Sahia Ahmad, General Counsel, Emirates Investment Authority
How long have you been working for your current company?
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I qualified as a barrister in London. After I qualified, I came back to Dubai, my home, in the United Arab Emirates and started working for a small firm doing corporate and commercial work. My mentor moved to Allen & Overy and took me with her a year later. I stayed at Allen & Overy for eight years doing corporate work.
I was headhunted to work for the Dubai Government as general counsel to the Corporate Office, the predecessor of Dubai World. In five years at that role, I was instrumental in creating Dubai World, and led exciting projects such as the magnificent Palm Island of Dubai, Atlantis The Palm, the acquisition of P&O by DP World and numerous transactions.
In 2007, after creating Dubai World and bringing all the group to a mature stage, I returned to private practice to join Reed Smith as a partner in their Dubai office.
Two years ago I was headhunted from Reed Smith to become the first General Counsel of Emirates Investment Authority, the Sovereign Wealth Fund of the UAE Federal Government.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
I am proud to be the first person from the UAE to become a member of the UK Bar, the first woman from the UAE to become a partner in an international law firm and the first to hold a general counsel role in government.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
My current role is that of building a new organisation for the future of my country. This is a challenge and also the most attractive aspect of my job. Women in the UAE have the support of our leaders in the UAE. Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Prime Minister of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai, is very progressive in supporting women in the workplace and in Government.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
I am a mother of one boy and three girls. My eldest child is twelve and the youngest is four. Creating a balance between work and home is crucial for me and my family’s well-being. Being around a wider family network helps me to keep this balance. In our culture and religion, we live near our parents and all help each other out. Achieving the balance is always more difficult when you are struggling in the early years of your career. As you progress, it becomes easier to draw the line and say no to work when necessary for family. My parents play an important role in my children’s life and support me whenever I have to travel or work late. I have always worked; only taking maternity breaks when I had each of my children. Each time I went back to work, my mother was there to help make sure that my children were not neglected. My husband is also a professional and is supportive of my career and proud of what I have achieved in my career.
Did you have a mentor or role model in your career or while you were studying law? Who were they and how did they help you?
My mentor was Jane Townsend, who is a partner in Allen & Overy. She was a partner when I started working for her and a mother of three. She taught me everything during the early years of my career, including balancing work and home life. She always said you can only manage two out of three things: work, family and a social life. I chose work and family, so I have less time for socializing but enjoy my work and my family to the full. She also taught me that working in a man’s world does not require you to forget that you are a woman. I believe femininity is one of our core strengths as a woman and we should not be ashamed of it to succeed in a man’s world.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
I believe corporate diversity initiatives are important coupled with education and awareness, in order to be effective. The initiative and the will to change must come from the decision makers. However, this should be coupled with awareness and education at the grassroots for people to understand the benefits of diversity, from a young age.
The minority in any initiative should also be persistent and prepared to work hard to break barriers to achieve what is being sought. Women can often be their own worst enemies by not supporting other women in the workplace.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
Working in the Middle East as a woman is a challenge as it is a male-dominated and segregated society. Although international firms now have a greater percentage of women lawyers, with the US taking the lead in these numbers, in the Middle East, women lawyers are few and far between, with even fewer in partner or general counsel positions. Executives are mostly men and prefer their advisors to be men. Those women who are in senior positions usually have had to sacrifice their home life, by not marrying or having children, to be able to dedicate their time to their careers.
On the upside, our society is also chivalrous. Women are respected and treated well in the workplace. There is less harassment. With the support of the progressive leadership in the UAE, women are being given a better platform for their role in the workplace. This gives us the ability to perform within a chivalrous respectful environment.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
The change in the legal industry globally has been driven both by more lawyers in the workplace, but also by more women in executive roles, creating a better platform for women in the corporate world generally. The greatest change in the last five years is that there are more women in senior in-house roles than previously. A general counsel is a trusted advisor. With more women in this role men are finally accepting that we are here to stay.