Cynthia Dearin is an Australian businesswoman with some very unique international experience, including a three and a half year stint working in Iraq during some of it’s most volatile years, from 2006 to 2010.
Returning home after working on major projects with the British and US governments, the former diplomat was surprised to find her Arabic language skills and experience were almost considered too “exotic” for employers back here. She felt like a foreigner, with a CV that didn’t fit the ‘norm’ of the experience big legal and consulting firms expected.
With a belief that, “If you can’t find a job, make one” Dearin established her own business instead. She’s now at the helm of an international trade consulting company that helps businesses successfully enter international markets, with a major focus on the Middle East.
And she wants to tell anybody who’ll listen that the Middle East is a great place for Australian companies to do business.
She just has a few myths, stereotypes and negative headlines to break down first, much of which she covers in her recently published book Camels, Sheiks and Billionaires, a guide to doing business in the Middle East.
“Somebody said to me that everybody thinks people in the Middle East jump out of bed and grab an AK47,” Dearin tells Women’s Agenda.
“There are terrible things happening but there are all these other things that are positive. There are plenty of people living ordinary lives. Working, shopping, looking after their children, going to the movies.”
For women particularly, she sees plenty of myths that need busting. “The question I’m asked most frequently, probably twice a week, is how did you find working in the Middle East as a woman?
“I say it was fine, and they looked shocked. I tell them I had far fewer problems with Arab men than I did with men in Australia.”
While she acknowledges some women have had difficulties working in the region, she says that her education and experience meant she was always treated professionally. “There was never a sexist joke. There was never a time around a boardroom table where I was made to feel uncomfortable and second rate.
“I don’t want to say it happens all the time in Australia, but I have been in situations where I have seen that really blokey thing where somebody tells a sexist joke and I’m the only girl in the room and it’s just very embarrassing.”
Having recently helped run the Australian Arab Business Forum, Dearin refers to her keynote speaker as an example of prominent businesswomen in the Middle East. Dr Shaikha Al Maskari is Chairperson of Al Maskar Holding, a multinational conglomerate employing over 270,000 people in 14 countries
Still only in her thirties, Dearin’s already had an international career spanning more than twelve years. She started in the Department of Foreign Affairs as a graduate in 2001 straight out of law school where, having studied French and Japanese, she expected a relevant DFAT posting.
It was not to be. Instead, she received a posting in Abu Dhabi.
“My first thought was where is Abu Dhabi. And my second was, well how does French or Japanese work there? I stumbled out something about not wanting to work in a place where women weren’t treated equally and not wanting to cover my hair.”
Promised she would not have to cover her hair, she was sent to Egypt to study Arabic for an accelerated one year course (instead of the usual two years), before moving across to the UAE. The language skills acquired and experience was certainly useful.
Later, working as a private consultant in London, she was offered the job in Iraq.
“I was crazy enough to think that could be a good idea, so I went out and did reconstruction projects on behalf of the British government, and after that the American government.”
Dearin thinks of her time in Iraq as an interesting experience, both in the ‘International zone’, and while wearing full body armour and being escorted by convoy to the ‘Red Zone’. Surreal and stressful, she says it’s amazing what you can adapt to.
But it was still dangerous. So what kept her there so long?
“It was a combination of adrenalin and of the most interesting work I’ve ever had. Some of the stuff is fascinating. Trying to help another country rebuild its government, getting its commercial, legal and procurement system working so that people could actually make money. I love doing work that feels useful.”
Now home and recently married, Dearin is dealing with a different form of stress: managing a busy and growing business that has already worked with large clients like Orica Mining Services and Qantas. Those challenges include time management and trying to find great talent to hire.
“We have a no arseholes rules. We don’t take on clients or staff if they’re not good to work with, ” Dearin says. “My aim is to get the business to the point where I can step away from it, I’d like to have a family.”