International Women’s Day:
Progress in the GCC
by Sophie Smith
As the world celebrates the International Women’s Day on 8 March, women’s political, socioeconomic and cultural achievements are being highlighted all around the world. This includes the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, where the governments have taken several steps to advance women’s rights and gender equality in recent years. The following article outlines the most recent initiatives undertaken in the past years by the Gulf countries to advance female empowerment, while also addressing some of the remaining challenges that women face.
Advances in Women’s Rights (2019-2022)
Regarded as the regional leader in women’s rights, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in particular, has introduced a number of measures to improve the position of women. Indeed, Abu Dhabi has placed female empowerment at the core of its March presidency at the UN Security Council, where it currently sits as a non-permanent member. Last year, in 2021, the Emirates announced further measures to strengthen protections for women.[i] And its new labour law that came into force 2022 outlined equal pay and no gender discrimination in the workplace, consolidating its law, introduced in September 2020, that stipulated equal pay for men and women in the private sector — the first legislation of its kind in the region.[ii] Moreover, in the same year, the UAE scrapped the more lenient sentencing for the so-called ‘honour crimes,’ meaning perpetrators who claim to commit crimes to ‘preserve the honour of the family’ will be subject to the same penalties as other criminal cases.[iii] In tandem, women now make up 50% of the Federal National Council, the Parliament, which is one of the highest representations globally following the introduction of a quota at the end of 2018.[iv]
Equally significant, Saudi Arabia introduced major reforms to its personal status laws in 2019.[v] This permitted women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and travel abroad without their guardian’s permission. Women could also now register their child’s birth with the civil status office, as well as inform the office of a death, marriage or divorce. Moreover, in 2020, it introduced further measures that would allow women to work at night and in all sectors, in tandem with earlier laws that prohibited wage discrimination.[vi] The government expanded on this in February 2021 to allow females to join the armed forces with the first female recruits graduating from the Armed Forces Women's Cadre Training Centre later in September.[vii] And, more recently, in June 2021, women were given to right to live on their own without requiring consent from their guardian.[viii]
Bahrain has also introduced new measures to promote women’s rights and gender equality in the last years. Manama enacted legislation protecting women from sexual harassment in the workplace.[ix] In tandem, Bahrain, in 2021, banned gender discrimination in wages to close the gender pay gap and annulled regulation that limited the professions available to women.[x]
The same holds for Kuwait. It has also enacted legislation protecting women from sexual harassment in the workplace[xi] and prohibited discrimination in employment.[xii] Moreover, its parliament criminalised domestic violence and enhanced protections for women in August 2020.[xiii] It allowed women to serve as judges from September 2020 with the promotion of 8 females from prosecutors to judges.[xiv] In this environment, there was a historically high number of female candidates running for the parliamentary elections in December 2020 – however none were elected.[xv]
Regarding Oman, in 2021, the government granted women the ability to acquire a passport using the same method as their male counterparts.[xvi] Equally, they now hold decision-making positions as a decree in 2020 granted 3 females positions on the Council of Ministers, and they are active in elections, winning seats on the Shura Council and municipal councils.[xvii] In turn, in Qatar, women stood in the country’s first legislative election in 2021, but as in Kuwait, none won a seat.
So How Are the Gulf Countries Faring?
Accordingly, the Gulf countries’ scores in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2021 has largely improved.[xviii] The UAE takes the regional lead, coming in 72nd place (out of 156), while Bahrain ranked 137, Oman 145 and Saudi Arabia 147 – all achieving a higher score than in 2020. Qatar and Kuwait, however, scored 142 and 143, respectively, registering a slight decrease in their scores due to a lack of progress. All countries, notably, have more females than males enrolled in tertiary education (barring the UAE, whose figures are almost equal).
Such rankings still highlight, however, that there is some way to go for the GCC countries in regard to women’s rights. In 2020, women in Kuwait’s and Oman’s parliament only represented 1.5% and 2.3% respectively.[xix] Women participation in the labour force, at large, in Saudi Arabia stood at 23% and 37.8% in Oman, for instance.[xx] Moreover, female citizens cannot pass on their nationality to their children, and continue to face discrimination in respect to divorce, child custody, inheritance and the like.
To that end, there are still avenues in which women’s rights and gender equality can be enhanced. However, the Gulf countries have introduced significant reforms for their female citizens that should be celebrated on International Women’s Day. This momentum is likely to continue and grow in the years to come.
8 March 2022
[ii] Emirates News Agency, ‘Mohammed bin Rashid approves new Law on Equal Pay,’ Emirates News Agency, April 10, 2020. https://www.wam.ae/en/details/1395302680881; Emirates News Agency, ‘New labour relations law comes into force tomorrow for over 4.9 million private sector workers,’ Emirates News Agency, February 1, 2022. http://wam.ae/en/details/1395303016828.
[iii] Emirates News Agency, ‘President approves amendments to Personal Status, Civil Transactions, Penal Code, Criminal Procedural laws,’ Emirates News Agency, November 11, 2020. https://www.wam.ae/en/details/1395302884233.
[iv] Government of Dubai, ‘50% of Female Representation in the Federal National Council,’ Government of Dubai, n.d. https://dwe.gov.ae/en/dwe-initiatives/50-female-representation-federal-national-council.
[v] The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ‘Saudi Arabia Issues Sweeping Changes to Enhance Role of Women in Society,’ The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, August 2, 2019. https://www.saudiembassy.net/news/saudi-arabia-issues-sweeping-changes-enhance-role-women-society.
[vi] The World Bank, ‘Saudi Arabia,’ The World Bank, 2022. https://wbl.worldbank.org/en/data/exploreeconomies/saudi-arabia/2022.
[vii] Deema Al-Khudair, ‘Saudi Arabia opens military recruitment to women,’ Arab News, February 21, 2022. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1812906/saudi-arabia.
[viii] Khitam Al Amir, ‘Saudi women allowed to live alone without permission from male guardian,’ Gulf News, June 9, 2021. https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/saudi/saudi-women-allowed-to-live-alone-without-permission-from-male-guardian-1.79787003.
[ix] The World Bank, ‘Bahrain,’ The World Bank, 2022. https://wbl.worldbank.org/content/dam/documents/wbl/2022/snapshots/Bahrain.pdf.
[x] Bahrain News Agency, ‘HM King issues Decree-Law 16/2021, amending some provisions of Labour Law in the Private Sector,’ Bahrain News Agency, August 4, 2021. https://www.bna.bh/en/HMKingissuesDecreeLaw162021amendingsomeprovisionsofLabourLawinthePrivateSector.aspx?cms=q8FmFJgiscL2fwIzON1+DjDe7Ygbf+XB3CpEuu3jFMI=; Labour Market Regulation Authority, ‘Decree No. (51) of 2021 Regarding the Appointment of a Chief Executive Officer for the Labour Market Regulatory Authority,’ Labour Market Regulation Authority, April 20, 2021. https://lmra.bh/portal/en/legal/show/75.
[xi] The World Bank, ‘Kuwait,’ The World Bank, 2021. https://wbl.worldbank.org/en/data/exploreeconomies/kuwait/2022.
[xii] The World Bank, ‘Kuwait.’
[xiii] Kuwait News Agency, ‘Kuwait’s Parliament Approves Bill Incriminating Domestic Violence,’ Kuwait News Agency, August 19, 2020. https://www.kuna.net.kw/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=2916431&language=en.
[xiv] Sophie Smith, ‘Kuwait’s Judicial Relations: A Further Step towards Female Empowerment,’ Euro-Gulf Information Centre, 2020. https://www.egic.info/kuwait-judicial-relations-women.
[xv] Nikola Zukalová, ‘Kuwait’s 2020 Election Results and the New Government,’ The Euro-Gulf Information Centre, December 14, 2020. https://www.egic.info/kuwait-2020-elections-results.
[xvi] The World Bank, ‘Oman,’ The World Bank, 2021. https://wbl.worldbank.org/en/data/exploreeconomies/oman/2022.
[xvii] United Nations General Assembly, National report submitted in accordance with paragraph 15 (a) of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 5/1* Oman (Human Rights Council, November 2, 2020). https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G20/305/20/PDF/G2030520.pdf?OpenElement.
[xix] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2021.