HE Aarefa Al Falahi: Be humble as a leader
Suzanne Locke 21 June 2023
HE Aarefa Al Falahi, Vice President at Mashreq Bank and the first RAK-born UAE national to become a bank manager in Ras Al Khaimah, on why women succeed when they have support and how humbleness takes you further than ego.
HE Aarefa is a Vice President at Mashreq Bank and the senior branch manager in charge of the Ajman branch. In a career spanning over two decades, Her Excellency has worked for first HSBC and then First Gulf Bank (where she won employee of the year in 2009), working her way up from department head to vice president before moving to Mashreq Bank in 2015.
She won an award for outstanding achievement to the Abu Dhabi industry in 2013, and was awarded a UAE social responsibility medal in 2019 by HH Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior.
HE Aarefa is a board member of RAK Chamber of Commerce (and chair of its exhibition committee), RAK Insurance, RAK SME Association, Emirates Sports and Cultural Club, RAK Scout, Al Mataf Heritage Society and Vilal Housing.
She is also a programme advisory committee (PAC) member of two committees for RAK Higher Colleges of Technology: the Business Industrial Academic Council Committee and the Computer Information Science Industrial Advisory Committee.
She has always studied in Ras Al Khaimah, taking her bachelor’s in business and management at RAK’s Higher Colleges of Technology and later choosing to take her MBA there too. As well as speaking Arabic and English, she is fluent in Urdu.
HE Aarefa Al Falahi in a fireside chat with Aurora50 co-founder Diana Wilde at The Inclusion Summit 2023 – RAK Roadshow
I’m the first UAE national from Ras Al Khaimah to become a bank manager in Ras Al Khaimah. I’m a real finance person; I’ve worked for banks for the last 20 years. I work for nine companies at the moment; I’m very proud that most of them are in Ras Al Khaimah. I also work as a board of director for six companies. It gives me pleasure that I’m representing some of the famous entities of Ras Al Khaimah. I was happy to be the first person from Ras Al Khaimah engaged with Aurora50’s women board directors [on Pathway20].
I’m the very proud mother of two adult daughters. I have invested in my daughters and their education: they are studying at the New York University in Abu Dhabi. That’s my real investment, one of my life’s achievements along with my career. They have a positive attitude and I’m sure that, in future, they will be better than their mother.
I always wanted to do something different and create an impact. I was working in a very conservative environment. If you go back 20 years, Ras Al Khaimah wasn’t like Dubai and other emirates. We never used to have the opportunities of other UAE cities in Ras Al Khaimah. I worked for an international bank where it’s a mixed environment and mostly male-dominated. I wanted to promote UAE nationals and UAE women. And I was successful.
I’m sorry to say that 20 years back, there was a mindset that UAE nationals are not fit for leadership roles. I wanted to change that mindset. When I was hired, as a graduate, I became department manager straightaway, where others might take four steps to get to that position. I was handling 60 percent of retail customers – it was a huge department. Managing employees, and customers, was not easy as a youngster coming from college – especially becoming manager to seniors in the department.
I don’t sell myself. My work – my achievements, my behaviour – do that. If you treat everyone equally and you have self-confidence, people like you. They believed in me and trusted me – they saw that I was very progressive. I never knocked on the door of any organisation. I never do. If people tell me to go apply for a position, I say, ‘Sorry, but if they don’t believe in my talents, I won’t apply for it.’
UAE nationals are talented, but they have to believe in themselves. Start from scratch, not from a managerial position. Learn technical things, learn how to manage, how to be engaged, how to deal with others, how to be good in customer services. Upskill yourself. This is how you learn talents and learn how to deal with people. This is what helped me grow in my career.
I have become more humble as my career has progressed. I don’t want to order, I don’t want to be aggressive. I want to engage you. Engagement is not easy. You’re talking about emotional intelligence here. The more you’re engaged with people, the more you’re influencing. Today I’m a very influential person in the market. We should not have a sense of ego. I removed that from myself. The further you go from your ego, the more you can engage and the more accessible you are to people.
In Ras Al Khaimah, we have 75 different nationalities; in the UAE, more than 200. I have worked with all nationalities in the past 20 years. Even if they have left the country, I still engage with them, because I believe they were part of my success. It’s a mutual respect and trust. Who made the UAE a success story? It was all nationalities.
People tell me they rarely see UAE nationals be so proactive as me. I say no – you just haven’t met them. Maybe our UAE nationals are not mixing with other nationalities or have barriers. I have friendships with all nationalities, I’m engaged with everyone everywhere – Snapchat, LinkedIn. It gives you confidence. I’m very accessible.
I feel a lot of social responsibility. After so much experience, I feel I owe it to the government, I owe it to the community. Happiness comes when you help others. I feel happy to be engaged with everyone, to help everyone.
I only switch off from work when I fly outside the UAE. I do it three or four times a year. I fly, I switch off everything. I tell all my organisations I’m not there. My husband always has a challenge. He says, ‘You don’t have a limit. I can’t stop you!’
A woman’s success comes when everyone supports her. I’m blessed to have government support, community support and family support, before and after marriage. We should not be in an environment with bias. We should have equal respect. If you help me and I help you, the pressure goes down. If I work alone, the pressure goes high. There has to be mutual understanding.
I don’t go for company names: I want to know who my line manager will be. That line manager is the one who’s going to create my career path. If it is positive, he will trust in my talents and is going to help me to grow. A bossy manager would impact me negatively.
I call my old managers every year. They’re surprised I still remember but they are part of the reason for my success today. I owe my success to the leaders who work with me, to my family, to the community. I’m very blessed that the community is proud of me.
I don’t want to stop after I retire. If someone wanted to write a book about me, I’d say, ‘Not now. I still have more to do.’ I want to set a benchmark for women in Ras Al Khaimah. I wanted to change the mindset of the community which, somehow, I managed to do.
Unless we, as leaders, sit with youths, we don’t know how they think. The passion that I have seen in the eyes of the students [at The Inclusion Summit RAK Roadshow] – it has amazed me. From what I have seen, they were so passionate about the future and how they carry their studies forward to future career opportunities.