North Africa, West Asia

The slow pace of female empowerment in the Gulf

These oil-rich countries cannot sustain long-term growth and prosperity if half the population remains marginalised and excluded from the workforce. The GCC states should begin to invest in and reform public and private sector institutions in favour of female-friendly policies.

Joshua Haber Maria Saab
18 March 2014

Beware, Iceland. The Gulf Arab states seem eager to catch up to the nation ranked as the most egalitarian in the world. Earlier this year, Bahrain signed a UN convention recognising equal rights for women under law. The UAE announced a military service law allowing women to join the Emirate armed forces. Even the Saudi regime is spearheading a campaign to empower women in political bodies and business arenas. Women all over the region are starting their own businesses, speaking out against  controversial legislation affecting their rights, and traveling abroad to receive advanced education.

But these new shifts are hardly tectonic. And most of the new, well-funded government initiatives - to encourage women’s education or bolster their rights - are unlikely to foment significant change. While state-led initiatives have succeeded in boosting female educational attainment - female adult literacy rates are higher than ever (84 percent on average) and female university graduates now outnumber male university graduates in all six GCC states - they have failed to empower women economically or politically. Indeed, Gulf Arab women remain economically marginalised, barred from entering key occupational fields, and seriously underrepresented in legislative and decision-making bodies. The picture is discouraging: a new generation of women with atrophying expertise and impressive degrees.   

How did this happen? For years the development world has stressed that education is the key to female empowerment -- and today, the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait have prioritised education in long-term development plans. But this has not always been the case in the Gulf. Before those ambitious education strategies, discriminatory legislation enacted by traditionally conservative governments diminished the status of women. Legal barriers, like those that prohibit men and women from occupying the same public space or that prevent women from accessing various forms of transportation, can still heavily restrict female political and economic participation if not repealed. As a result, the space in which women can advocate for change is extremely limited. In the Gulf, women’s status in political, economic, and social spheres have simply not evolved concurrently. 

The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap report, which ranks 136 countries on their ability to close gender gaps within four spheres (political, economic, educational, and health), highlights this striking disparity. According to the report, while the Gulf Arab states have narrowed the gender gap on educational attainment on a par with the world’s most developed countries, they rank among the worst in the world on female economic and political inclusion measurements. 

Here are a few numbers to consider: the UAE, ranked 109 overall out of 136 countries, ranks first (tied) in terms of female educational attainment, but grades a dismal 122 on economic participation and opportunity and 81 on political empowerment. This means that while the UAE has almost completely closed the gender gap on educational attainment, women remain largely excluded from economic and political activity. We see the same phenomenon in other GCC countries. 

Part of the problem is that women are not receiving the proper education and skills-training to meet the demands of the local job market. In-demand jobs in these oil-driven economies desire candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, and engineering. The problem is that these job-generating disciplines have been perceived as culturally unacceptable for women. Even without these pervasive socio-cultural stigmas, the difficulty of attracting women to the STEM (science, education, technology, and mathematics) fields is a global phenomenon.

The prevalence of segregated schooling systems, often with discriminatory matriculation policies, and limited career guidance creates added barriers. Many women have been forced to  settle on traditionally “female careers,” such as those in the humanities and business services. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women occupy 95 percent of the public sector, and 85 percent of those women are in the field of education. Policies and norms that constrict women’s employment opportunities result in female unemployment rates that are double or even triple that of males. In 2008, the International Labour Organisation reported that GCC women faced 21.8 percent unemployment, compared to 7.9 percent for men.

Beyond the classroom, state institutions and companies continue to promote policies that deter women from entering the workforce. Time restrictions enacted in countries like Kuwait and Oman prevent women from working in the evening to early morning hours, while limitations on transportation and driving have made even getting to work an obstacle. The average GCC workplace lacks family-friendly policies, and many companies do not provide benefits allowing flexible working hours, parental leave, maternity leave, and child care programmes for women expected to fulfil duties as mothers and wives. Facilities to accommodate cultural and religious demands, such as cloak rooms and female-only prayer rooms, are often inadequate or simply unavailable. Typically, women are hired in non-strategic positions, with limited decision-making authority or job autonomy. Together, these conditions only accentuate the hardships confronting working women in the GCC. 

And then there is the political realm. In countries with genuinely participatory political institutions, women policymakers could seek to change some of those constricting laws to make work environments more female-friendly. But alas, Gulf women are also marginalised politically, where they remain grossly underrepresented in elected institutions and ministerial positions. The ratio of male-to-female parliamentarians in the GCC states is, on average, about ten-to-one. Although women are eligible to vote and run for office in all countries except for Saudi Arabia, the absence of gender-based quotas in legislative bodies keeps female political participation low. But would gender quotas actually impact beneficially on the situation for women, or just increase female bodies in the legislative chambers? 

First, a peculiar scenario from Saudi Arabia: the Kingdom is the only GCC state where women are represented in political bodies but lack the right to vote. In 2011, Saudi Arabia introduced a 20 percent quota for female representation in the Shura Council - an advisory body whose members are appointed by the king. Saudi King Abdullah coupled this reform with promises to grant women the right to vote and run for municipal elections by 2015. But far from heralding progress in female empowerment and inclusion, these reforms have instead underscored women’s subordinate status. The Shura Council’s political authority is limited to advising the king and key ministers, and the chamber is strictly gender-segregated. Powerless institutions that enforce the separation of genders can hardly pioneer female political engagement.

Gender quotas could potentially empower women in Kuwait, which boasts a vibrant parliament with real legislative authority and leverage vis-à-vis the executive. But most GCC states will probably construct the same misleading veneer of empowerment as Saudi Arabia. Participatory institutions in Bahrain and the UAE, for example, lack legislative authority against the male-dominated ruling families. The UAE’s Federal National Council exists as the country’s sole legislative institution, but its 40 members are appointed by the king and unable to pass or propose legislation. Likewise, Bahrain’s elected body, the 40-member Chamber of Deputies, lacks the ability to propose new legislation and can be dissolved by the king.

Participatory decision-making across the GCC is mostly a charade; legislative bodies remain mostly consultative and politically impotent. Expanding female representation in these arenas does little to effectively empower women, in the same way that they fail to empower citizens generally. This is not to say that quotas and other institutional efforts to increase women’s representation in political bodies are pointless. Institutional reforms or quotas can contribute to female empowerment - but they have yet to advance the political and socio-economic rights for GCC women.

That poses a far-reaching problem, because it means that everyone in these countries - not just women - will suffer. Economically empowering women is about fostering sustainable economic development - especially critical for countries reliant on non-renewable sources of energy to fuel growth and spending. Tapping into one-half of a country’s potential talent base creates significant opportunities for economic growth. And, since the GCC has remained immune to much of the regional turbulence, they occupy the ideal position to take the lead in improving female economic inclusion.

Even these oil-rich countries cannot sustain long-term growth and prosperity if half the population remains marginalised and excluded from the workforce. The GCC states should begin to invest in and reform public and private sector institutions in favour of female-friendly policies. This can begin at the ground-level, by encouraging school curriculum reform; challenging companies to hire women in positions with more responsibility; or creating conditions that allow women greater opportunities for home-work and entrepreneurship.

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