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Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

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No limits: Karen Williams, Deputy Director for UK Trade & Investment in Dubai on her global career journey and the opportunities for women to do business in the UAE


Karen Williams MBE has been Deputy Director for UK Trade & Investment in Dubai since 2012. She joined Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service in 1987 with her early career in the Secretarial Branch, which included postings to Riyadh, New York and worldwide ‘floater’ duties. Following promotion and transfer to the ‘Mainstream’, Karen has been posted to Burma, Lebanon and Jamaica. Prior to her career in the Civil Service, Karen worked for the Kuwait Hilton International Hotel, BBC (Radio Times and ‘Breakfast Time’ television) and a number of assignments in the City of London, including Credit Suisse First Boston and 3i Venture Capital.

Karen Williams
Karen Williams MBE

 “…I only spent a year in London before being posted to my first overseas assignment (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). They told me there was no worse test for a single female…”

The BBC – where it all started

My interest in joining the BBC (where it all started) came from my time at college where one of my tutors shared her own BBC experience with us. I wrote to the BBC in Manchester (closest), Cardiff (because I spoke Welsh) and London (preferred city). I was offered a job in London because I took the trouble to write in and travel to London for the interview.


After three years in several departments (including the ‘Breakfast Time’ programme and Radio Times) I saw a PA job advertised in the Evening Standard for the Kuwait Hilton International Hotel. I had never travelled overseas before and I was keen to expand my horizons. I took the two year contract.

Foreign Office

On my return to the UK I asked myself how I could continue to see the world and in the Times ‘Crème de la Crème’ job pages that week the Foreign Office were advertising for secretaries to work with a worldwide mobility obligation.

Saudi Arabia

Because of my Kuwait experience I only spent a year in London before being posted to my first overseas assignment (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). They told me there was no worse test for a single female and so I had the choice of a one, two or three year posting.

I spent two years there. Because I went expecting the worst it was a pleasant surprise to find excellent accommodation and facilities, good shopping and even (as a cornet-player) a 50-piece wind band and 22-piece Desert Diamonds Dance Band to play with!

I was told that they would look favourably on my next posting choice if I went to Riyadh and so I was delighted to find that my request to move to the UK Mission to the UN in New York had been accepted. But not before I volunteered to stay an extra month in Riyadh to help with the crisis (Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait…)


In New York I worked for the Legal Counsellor whose job it was to help draft the various Security Council resolutions. In a way it was good to continue working on the same crisis.

From New York most of my possessions were put into storage and I travelled around the world as a worldwide ‘floater’ for 20 months filling in for holidays, maternity leave etc. in places like Belgrade, Mauritius, Nairobi, Ecuador, Uruguay, Barbados and Anguilla.


Then everything changed. I was promoted to the ‘Mainstream’ and after three years in recruitment, managing the Fast Stream process and studying for the CIPD qualification (I am now FCIPD) I was posted to Burma as Vice Consul and Head Corporate Services.

It was here that I dealt with the high profile political prisoner case (James Mawdsley) who was imprisoned four and a half hours away by charter plane in Eastern Shan State. I was awarded the MBE for my work on this case.

Lebanon, Jamaica and now the UAE

I was then posted to Beirut, Lebanon as Head of Trade & Investment where I witnessed history in the making following the assassination of Rafic Hariri. It was then time for London posting and after heading up the FCO’s [Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s] highest profile public facing unit (Travel Advice Unit) and a period as Management Reviewer for the Americas command I was posted to Kingston, Jamaica as Head Corporate Services followed by my current posting to Dubai in the UAE as Deputy Director UKTI.

Main objectives in my current role

Burj Al ArabI manage the UKTI team of Trade Advisers and officers. It is our role to alert UK business to the opportunities in Dubai and the wider UAE.

How UKTI helps UK based businesses work overseas

We undertake commissioned research e.g. in order to find distributors. We have a programme arranging service or we help launch products for those companies already in market. We also now have our very own incubator – British Business Centre – for companies wanting to move to Dubai. A licence and visa is given for up to one year with hot desking facilities.

Business culture in Dubai and in the UAE more broadly

Dubai has become a regional business hub with many companies deciding to open a regional office here. It is host to numerous regional exhibitions. Companies need a separate licence and / or distributor to win contracts in Abu Dhabi. There are plans to set up an incubator in Abu Dhabi.

Opportunities for women based in the UK who are looking to expand their business and are considering Dubai

These are multi-sectoral. There are no restrictions for women wanting to do business anywhere in the UAE.

How our local intelligence on the ground help to facilitate connections

Through commissioned research we can warm up potential leads sourced from our own database and local databases. Whilst carrying out this research we pick up intelligence about the market, competitors etc., which we pass on in our reports.

Activities that UK based Womanthology readers can get involved in

We are in the process of organising a UK Women in Business Trade Mission to the UAE in mid-February. To find out more about getting involved, please email

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