Home The Washington Diplomat May 2008 Business of Understanding

Business of Understanding


Fellowship Program Brings Arab Women to Study in U.S. Firms

A group of 29 accomplished young Arab women specializing in business and law are shattering stereotypes and offering American audiences a window into a new generation of leaders shaping an increasingly multicultural global business climate.

The women arrived in Washington on March 30 to begin a five-month advanced studies program in the United States under the U.S. State Department’s Legal and Business Fellowship Program, part of the U.S. government’s Middle East Partnership Initiative. Ranging in age from 22 to 32, the women represent more than a dozen countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, the West Bank and Yemen.

The Legal and Business Fellowship Program (LBFP) brings young professionals to the United States for five months of study and internships administered by AMIDEAST (America-Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc.), an education-oriented nonprofit dedicated to strengthening ties between Americans and the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa.

Tunisia’s Sabrine El Makkes, a lawyer, is typical of the group. Both proud of her country and a self-described “citizen of the world,” she has woven her multicultural interests into her personal and professional life.

After receiving an undergraduate scholarship, Makkes attended the University of East Anglia in Britain, where participated in a bridge-building program linking Arab and British youth. “I met people from all over the world. My best friends are from Malaysia, the United States, Mexico, China,” she said, smiling. Admitted to the bar in Tunisia, Makkes now holds advanced degrees in Anglo-American and international business law.

Similarly, Shaimaa Ahmed, a businesswoman from Egypt who hopes to one day start her own company, deals with people from “all over the world” as manager of the overseas department of a shipping firm in Alexandria. She has never traveled outside of Egypt before and seeks “more international exposure” through the LBFP.

And Hana Bubshait of Saudi Arabia works “in a multicultural environment” as a human resources coordinator for Saudi Aramco, the Saudi national oil company with employees from dozens of different countries around the world. Bubshait is completing a master’s degree in business and said she hopes her Motorola internship in Chicago will sharpen her cross-cultural business management skills.

The LBFP and other AMIDEAST educational initiatives are supported by the Mosaic Foundation, a charitable group founded by the wives of Arab ambassadors to the United States, as well as by the various U.S. companies and law firms that provide the internship opportunities.

The Mosaic Foundation — which has designated 2008 its “Year of the Woman” and selected AMIDEAST as its major annual beneficiary organization — celebrated the arrival of the 29 young women to Washington with a reception at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates on April 2.

After that, the interns spent their first week in the United States being whisked from meetings at the White House and Congress.

Before taking up their internships, the fellows will also spend a month immersed in an executive education program at the University of Pennsylvania, either at the Wharton School for business or the Law School. Betsy Maalouf, AMIDEAST’s officer of external affairs, said members of the group will have plenty of time and opportunity to get to know each other over the next month by studying together—one of the program’s networking and cross-cultural benefits.

Then the women will move on to internships at top-tier law and business firms across the country. One of those firms is Chadbourne & Parke LLP of Washington, D.C., which is participating in the program for the second year. According to firm associate Mark Sigrist, “There is no better way to improve relations between [countries] than to establish personal and professional relationships that transcend cultural misunderstandings and passing political differences.”

Sigrist added that his law firm benefits by taking part in such a high-profile program because it offers employees the opportunity to meet and work with people from different cultures and “improves their intercultural sensitivity and understanding.”

In turn, Chadbourne & Parke offers the LBFP fellows exposure to the culture of private corporate law practice in the United States, which Sigrist described as a blend of strong work ethic, a collegial rather than hierarchical atmosphere, genuine gender equality, and great networking opportunities.

Dania Dib of Lebanon — whose father is a lawyer and sister is a judge — will be interning at Chadbourne & Parke, where she said she is looking to “expand my horizons and learn how things work in the United States, how the legal system works, how people [here] accomplish what they accomplish,” and take those lessons back home.

Like Dib, Fatima-Zahra Guedira of Morocco comes from a legal background, as the daughter of two lawyers. She holds a degree in languages and business studies from the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris and currently works for the Moroccan government in the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

“I’m very happy to be learning more about American culture,” said Guedira, who expects the experience here “will change my life.” However, although she is ready to absorb everything the fellowship has to offer, Guedira noted that she will also be careful to preserve her Moroccan traditions. Especially in a multicultural world, she said, such traditions are “very important. We must not forget them.”

Indeed, the 29 LBFP fellows hail from all walks of life, but all of the women clearly share a passion for learning, a determination to succeed, and an ability to shatter stereotypes.

For instance, Suzan Jarrar, who comes from the West Bank city of Jenin, has worked as a television news reporter and public relations director and now manages a team of employees. Like Sigrist, she sees the interns and U.S. professionals they encounter as face-to-face ambassadors of their respective cultures. She is grateful for “all the doors opening for us” in the United States and said she hopes “to challenge the existing stereotypes about Arab, Muslim and Palestinian women,” spreading the message that “Muslims respect women and give them opportunities.”

Also challenging stereotypes is attorney Hadeel Abu Hussein, a fellow from Israel who identifies herself as Palestinian. A specialist in international law and an “Arab 48” — the name for Arabs living in Israel after the 1948 war — Hussein speaks four languages, including Hebrew, holds a law degree from Tel Aviv University, and clerked for a judge in Haifa before passing her bar exam.

Raiya Al Salmi of Oman, meanwhile, studied in France and Britain and now works for Price Waterhouse Coopers in the commercial center of Muscat, the Omani capital. After the one-month program at Wharton, she will intern with the energy company PECO/Exelon in Philadelphia.

“My dream is to be a partner in [Price Water-house Coopers], setting an example for my two sisters and other women, empowering [them to think that] no job is impossible,” Al Salmi said, noting that Oman, a monarchy, has been very progressive on the issue of women’s rights.

Of her fellow women colleagues participating in the LBFP, Al Salmi said, “We are a very diverse group. I have never seen such diversity in one room. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.