Why you should care

Because this geologist-turned-tycoon has found success by delivering the unexpected.

When Dr. Shaikha Al Maskari was 6, Abu Dhabi’s Emir Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan patted her head and said, “One day, you’ll be our country’s ambassador in the world.”

Sixty years later, the Emirati woman has exceeded his expectations by leading Al Maskari Holding, a powerful conglomerate of 20 multinational firms. She is the first Arab woman to run such a large company — and she’s had to challenge religious myths and stereotypes to do so. But unlike the Emir, she never predicted such success.

Some are born into business and some have it thrust upon them — I was the latter.

- Dr. Shaikha Al Maskari

“Some are born into business and some have it thrust upon them — I was the latter,” she says, noting how her career was prompted by the tragic losses of her mother and husband. Her misfortunes taught her that the best way to approach life and business is always to expect the unexpected.

Of course, Al Maskari started at the top, already the daughter of a tycoon. And while she’s a pioneer herself, the Arab world still doesn’t have many more female CEOs. In fact, many successful Arab businesswomen, including those in the UAE, run family holdings. But tough times can strike all of us, regardless of privilege.

For Al Maskari, the tough times began with the death of her mother, who, just two days before she died, signed the first-ever agreement with a German company to build an oil refinery in the UAE. Al Maskari says her mother was a strong and dynamic woman — and a philanthropist who founded numerous orphanages.

Al Maskari was 40 and living in Abu Dhabi with her family of three young children, oblivious to the demands of running a company.

Shortly after her mother’s funeral, the calls began. “They said, ‘Your mom signed a contract with a German company to build a refinery in the Emirates. What should we do now?’” Al Maskari remembers. Shaking her head, she recalls saying, “‘Just wait,’ because I didn’t know what to do.”

This is my family’s legacy.

- Dr. Shaikha Al Maskari

And then Al Maskari was dealt another painful, life-altering blow: Soon after saying goodbye to her mother, Al Maskari lost her husband and the love of her life, Dr. Donald Henry Hase, a geology professor at the University of Iowa. She was suddenly alone — with a business to run and two boys and a girl to raise.

“I spent weeks crying and praying for guidance. Finally I thought: This is my family’s legacy. I’ll do it,” the devout Muslim recalls.

Al Maskari was already a trained geologist – with an undergraduate degree from the University of London, and graduate degrees, including a Ph.D., from Indiana University – who had 10 years of experience when she took over the family oil business in 1989. She had worked as an inspector for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. — the only woman among 9,000 men — but she was an “upstream” geologist, she explains, who “knew nothing about the downstream, the trading of oil.”

While observing the Muslim mourning period for widows, Al Maskari made it her business to learn all she could about the oil trade.

With Al Maskari at the helm, a family company dedicated exclusively to oil has grown into a successful international conglomerate. Her firms, including Tricon Group, have worldwide partnerships and joint ventures with several governments. One of her companies, Johnson Controls and Global Communications, is in the Global Fortune 500 and netted $42.7 billion in sales last year.

Dr. Shaikha al Maskari at the 5th World Islamic Economic Forum, 2009.

Dr. Shaikha al Maskari at the 5th World Islamic Economic Forum, 2009.

Relying on simple tenets learned at business school, she explains, “I was trained whenever I analyze anything to think ‘What if not?’” And she’s been putting this out-of-the-box thinking to good use for decades.

Al Maskari may have grown up wealthy, but she learned early that with power comes responsibility. She has spent her career seeking ways to transform that power into positive change.

When her oil firm needed construction and she wanted it done in-house, she was told: “But you don’t own a construction firm.” She responded, “What if not?” and then acquired one.

When she saw the field engineers needed better food, Al Maskari launched catering firm and bulk food giant Tricon Food Services.

She continued to fill holes as she built the company, adding a media firm to handle publications and public relations, security to improve guards’ manners in airports, as well as renewable energy, gold mining, health-care and real estate entities.

Unexpected decisions also helped propel her company’s brand. While on a flight to Dubai, for example, she changed the oil firm’s name from Al Maskari Establishment, which sounded “too tribal,” to Tricon Energy. When she landed, she informed her staff of the change, effective immediately. “Tricon” reflects the three continents — Europe, Asia and America — in which they work.

However, as a conservative Muslim businesswoman, Al Maskari has encountered opposition, some of it sexist.

Some men were so surprised to find a woman in the boardroom when they arrived for meetings that they would turn on their heels and leave. “I own the company,” she would say. “Why don’t you sit and talk to me?”

I own the company. Why don’t you sit and talk to me?

- Dr. Shaikha Al Maskari

But Al Maksari views her gender as an advantage, noting that women act from a philanthropic point of view, doing not only what is good for business but what is also for the general good.

“When I see injustice, I don’t keep it inside, I go after it,” she says. Told she could not establish a new company as a female in a man’s world, she refused to accept it. “[I] asked them to show me the place in the Quran where it says a woman can’t own a construction company.”

In a country where working women are still the exception — representing just 14 percent of the total workforce and only 1.7 percent of company boards — Al Maskari has been and remains an inspiration to many.

“[Al Maskari] is not only recognized for her achievements in the business world, she is a role model for women. Her words inspire them to realize their talent and to achieve greater goals,” says Carmen Jreissati, of Abu Dhabi’s Central Business District Network of Women.

All told, Al Maskari’s companies employ 270,000 people in 14 countries, comprising what she calls a “big family.”

This matriarchal view is another of Al Maskari’s trademarks. Her nurturing style contributes to the company’s success by earning the workers’ commitment and devotion. Loyalty stems from respect, she says, “but this doesn’t come instantly; you need to earn it with compassion. So that everyone, from the chairman to the sweeper, feels like they belong.”

Outside the corporate realm, she has financially “adopted” 2,000 children and set up many charitable organizations, from a soup kitchen in St. Petersburg to an orphanage in India. In the future, Al Maskari hopes to use her success to empower other Arab women through networks like the Arab International Women’s Forum, which works to provide Arab women equal rights in both the workplace and society.

Al Maskari is a crusader — a woman of action lighting the path so future generations of Arab women can follow in her footsteps toward a more equal and prosperous future. And at every step, she encourages them to ask, What if not?

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