your view of women’s roles and the potential for women to be leaders?
There were only about five women in a class of 30 at Chico State in the late 1970s and, even during the early 1980s, Professor Grace Hertlein was the only female professor at that time. Nevertheless, our professors treated us equally and encouraged us to identify, nurture, and maximize our potentials. I learned then that there were no limits to what I could achieve if I had enough knowledge and moved within a fair playing field. I brought this conviction with me when I returned to the UAE.
Among your many accomplishments is developing a customized manifest documentation system for the Dubai Port Authority, reducing cargo turnaround from one hour to 10 minutes, and devel-oping the leading online business-to- business company in the Middle East. What role did your training at Chico State play in such accomplishments?
My professors were consultants in the field who sent us to Silicon Valley for our projects and assignments, so I was exposed to real-life scenarios that taught me to be diligent, disciplined, and accurate. My classes were very competitive, and we had study groups that emphasized teamwork, so I learned a lot about leadership and group dynamics. All of these experiences helped me perform above expectations in the organizations I managed and worked for.
What drives you in your work?
The fact that I have a rare opportunity to make a major contribution to the growth and sustained progress of my country, which I am so proud of, is inspiration enough. I hope to be a role model who inspires other Arab women to fight all obstacles and pursue their dreams.
How did it feel to be back at Chico State?
It was a wonderful feeling. It brought back a lot of happy memories of my time in the University, especially the hospitality and the warmth of the people, and I am glad that this hasn’t changed even today. I also remember enjoying the nature around Chico, which still remains a beautiful green place.