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Alstom breaks mould as Gulf lags on hiring women as CEOs

CEOs in the UAE have the lowest average current age, but women still only account for 5% of hires Dubai Tourism
CEOs in the UAE have the lowest average age, but women only accounted for 5% of hires in 2023
  • Just 5% of 2023 hires in the UAE
  • No female CEOs in Saudi Arabia
  • Region opts for young bosses

Dalya Al Muthanna is a member of an exclusive club. In January she became Gulf CEO for the transport giant Alstom, the company behind tram systems in Dubai and Qatar. 

She was previously a senior executive at GE in the UAE, bucking the trend of men dominating senior C-suite jobs in the Gulf.

Just 5 percent of CEO hires in the UAE in the 12 months to July 2023 were women, according to new research.

Executive search company Heidrick & Struggles says CEO appointments in the Middle East have been changing to align with economic diversification and technological innovation.

But its 2023 Route to the Top report highlights that the region still lags behind on gender diversity.

On average across the Middle East, 3 percent of appointed CEOs were women. There were no women among the CEOs appointed in Saudi Arabia, making the kingdom the worst performer of the 27 markets analysed for the report.

The UAE also fell short of the global average of 8 percent.

The progress of women to the top role has been slow in many countries since the appointment of Katharine Graham at The Washington Post as the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company more than 50 years ago. 

Maliha Jilani, partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Dubai office, says: “There are certain talent strategies that companies should start emphasising, such as increasing gender diversity in leadership positions.”

The annual study analysed 1,221 CEO placements at the largest publicly listed companies globally. 

In the year to July 2023, 68 appointments were made in the Middle East. 

The Middle East had the highest percentage of new appointments (16 percent) as a region. Saudi Arabia clocked 20 percent in the country ranking, the third highest behind Poland and Switzerland. 

Middle East companies ranked the highest globally for CEOs with prior C-suite experience (90 percent).

The region also showed a preference for young CEOs, with the lowest average age at 54.5. 

CEOs appointed in the UAE have the lowest average current age of 52.7, as well as being the youngest at the time of appointment (44.1). By contrast, Saudi CEOs were aged 52.1 with only US CEOs older at 53.7.

Middle East companies have the highest share of CEOs with cross-border experience (50 percent). 

The region also has a rising preference for cross-sector experience, with leaders in Saudi Arabia increasing from 20 percent in 2022 to 27 percent in 2023, and from 23 percent to 26 percent in the UAE.

“The continued trend of hiring more CEOs with cross-border and sector backgrounds is heartening as it reflects that organisations are increasingly seeing the value of diversity, especially in meeting longer-term strategic goals for their businesses,” says Jilani.

Last month Emirates Group announced a slate of senior appointments to prepare for its next phase of growth, promoting 19 executives including six women.

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