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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Dubai's women lift veil on business
By Neil Heathcote
BBC News business reporter in Dubai

Arwa Shanti-Boxall, Petzone managing director
Starting a business in Dubai was "easy", says Arwa Shanti-Boxall

It is a Sunday evening in Petzone, one of Dubai's two pet shop emporiums.

Exotic birds fly freely around the room, while budgerigars roam precariously underfoot.

Set up and run by Arwa Shanti-Boxall, Petzone is a colourful example of how the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is providing business opportunities for a new breed of women entrepreneurs.

In a region where restrictive and conservative attitudes towards a woman's role in society often prevail, the Gulf state is an example of how women are now matching men in business.

Once the Dubai authorities understood what Arwa was trying to do, she found the business of setting up both pet shops surprisingly straightforward.

Woman's world

"I was surprised how easy things are in Dubai, to establish a business, being a woman," she told the BBC's Middle East Business Report.

Women have become much more visible in the workplace - that in itself creates changes, and enables us to achieve much more
Rula Hannoun, Dubai businesswoman

"I don't think there is any discrimination between men and women. A woman now, you can find her in airports, in banks - it's an open field."

Arwa's experience is one shared by an increasing number of women in the UAE.

Often arriving from other parts of the Arab world, they are attracted to Dubai by its booming economy - one report recently dubbed it the world's fastest growing city - and the ease of doing business there.

Good business

Rula Hannoun gave up a career in banking to set up First Edition, her own furniture store.

Dubai skyline
Dubai's economy is booming

Inevitably, she still meets men who are uncomfortable dealing with a woman, but, she says, those encounters are increasingly rare.

"Things have changed a great deal, most particularly here in Dubai over the last 10 years," she says.

"Women have become much more visible in the workplace - that in itself creates changes, and enables us to achieve much more. So things are changing, but we need now to focus on good business practice, as opposed to gender issues."

Saudi restrictions

The many opportunities for businesswomen in the UAE are not matched elsewhere in the region.

In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, women are barred from working in most sectors of the economy.

Steel factory boss Raja Easa al Gurg
Raja Easa al Gurg encourages women to start up companies

The kingdom's labour ministry recently set up a working group to study how more private sector jobs could be created for women.

Saudi Arabia's efforts are still a far cry from the more female-friendly business environment in the UAE.

Raja Easa al Gurg has worked her way up through the ranks to the role of boss at her father's steel factory.

Boosted by a booming regional construction industry, she now tours local colleges encouraging young women to set up their own firms - although she is keen to point out that starting a business is not as easy as it seems.

Business matters

"This society is a wealthy society, and we all have money - but to run a business is a very hard thing," she says.

"It is not easy just because you have money. I always emphasise that just because you have money, it does not mean you are going to be a successful businesswoman."

In addition, colleges are turning out large numbers of graduates, to the extent that the government is finding it increasingly difficult to provide jobs for them all.

But in Dubai, at least, the debate has already shifted from who can run a business, to who can run it best.

In a region where huge oil wealth has often stifled the need for change, Dubai runs a peculiarly open economy.

As governments across the Gulf look to the private sector to provide more jobs for their growing populations, the city's experience will be one they will be closely watching.

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