In this blog, security manager Maria Fjeldstad reflects on her experiences as a woman working in security in the Middle East and considers the importance of female perspectives to achieve an inclusive approach to security that recognises and mitigates the risks faced by individuals.
I find myself at crossroads in my career, as my diverse background and desire to provide a safe and secure environment for those in need has exhausted its mission in the corporate world. I hope to put my skills and experience to better use in the humanitarian sector, where safety and security remain fundamental rights that many strive for. As I reach out to peers worldwide for advice, there are two types of reactions when I tell people I work in crisis management, business resilience, and security in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). One is that of dismay: Isn’t it dangerous? Do you, as a woman, have any rights? Do you have to cover up? And one is of disbelief: Isn’t UAE one of the safest places in the world? Do you even have anything to do?
While none of these reactions are wrong, they are in no way right. In an environment of challenges and yet immense opportunity, in the oasis of safety that is the UAE, surrounded by conflict and instability so often associated with the Middle East, I would like to share my story. It is a story of navigating the intricate landscape between the most luxurious places in the world and those most dangerous while working in a male-dominated safety and security field. I hope to show how I navigated these spaces as a woman and how corporate security experience can benefit the humanitarian field.
Women in security: outnumbered yet empowered
I came to Dubai in 2012 after finishing my degree and subsequently working as an intelligence officer with a UK police force, INTERPOL, and then with a rapidly developing private security startup. I later stepped into corporate security, crisis management and business continuity, where I have remained since. Home to around 200 nationalities, the UAE does not only provide corporate business opportunities, but also hosts entities responsible for social and humanitarian work within and outside the country. Security professionals from all over the world support both corporate and humanitarian efforts in high-risk environments across the region. There is, however, a common trend: a vast majority are men: ex-army, ex-police, ex-contractors. There is more gender equality in Europe, which means that I, as a woman of academic background with civilian experience in public, intergovernmental, and private sectors, am like many. But here, there are not many like me. I took the chance.
Joining the OSAC UAE Dubai Chapter provided important resources and opened the door to liaise with professionals operating in the same risk environment. I even served as the Private Sector Co-Chair in 2019-2022, supporting more female members and a stronger focus on diversity. As I saw more women engaged in security forums, I also saw past the derogatory looks and comments of “this is not a matter for a girl” sort. Instead, I sought strong men and women in the field in the region who were eager to pass on their wealth of experience. From Saudi Arabia to South Africa, Pakistan to Turkey, my male and female counterparts and business stakeholders received my background with respect. On the one hand, I was surprised, and on the other hand, I acknowledged that I had underestimated the region and its goal to promote and empower women in the industry.
Diverse security staff for inclusive security practices
Whilst cultural aspects may still dictate more conventional career paths for women in the Middle East, there is a growing recognition, at least in the corporate sector, that a woman may be better suited to identifying the risks faced and mitigation measures required to keep other women in the sector safe. A simple example is: what do I, as a woman, wear travelling to Saudi Arabia now that an abaya is not the only answer? Gender segregation requirements may mean that more vulnerable female communities might not be able to access appropriate support or voice their security concerns openly.
Over the past decade working in the Middle East, men and women navigating the region have relied upon both I and my female counterparts in security for support. My story is one of success, partly owed to the supportive network and environment, but also my own resilience and perseverance – as the road was far from free of challenges and obstacles. Others may not be as lucky. However, the same can be said for women’s empowerment and opportunities in every region and profession. My takeaway is not to let negative experiences discourage you and not to let anyone’s doubt in your abilities make you doubt yourself. I would not be where I am if I did.
This region, like others, needs women in safety and security to provide a better environment for the communities that they work alongside, as these too include women. To better achieve outputs and results and have a more beneficial impact on society, humanitarian security staff need to be as diverse as the staff and communities they work with. Otherwise, we will never reach our goals, in either the corporate or the humanitarian space.
About the Author
Maria has worked in the corporate security, crisis management and business resiliency across the wider EMEA region over the past 10 years while being based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Prior to relocating to the Middle East, Maria worked for a local UK police force as an Intelligence Officer and served a short term project with Interpol, focusing on combatting environmental crime in Africa and beyond. When she completed her degree in Criminology and Psychology, her mission was to be able to help and support communities in need. Although her career has taken a different turn, her Ukrainian heritage mixed with Scandinavian upbringing and experience of working around the world is now shifting her focus to her original goal and the desire to move into the humanitarian field.
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