When Shamira Jaffer received an e-mail from a company in the United Arab Emirates asking her company Signifi Solutions Inc., to bid on a project last year, she initially dismissed the request.
What kind of advantage could her Mississauga-based company, which produces retail vending machines for everything from electronics to perishable goods, possibly hope to gain in such an unfamiliar market? It wasn't until Ms. Jaffer began researching growth and economic opportunities in the Middle East that she replied to the e-mail.
"We didn't take it very seriously because we were very focused on North America, where 90 per cent of our business comes from," she recalls. "Then we realized there was quite a lot of potential there … and we started changing our focus to international markets."
UAE cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi are diversifying and growing at a lightning-fast pace. The country boasts a strong economy, with GDP of about $420-billion (U.S.) according to Export Development Canada, a modern political system and a major reliance on imported goods with an emphasis on sectors such as telecommunications, infrastructure, oil and gas and services.
In other words, her research pointed to what many Canadian entrepreneurs have recognized in recent years: a favourable set of economic conditions for Canadian companies to thrive, while potentially using the UAE as a launching pad to access other Middle East markets that are also experiencing a population boom and rapid economic modernization.
But for Ms. Jaffer, there was a more pressing worry: Would she be accepted as a female chief executive officer?
"As a woman, I was very concerned about that early on," she acknowledges.
Undaunted, Ms. Jaffer decided to take the plunge and explore market opportunities in the UAE. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only was the country welcoming and safe for women, she was treated with the utmost respect by her male business colleagues.
"At the same time," she adds, "some of the discussions and negotiations are tough and I do believe there would be an advantage if I was a man, just to be able to go out with the guys [and build relationships]."
Ms. Jaffer's experiences doing business in Middle Eastern countries such as the UAE aren't unique. Many Canadian women would agree that the main challenges they face have more to do with general cultural differences than gender discrimination.
As Rami Gabriel, the EDC's chief representative for Middle East and North Africa noted in a July interview, one of the greatest challenges for Canadian companies doing business in the region is the size of the typical Canadian company relative to the magnitude of corporations based in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE).
"By that I mean that we have massive projects in the region, whereas many Canadian companies are offering a single product or component that goes into producing a final product or service," he says.
Mr. Gabriel points out that for the largely project-focused Middle East, that takes a go-big-or-go-home attitude toward its massive infrastructure developments – which tend to be approved and deployed quickly by centralized government agencies – scaling and satisfying client demands can be difficult.
And despite relatively liberal laws in some places, Mr. Gabriel points out that the business environment in the GCC countries is largely male dominated. In countries such as the UAE, for example, those barriers are almost non-existent. Countries like Saudi Arabia, however, make it extremely difficult (if not impossible) for female entrepreneurs to do business.
But even in the UAE, more traditional expectations exist when women engage with men in the corporate world.
"Women should err on the side of more conservative business attire," Mr. Gabriel explains. "Excessive drinking at dinner meetings could be misunderstood by male business partners. But a woman who handles herself in a professional fashion would be fine."
Manishi Sagar, CEO of daycare service provider Kinderville Group – whose Canadian operations are based in Brossard, Que. – opened facilities in the UAE when the Quebec government changed its daycare funding formula. She looked to the region's booming population and need for child care as a reason to expand overseas.
"I experienced more challenges in getting myself accepted as a brown CEO of my own company in Canada than being accepted as an Indo-Canadian entrepreneur in Dubai," she recalls in an e-mail exchange from her current home in Dubai.
That said, Ms. Sagar is quick to point out that even the progressive UAE is still an Islamic state that harbours various cultural and social taboos for women.
"We have to work harder to be recognized. A more modest code of behaviour is required," she explains.
Challenges aside, Ms. Sagar would wholeheartedly urge other Canadian female CEOs to consider expansion to the Middle East, and the UAE in particular.
"I do not see myself as disadvantaged, and I have learned to take the gender-based discrimination or challenges in stride," she says. "There is an ingrained spirit of optimism, adventure and innovation in Dubai that makes me feel young and energetic. This does not exist everywhere in the world and this is why I would urge other entrepreneurs to come here."