Leading from the helm – the Saudi representing women in the maritime sector

Wijdan Alsuhaibani, President of the Arab Women in Maritime Association (AWiMA), truly believes there is nothing women cannot do, even if it means sailing in rough seas, writes Jethu Abraham.

It was a chance meeting with a shipping client, while she working in a creative agency, that got Wijdan Alsuhaibani interested in the maritime sector.

“One of our clients at the agency was National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia (Bahri) and I got the opportunity to work closely with them for several months and from my interactions with them, I got very interested in the industry,” she says. “I was quite impressed with the shipping industry and how it served as the backbone for any economy and what I did notice back then was that it was virtually an untapped industry for women.”

Alsuhaibani, who’s based in Saudi Arabia, attended an interview at Bahri several months later, and secured a new role in the Branding and Communications wing for the shipping giant.

“Bahri offered a diverse training ground for me, with their experience in transporting oil, dry bulk, chemicals as well as general cargo and shipping management. I was keen to let the general public know about the dynamics of the shipping industry,” she continues. “Nobody really knows what happens in this industry, or how it moves the economy, or the legislations and principles behind it, despite it being so significant for a country.”

STEERING A PATH

In 2017, the Kingdom’s Ministry of Transportation sent an invitation to Bahri asking the company for a representative to head the KSA delegation for the Regional Conference for Women in the Maritime Sector held in Alexandria, Egypt. The conference was organised by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and held at the headquarters of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport. Alsuhaibani was nominated to lead the delegation representing the country for the conference.

“At the end of the week, the Arab Women in Maritime Association (AWiMA) was established following which a council was elected and I was elected to be its first President,” says Alsuhaibani of the newly established organisation set-up to “promote awareness and increase the participation of women in the maritime sector”.

In the last 25 years, several organisations have made attempts to increase the number of women in the maritime sector but actual statistics do not show any significant improvement. A report published by IMO in 1992 made an estimation of women’s representation at one or two percent of the world’s 1.25 million seafarers. Meanwhile, a 2016 manpower report from BIMCO and ICS indicated that only one percent accounted for women officers and cadets in engine departments.

“If we need to understand the challenges that women face, we need to first have women on-board. They are literally not there, currently. With just about two percent women across the globe going into actual seafaring, there are barely any women to talk about,” points out Alsuhaibani, adding that women are “not lining up for the job because they are also unaware of the opportunities available in the sector.”

Alsuhaibani understands the challenges of being offshore but believes it is too attractive an opportunity for women to miss and is keen on going the extra mile to spread awareness about the sector. “The maritime industry consists of a diverse, close-knit community and offers many interesting opportunities for women to work, both onshore and offshore.”

LAYING THE FOUNDATION

AWiMA’s core mission also includes aligning to and strengthening the mechanisms for implementation of global partnerships for sustainable development, particularly the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“In its first year, we have so far forged partnerships with organisations such as the the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport in Egypt and the Saudi Border Guards as well as the Public Transportation Authority in KSA, to promote our cause.”

Alsuhaibani also notes that the last two years have been significant, as the maritime sector “is more visible to the general public”, in terms of awareness about the industry and its operations.

“The visibility of the shipping industry has improved a lot in the last two years across the globe, more needs to be done in this regard but efforts are definitely moving in the right direction,” she adds hopefully.

The much-awaited giant maritime industries complex Ras-Al Khair Port being built in Saudi Arabia and formed in partnership with Aramco, Bahri, Hyundai Heavy Industries and Lamprell is touted to create more than 80,000 jobs by 2030.

“Plans are also underway to develop an institute for maritime studies, research and development within the complex, with special focus on professions associated with the maritime industry, for both men and women. It will significantly improve the chances for women in the region and will also be a follow-up on the equality vision for the women in KSA as a whole,” she adds. “Like any other industry, it is important to have a proper if not equal representation of women in the maritime sector, especially offshore. The industry should be proactive and more welcoming towards women and aspiring women should not shun this industry away when making career choices.”