Women in Yachting with Gulf Craft's Abeer Alshaali
Emirati shipbuilding giant Gulf Craft recently announced the appointment of a new CEO, Talal Abdin Nasralla. Acting CEO Abeer Alshaali will assume the role of Deputy Managing Director. During her tenure as the first female in the position, Abeer Alshaali led Gulf Craft calmly through the most turbulent year in collective memory - even managing to maintain production and launch the yard’s largest ever superyacht, the Majesty 175. We spoke with Abeer this International Women’s Day, hoping to learn more about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry and position, in a region typically viewed as underdeveloped in the area of women’s rights.
A little over a year ago when Abeer was appointed interim CEO of Gulf Craft, the headlines made no secret of her gender - female - and the importance of it with respect to her position - Acting CEO. The regional context of this spectacularly progressive appointment taking place in the Middle East of all places was an invisible footnote at the bottom of each story.
‘I think there was a lot of spotlight, I think there was also some confusion at the time,’ Abeer laughs. ‘There was one headline saying that I was the first female employee at Gulf Craft, which is categorically incorrect.’
The last impression we wanted to give Abeer was that after a remarkable year at the helm of Gulf Craft - in which two Majesty 100s were delivered, and one flagship launched - her gender was the most important thing of note.
In fact, it makes total sense that Abeer would grow into this position. The daughter of one of Gulf Craft’s Co-Founders Mohammed Alshaali, Abeer tells us she virtually grew up at the yard since she was a toddler. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by the magic of boat building,’ she says earnestly. ‘There’s engineering, there’s science, but it’s also a little bit of magic. And I think that’s something that drew me in, the mystique of it.’
A year on from her appointment, Abeer’s seat at the table is in no question. Under her tenure, Gulf Craft showed remarkable ingenuity in this unprecedented time, adopting a number of agile techniques to keep production high and risk low throughout the pandemic.
‘We’re lucky in that all of our workers live in company-owned accommodation, so we could do things like nominate one person at a time to go get groceries, minimising risk and limiting movement,’ Abeer adds. ‘As soon as the vaccine was introduced we started rolling it out - we’re at about 93% vaccination rate in the company now.’
As for being a woman in yachting? Abeer is on the whole very complimentary of the yachting industry. She tells us she does not see the same misogynistic systemic attitudes in our industry that are noticeable in others.
‘I could probably count on one hand the number of times I felt targeted let’s say, or somebody didn’t want to talk to me… It’s not really something I have to take account of,’ she says. ‘But I think across industries it’s very different. Twenty years ago when I worked in a bank - it was bad. Honestly. And from what I hear from my colleagues that are still in the finance sector? It hasn’t changed much.’
It’s not long before the topic moves on to the Middle East, and our perceptions of it with regards to women’s rights. As a former student of History, Abeer is keen that the issue be examined within its proper context.
‘I understand there is this image of the Middle East being less progressive, but I think there’s also a little bit of Western baggage there.’ She uses the example of the UAE, where historically men would go out to sea for months at a time and women would run everything on shore, from the economic system to the household. ‘You cannot live in a harsh environment and completely ignore half the population; it doesn’t work that way.’
‘So there is a Western narrative that needs to be looked at, and what that means for women in the West, but I don’t think it’s the same narrative for women in the East. We have a very different culture and a different narrative.’
Abeer is not saying misogyny doesn’t exist. She tells us one anecdote of a maritime academy she visited, where Abeer witnessed a professor actively discouraging his female students to try out for roles as crew and captains in favour of port side positions. ‘I felt that was really unfortunate for those girls, to be demoralised before they’ve even begun,’ she says. ‘Interestingly this guy was not an Arab man, it was a British guy if I recall.’
All this to say of course misogyny does exist on an individual level, and likely will continue to for some time. When it comes to the system though, Abeer insists that we begin to rephrase the dialogue.
‘I think we’re asking the wrong questions,’ she tells us. ‘So - are we doing the most that we need to be doing in the system to create support? Are school hours and work hours aligned so that mothers can both have a career and support their children? If you de-stigmatise the idea of women taking time off to attend a parent teacher conference, for example, then you solve half your problems. But the system needs to allow for that.’
Abeer’s advice for a woman considering a role in yachting? Work hard. Get the right educational background, and earn your stripes. Would this be any different if she were advising a man? ‘Probably not, no.’
Our conversation with Abeer is a reminder of the role of nuance and relativism in the conversation around women’s rights this International Women’s Day. The importance of celebrating how far we have come, and what remains to be done in the road ahead.
Whether she knows it or not, Abeer is a role model. But not just for women in yachting. Abeer is driven, passionate, with a clear vision of who she is and why she is here. She gives careful consideration to her words, and she led Gulf Craft through one of the most turbulent periods for the world to great success.
Abeer is a woman in yachting, yes. But she is also a leader - the kind we can all look up to, regardless of our gender. In her new role as Deputy Managing Director, Abeer will continue to be an instrumental person for change within Gulf Craft and beyond.
"I understand there is this image of the Middle East being less progressive, but I think there’s also a little bit of Western baggage there."