Karen Hughes with summit participants.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (WOMENSENEWS)–At a summit here this week for Middle East businesswomen, Karen Hughes, U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, announced partnerships with local groups to form business network hubs for women.

The hubs are intended to provide women in Bahrain, Dubai, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Saudi Arabia places to network, find business resources and hear speakers from around the world.

The U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative will provide funding and logistical support for these hubs as part of a $3.97 million grant to the Beyster Institute, an organization based at the University of California, San Diego. The institute, which produced this week’s summit, provides executive training and outreach to promote entrepreneurship. Hughes did not indicate when the hubs will officially open.

In her opening address, Hughes cited the statistic that 50 percent of the region’s population is under the age of 24; thus, about 100 million new jobs need to be created during the next 15 years. Women will be needed to meet that goal, she said.

“All the studies show that the more women participate in their societies, the better off their societies are,” Hughes told an estimated 250 women from 17 Middle Eastern countries gathered here. “They’re healthier, better educated and more prosperous.”

In a speech read by a representative of Salah Salem bin Omair Al Shamsi, president of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Al Shamsi asserted that local governments are working to improve women’s work force participation.

Karen Hughes announces Mideast businesswomen's network.

“There is no denying that the key issues which will be addressed in this summit . . . and which are related to the issues of investment, economic enterprises (and) difficulties facing businesswomen . . . will all receive attention and support at all levels in the Middle East and North African region in general, and the Arab countries in particular,” she said.

Supporting Local Businesswomen

The chief objective of this week’s conference–which included panels, networking events and discussions simultaneously translated in Arabic, English and French–was to support local businesswomen, a goal the State Department said serves U.S. interests in promoting stability in the region.

“A more peaceful and prosperous Middle East makes for a more peaceful and prosperous world, benefiting everyone,” Chad Bettes, a State Department spokesperson, said.

Bettes said attendees ranged from young women launching their careers to those on Forbes’ list of the region’s most powerful women. Presenters included Suhair Al Ali, Jordan’s minister of industry and international cooperation, and Raja Easa Al Gurg, who runs more than 20 manufacturing, trading and real estate companies as managing director of the United Arab Emirates-based Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group.

Currently, 20 percent of Middle Eastern women are employed outside of their homes, according to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, and the United Nations reports that 20 percent of Arab citizens subsist on less than $14 per week.

Hughes was dogged by criticism after a September 2005 town hall meeting with students at Dar Al-Hikmah women’s college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, during which she said she hoped Saudi women would come to achieve greater freedom, such as the rights to drive and vote. Some students afterwards took issue with these judgments, contending that they do participate in their society and that Western lifestyles were not for them.

Non-controversial Appearance

At this conference, however, she has stirred no apparent controversies, despite the low ebb in U.S. popularity in some parts of the region.

In Jordan, for instance, only 15 percent of the people have positive views of the United States, down from 25 percent in 2000, according to a study released in June by the Pew Research Center.

The initiative has spent $293 million over four years promoting women’s political, economic and educational reform in the Middle East and North Africa.

The United States spends roughly $10 billion each month on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the dip in U.S. support in the region since Sept. 11, 2001, Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said efforts like this could help improve U.S. relations in the region.

“If we can keep the focus on economic development, building business relationships, I think there’s more common ground to be found between the U.S. and Middle East with regard to women, so the focus is right,” Coleman told Women’s Enews. “These types of meetings, dialogues are always worthwhile to build bridges, networks.”

Contacts, If Not Deals

A year and a half after the Middle East Partnership Initiative’s first business women’s summit in May 2005 in Tunis, Tunisia, it is unclear whether those attendees have formed business partnerships with women they met at the conference, but many remain in close contact with one another.

Randa Abdou is founder and CEO of two companies based in Giza, Egypt: Marketing Mix, a marketing consulting firm, and Creative Lab, an advertising agency. Abdou said she is in touch with dozens of women from the summit with business plans between them “up in the air.”

Dina Aba Yazeed, a summit participant and marketing communication manager for Advanced Computer Technology–a Giza, Egypt-based firm which sells software to hotel firms–also participated in the initiative’s first business women’s summit in Tunisia. Earlier that year, she also received a U.S. scholarship to attend a three-week training program in San Diego for Middle Eastern business women in the information, technology and communications sectors.

Since then she has founded the Agyal Association for Social Development in Cairo, a nongovernmental organization that teaches business skills to students who cannot afford school.

She said while she worries about some aspects of U.S. foreign policy–such as whether the country will attempt to intervene in Syria or Iran in the future–she deeply appreciates the institute’s program.

“I see people trying to help, so I say thank you,” she said.

Kara Alaimo earned a bachelor of arts degree from New York University, where she studied journalism and gender and sexuality. She lives and writes in New York City, where she works for the Mayor’s Office and studies urban affairs.

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