Contrary to what most of the world thinks about women’s roles in the Middle East, there are women in just about every occupation within the aviation industry here. And also contrary to common thought, women have been working within aviation in the Middle East for a long time.
The region’s first woman pilot was Egyptian Loftia Al Nadi in 1933. Dr. Nabila Al Awadhi became the first female Emirati aviation medicine physician, Nawal Al Suwaidi became the first female Emirati cabin crew member, and Noufa Al Afeefi became the first Emirati woman to be an air traffic controller. Captain Aysha Al Hamili was the UAE’s first woman pilot and has been its permanent representative at the International Civil Aviation Organization. In the news most recently is 35-year-old Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri, who led a squadron of UAE F-16s through a bombing raid against ISIL in northern Syria. The UAE is one of five Arab nations (along with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain) in the international coalition attempting to halt the spread of ISIL.
Today, women own and direct companies that support business aviation in UAE, as well. On the ground at MEBA here at Dubai World Central (DWC) is the newly official chapter of Women in Aviation, International (Stand 333), a non-profit organization with a mission to increase diversity throughout aviation. WAI accepts both women and men from all careers in aviation as members.
The group, which just last month had its papers approved for incorporation by UAE officials, is directly represented by its president, Mervat Sultan, finance manager of Ramjet Aviation Support, based in Ras al-Khaimah, UAE. Ramjet handles everything from catering to AOG and handling to full aircraft charters out of Ras al-Kaimah. Sultan, a native Syrian who emigrated to Saudi Arabia and then the Emirates, was one of the first Emirati women to earn a flight dispatcher’s license. She also holds a private pilot’s certificate, achieving her childhood dream to fly.
The UAE government was especially supportive of Sultan’s desire to launch a WAI chapter. “The government really encouraged us,” she said.
Last year the group brought a photo retrospective of women involved in aviation around the world to the Dubai Air Show. This year’s presence is perhaps even more satisfying because of the official WAI chapter status and because of the many members attending the show, according to Sultan.
“Last May 2014 we had a meeting with the International Association of Women in Aviation (IAWA) and discussed the opportunity to run our first conference together with IAWA in 2015 at the Dubai Air Show,” she said. IAWA members encompass most of the women holding executive positions in aviation worldwide.
Among the women participating in this year’s MEBA conference is also a strong showing from the Arabian Section of the Ninety-Nines, an international women pilot organization founded in 1929. It differs from WAI and IAWA in that only women pilots can be full members. That said, the group is growing. It held its annual meeting in Bahrain this past October, according to its section governor, Alia Twall, a first officer with Royal Jordanian Airlines who is currently training on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Twall is one of just 20 women who are now flying or have once flown for the airline.
All of these women’s groups have members in common. Their community outreach work–be it bringing orphans to an air academy for an introductory simulator session, as the Ninety-Nines did in Bahrain; or WAI’s “Daughter Days” and educational session; or the groups’ generous scholarship offerings–is all making a difference. Whereas once women were such a small minority among pilots and mechanics that they did not even register at 1 percent, they now make up as much as 2 percent of mechanics worldwide, and in some places, as much as 5 percent of airline pilots. Even still, the number of women holding the coveted airline transport certificate needed to fly captain on jet aircraft is quite low, well under 10,000 individuals worldwide.
At the show representing WAI, but also joining the Ninety-Nines, was Kristina Tervo, one of those few women holding ATP jet ratings. She is director of Ras al-Khaimah-based Wolsten Sky, which supports commercial and business aviation clients with trainers and type-rated business jet pilots on contract. “There is talk of a joint meeting in the future. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that this year,” Tervo told AIN. “Definitely there is power in unity, so it is nice these organizations are planning to work together,” she continued.
It is said that the more diverse the company, the more productive the company. From WAI’s perspective, diversity in all walks of aviation, in the Middle East and points beyond, is coming. And that, by extension, is a good thing for business aviation.