KCUR News
11:07 am
Mon November 2, 2009

Lenexa Woman Does Business Saudi-Style

Lenexa, Kansas – Laura Owen and her husband own a company called ICOP,Inc. in Lenexa, Kansas. What they sell is an innovative digital recorder for use in law enforcement vehicles.

Saudi Arabia is ICOP's first international market. The company has already sold the equipment to police and State Troopers throughout the U.S., including to the Prairie Village police.

Sound inside Police Car

This is how it works. A screen in the dashboard of a police car displays a digital video and audio recording of an officer's communication, like this one in which a Prairie Village officer stopped a woman for driving with expired tags:

Sound From Radio In Police Car:"Is this car registered to you?"

The audio is clear hundreds of feet from the car. The video crisp. The recording will be downloaded later in case an officer needs it for evidence, or to verify what happened during an incident.

Now to the company. In an inconspicuous white office building in Lenexa, ICOP's C.O.O. Laura Owen, a former Kansas Secretary of Commerce, explains she grew up in France and the United States, but for reasons she doesn't really know, she always had an interest in the Middle East. Even with her good contacts going into Saudi Arabia, Owen says she didn't expect to be welcomed so warmly as a Western woman.

Owen: "I think the fact that I made the effort to come such a long distance was appreciated and respected. I was openly engaged in conversation about our opportunities and our products, and I was frankly really surprised about the reception."

But Hootan Shambayati, Professor of Mid East Studies at The University of Missouri Kansas City, says women in Saudi Arabia, and throughout much of the Middle East, have been involved in business for ages.

Shambayati: "Contrary to public perception, women in the Mid East have always been involved in the life of their society, much more than we expect here. In fact the prophet Khadijah was herself a very wealthy businesswoman and she for awhile was the employer of the prophet before the beginning of Islam."

Human rights groups, on the other hand, point out that in Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden from voting, driving, and suffer among the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. They have little say in legal matters, including child custody and divorce, and can be beaten if they go outside without being covered by the floor-length black abaya. Those women who adhere to strict Islam cover their entire heads except for a slit for the eyes with the traditional jibab.

Laura Owen: "This is the jibab here, it's all Serovsky crystals, and it's crystal down the back as well.

Reaching for a jibab a friend gave her as a gift, Owen says some Saudi women like the required dress and make fashion statements out of it.

Laura Owen: "They are all different. As Americans, we look at these and see a sea of black, and they're NOT. It's fantastic. In some ways I'm envious. If they are having a bad hair day, no worries! If they don't feel like getting dressed up that day, no worries! If they go out to lunch with the girls and they eat more than they want, no worries!"

There are those who see some recent reforms as a sign of change in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian King Abdullah earlier this year fired the fundamentalist cleric who headed the nation's powerful religious police. He also appointed a woman to a top government job for the first time. Laura Owen is optimistic.

Laura Owen: "The fact that I am able to travel there without a male escort is a huge change. The fact that a writer of one of the major Arab papers was able to write about each other's world is a major change. It will be a long time."

Whatever happens in Saudi Arabia, Owen's experience is one more example of how the expanding global market is also diminishing the global cultural divide.