For Dr. Manahel Thabet, there is no such thing as impossible. As far back as she can remember the 33-year-old economist and passionate scientist possessed dreams far bigger than her own head (and modest Yemeni family) could accommodate. Even as astronomical ambitions—or astronaut ambitions to be precise—were crushed by harsh reality, Dr. Thabet’s dreams continued unhindered. Today, the Yemeni, who boasts an IQ of 168, stands as not just the youngest, but the only Arab to earn a PhD degree in Financial Engineering. Now, as she works towards her second doctoral degree, this time in quantum mathematics, the woman recently named “Genius of the Year” (representing Asia) by The World Genius Directory, is outsmarting the impossible. “I couldn’t go to space physically, but I’ve conquered it virtually,” she remarks. But her ambitions are not exclusive to outer space; the multi-talented Arab possesses an insatiable appetite for numbers and a drive to share her knowledge with the world. Cue: Smart Tips, Dr. Thabet’s Dubai-based consultancy focused on financial restructuring.
Launched in the aftermath of global financial crisis back in 2008, Smart Tips offers a timely source of support for those nursing gaping fiscal and structural wounds. Through the expert provision of four main services—consultancy, feasibility studies, strategic planning and crisis management—the consultancy which is associated with high profile companies including financial products specialists, Agile Technologies, and global accounting and consulting network, Moore Stephens, has grown from strength to strength. Getting off to a flying start with a client list as extensive as Dr. Thabet’s skill set, Smart Tips’ customers today comprise of family businesses, government-affiliated companies and wealthy individuals across the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
While shying away from divulging company figures to anyone other than prospective shareholders, the woman who counts amateur astronomy amongst her passions, explains that Smart Tips is in fittingly smart financial shape, “It’s a zero debt company and as for the ratio of growth and turnover, now we’re crossing, since inception, 175%.” Comprised of 25 employees, or ‘family members’ as Dr. Thabet prefers to call them, (they work ‘with’ not ‘for’ her) as well as over 100 professionals contracted to suit different project needs, Smart Tips is short neither of manpower nor brainpower to re-engineer the region’s finances.
Recalling the period leading up to the creation of Smart Tips, Dr. Thabet, who doubles up as president of the high IQ society, IQuestion, and vice-president of the World Intelligence Network (WIN), explains that she sensed a financial storm brewing. After a stint as an employee at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi on arrival in Dubai 12 years ago, she decided to go it alone, entering the world of stock market trading with resounding success. Earning herself the unofficial title of “Queen of the Bourse” amongst her peers, it came as a shock to many a trader when then lady with a passion for quantum physics ducked out at her peak.
Despite stamping a clear mark on the open floor, as a woman whose life revolves around mathematical reason, Dr. Thabet does not leave much to chance. “I’m not a risk taker,” she asserts. “In my equations I take the risk —you’re not actually harming anyone, and if it fails, it fails on a theoretical basis.”
Steering clear of ‘real life’ risk, Dr. Thabet withdrew from the stock market months before it crashed spectacularly. “People were asking ‘why?’ They thought I had made the worst decision ever but I said no, my formula cannot be wrong.” While most analysts approach stock market outlooks from an economic perspective (supply and demand) the financial engineer turns instead to quantitative methods; an approach that saved her from hefty financial losses and one that adds a whole new meaning to the term ‘safety in numbers.’
The shift from science to the corporate world did not signify the end of Dr. Thabet’s scientific pursuits. Self-funding her own research based on analysis of findings from projects that she runs through Smart Tips, Dr. Thabet’s contributions to modern science continue to impress. “I am one of the rare Arab women to have entered the field of quantum mathematics, and currently my research has been adopted by several universities for development purposes,” she explains.
Dr. Thabet’s current thesis develops new mathematical equations to calculate distances in space. If successful, she believes her research could lead to a revolutionary expansion of the science of mathematics and quantum physics. Commenting on the pioneering thinker’s contributions to modern science, Raghu Nandan Dhar, veteran journalist in the scientific field, explains that Dr. Thabet is challenging the belief that physics and metaphysics are mutually exclusive. “Generally, it is believed that there is no correlation…however, Dr. Manahel has been of the belief that there is a place where the two meet: at the sub-atomic particle level,” he remarks. “There is a gap that needs to be bridged,” he adds. But the economist-cum-scientist is not positioning herself as the next Einstein. “I consider myself a student…the more you know in science, the more you realize that you don’t know!”
Dr. Thabet may be humbled by the enormity of the work still to be done in understanding the universe, but testimonials from peers are unreserved in singing her praises. For Lord Graham Powell, one of the leading figures at WIN, Dr. Thabet is more than an exceptional mind “She is a person who gets things done, taking all those she meets into her trust and giving them respect.” He adds, “I think this is part of Manahel’s genius…aside from her groundbreaking work in physics, business analysis and astronomy, she remains someone who is wholly inclusive and engaging.”
With a string of achievements already to her name, the question begs: what next? Where scientific endeavors are concerned, Dr. Thabet laughs, “If you ask me where I am going with this, I would say to you, ask the equation where it is going to take me!” Her approach to business, however, is an altogether different matter. “It’s a well-structured company. We have a plan. We have a target. We have expansion plans,” asserts the Smart Tips founder.
Working closely with some large (though anonymous) companies in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Thabet is growing substantial business in the Kingdom, with plans to open an office in Riyadh in late 2014 or 2015. The savvy businesswoman explains that her homeland of Yemen is also knocking on the door, with the national government seeking her expertise in restructuring the country’s debt. But she is measured in her expectations; a project of such scale would require on the ground presence, which current political instability does not facilitate. Nevertheless, the real possibility remains; “If something is signed with the government then I’ll look to open a representative office there. It sounds funny—a representative office in my country!”
Dr. Manahel Thabet is unique in the true sense of the word, but while being the first Arab woman to excel in her field is undoubtedly something to be proud of, being one of so few is cause for concern. Pondering the reasons for the dearth of women in science, she explains, “In the Arab world, many causes could be cultural or social, in addition to the [lack of] support from governments and educational systems.” But she stresses that the absence of Arabs in scientific disciplines today is not only applicable to women.
Moreover, for the woman who has called Dubai home for over a decade, the UAE has led the way in opening the doors to the empowerment of women, with the Gulf region as a whole making strides. “In the GCC, I bow out of respect for what women have done. I think the self-made women who have appeared in the last ten years are really something…because I feel how hard it is.” With the UAE providing an environment conducive to success, she speaks frankly, “The opportunity is there. All you have to do is earn it.”
Dr. Manahel Thabet still exudes the sense that anything is possible. Whether deep in mathematical thought or chasing stars across the deserts of Dubai—telescope in hand—her dreams are never far from reach. For aspiring female scientists or businesswomen with grand ambitions, her advice is simple. “Keep dreaming. If the universe exists, the sky is not the limit.”