Lubna Qassim is no career diplomat, but in her varied legal and political career, she has had the privilege of walking the corridors of power in London and Dubai.
These days, as well as being executive vice president and group general counsel for Emirates NBD, Qassim is a member of several corporate boards.
Qassim, the eldest of four daughters, credits her business acumen to the fact that her parents decided to send her to a British boarding school in Shropshire from the age of 15. Back then, in the early 1990s, “it wasn’t heard of for an Emirati schoolgirl to leave home”, she admits. “You’d hear of women in their 20s or 30s, going off to some foreign land to get a second degree, but they’d usually be married, or accompanied by a family figure.
“To say to me ‘fly away and create your goals’ wasn’t easy for my mum. She had to deal with all the calls from the women of the community. My father, who is a businessman, now says that investing in the education of his children was the best investment he ever made.”
When her schooling was over, Qassim decided to stay in the United Kingdom, and after studying for a law degree in London, she worked as an assistant for one of the first Muslim life peers in the British House of Lords, Baron Ahmed of Rotherham. It was a position that gave her privileged access to Britain’s political elite.
“I’d pass Margaret Thatcher along the corridor, and have John Major sitting on the table next to me drinking tea,” she says. “I also chatted with Tony Blair and Benazir Bhutto. They were all inspiring in different ways. It was a very different scene for me, at a very young age.”
In 2000, Qassim embarked on a law career and spent the next seven years working with one of the world’s largest “magic-circle” law firms, Clifford Chance.
Her career path took an unexpected turn in 2007, when she was invited to establish a legal regulatory affairs department for a Dubai Government agency.
“I had this huge passion to contribute to the legal landscape of this country, but I thought I’d be doing that after I’d retired from my private practice, in my 60s,” Qassim says. “Little did I know there was another plan being designed for me.”
Although at that time, Qassim says it “wasn’t unusual” for women to hold senior roles for the Dubai Government, in her field of economic laws and regulations, she was the only one.
“Whereas as part of a global law network, I’d had clients in New York, Japan and the UAE, in my new public sector role, the Government was my only client,” she explains. “Because my home was the UAE, I had the visibility to see how laws could [make an] impact.”
Qassim was then mandated to reform several of the UAE’s economic laws at the federal level, in particular the UAE’s Companies Law.
“My style was about consulting the business community and the community at large and how such a law would impact them,” she says. “It was a lot of work and took a very long time, but we eventually issued the new Companies Law in 2015.”
Qassim has also overseen the legal passage of other reforms, including start-up and bankruptcy laws to encourage private-sector growth. “There is a whole suite of economic laws which I take great pride in, because they’ve been credited as having a huge, very positive impact on the UAE,” she says.
Qassim joined Emirates NBD in 2014, and now leads two distinct teams.
“I have my one foot working very closely with the board as company secretary, administrating all the board meetings and as group general council, my other foot is in the management,” she says. “I’ve kept my ethical walls pretty distinct because of these two different mandates. It’s about navigating through very critical roles with a lot of diplomacy, and treading delicately.”
What do you most like spending money on?
Books. My favourite is a biography of the life of Indira Gandhi, who was India’s first female prime minister. She taught me resilience and leading in unknown territories.
What are you most proud of in your life?
What could you not live without?
My family – I have a 4-year-old and 2-year-old. One girl and one boy.
Where do you like to go on holiday?
I love Richmond in London. I’m also a great fan of the English countryside and I miss that greenery here, so whenever I’m in the UK on business, I’ll make that short trip to the countryside, just to feel among the greenery.
Where’s your favourite Dubai haunt?
I like to spend quality time at the Ritz-Carlton, JBR, on the beach.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
My mother. She is no longer with us – I lost her in 2006. She was an amazing woman because she always pushed me out of my comfort zone.
What’s your favourite movie?
I love The Pursuit of Happyness, which stars Will Smith, about an American man and his son who find themselves homeless. It’s about fragile human emotions, and understanding how to achieve something so valuable, but not tangible, which is happiness.
What do you do when spending quality time with your children?
I love playing hide-and-seek with them in the garden. I love seeing their joy and the dynamics of my son and daughter together. That really unwinds me.
Where else do you like to travel?
India enriches my soul, particularly Rajasthan. I love travelling, because I think it’s through travel that I’ve learnt so much about life and the world. You appreciate more what we have here in the UAE when you see different parts of the world.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years’ time?
I attempt to contribute to the UAE’s success at a global level and I would love to continue doing that. I still want to be intellectually stimulated in whatever it is that I’m doing.
What other interests do you have?
I sit on a number of different boards. One is the British Business Group. I’m bridging the gap between the UK and UAE.