New Member Spotlight: National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia

Thursday 13th June 2013

GBA Newsletter

Hayfa Abuzabibah is NCB's Vice President and Head of Sustainability & Business Excellence DepartmentWith the addition of our latest member, National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia, the Global Banking Alliance for Women continues its rapid expansion among the Middle East/Persian Gulf states. Hayfa Abuzabibah is NCB’s Vice President and Head of Sustainability & Business Excellence Department. She spoke with the Alliance about NCB’s decision to join, what they expect to gain from membership, and about the state of women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia.GBA:  How did you find out about the Global Banking Alliance for Women? What inspired you to join?Hayfa Abuzabibah:  NCB attended the IFC’s “Sustainability Day” conference in Istanbul in February, and there I heard the Alliance’s CEO, Inez Murray, speak about women’s growing economic influence and increasing rates of business ownership. Inez’s arguments were persuasive about the importance of understanding the business case for serving women. And the mission of the Alliance also aligns with our national priorities around women’s empowerment. For example, our Shura Council (an advisory board to the Saudi King) now contains 30 women out of 150 (20%) because women’s empowerment is a priority for our King.

GBA:  How would you describe the current state of women’s economic development in Saudi Arabia and the business climate in which Saudi businesswomen operate?

HA:   It is changing. We are definitely in a period of transition. Until recently, for example, if a woman was going to be the manager of her business, it could only be a business that would serve women exclusively. That restriction has been lifted. That said, rates of business ownership are still low among Saudi women. There is a restriction in Saudi Arabia against any government worker having a business on the side. To get around that, a lot of men who work for the government will register their side business under their wife’s name. But it is her business in name only. For the moment, anyway, like women in some other markets and cultures, Saudi women tend to be risk averse and would prefer a salaried job to self-employment.

GBA:   How would you describe the current state of NCB’s banking for women? We note that 68 branches out of a total of 290 are reserved for women. Are those 68 the only ones women are allowed to enter?

HA:   Oh, no – the women are welcome at any NCB branch. In other words, we can use men’s branches, but they can’t use ours. We launched the women’s only branches because it is just more comfortable for some of our women customers. Especially if they are conducting business that is more complicated than just making a deposit or withdrawing some cash, if she needs to sit with an officer and talk for any period of time or fill out forms, a woman will prefer to take off her face veil. This she will not do, in mixed company.

GBA:   What about NCB’s internal policies? We note that, at slightly more than 10 percent, NCB female workforce representation is one of the highest in Saudi Arabia – but you plan to double that in the next two years alone. That’s an ambitious target. What is driving it?

HA:   I would say that the seeds were planted long ago about the importance of women’s economic participation. So what may seem like an aggressive target – doubling in two years – actually reflects work that has been quietly underway for a long time, and not just within the Bank. Last year, 18% of all new hires at NCB were women. The whole society is changing.

GBA:   How would you describe the commitment of leadership and staff to the push towards greater acknowledgement of women and the importance of meeting their needs, both as customers and as workers? Is the agenda around women being embraced, or is there resistance?

HA:   People are different, of course, and it’s fair to say there is resistance from some quarters. But NCB top management is driving the change, and is committed to ensuring that women are included on high-profile projects within the Bank. In terms of pay equity, men have been in the banking industry longer and they have gotten a big head start. But the Bank’s leadership are very aware that it’s not just about increasing sheer numbers of women in the workforce, but also is about developing their skills, mentoring them, and grooming them for promotions.

GBA:   Does top leadership consider the women’s markets program part of corporate responsibility, or a profit maximizing opportunity, or both?

HA:   Thanks in part to what we have already learned from the Alliance, NCB is focused on proving the business case. But it’s important to remember, in making that case, that you are not just presenting it on its own merits, in isolation. You have to be prepared to argue not only that serving women can be profitable in absolute terms, but also that it can be more profitable relative to other investments the Bank might be contemplating. I also think that when NCB has a successful women’s markets program, one that is sustainable and is contributing to profitability, its success will also set a precedent for other programs we might design, targeted at specific segments.

GBA:   What are you hoping to gain from your membership in the Alliance?

HA:   I am really looking forward to learning what other banks have done to build their women’s markets programs and then to adapting those experiences to the specific cultural context of Saudi Arabia. But I think most women have the same financial goals: they want independence. The more financially dependent you are, the more vulnerable you are. Reducing women’s vulnerability is a particular passion of mine, and I believe that the key to that is a steady, sustainable income.

GBA:   What will success look like for NCB’s women’s markets program five years from now?

HA:   I prefer not to set any quantitative goals or projections at this point, since we just joined and have not even been to our first Summit yet. But in general, we will succeed to the extent that our bank’s activities support the national priorities around women’s advancement plus those of our top management to inject this commitment to women into everything we do. It makes me proud of our Bank’s work.