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Women in the Gulf

Where do we Stand?

By Ahmad Sas – Achieving socio-economic growth and enhancing quality-of-life are key aspects of the mid-term reform programmes in the Arab Gulf countries –– re: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These objectives are in harmony with the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Women empowerment and the promotion of their rights have topped the agenda of the Arab Gulf states. There are, however, deep-rooted cultural norms that need alteration. This renders the social transformation of the region both a legal issue and part of a larger process which impacts cultural and national identities. The journey is long and the Gulf states have already embarked on rapid change accompanied by the reinvention of more traditional culture in order to address contemporary issues such as social equality.


Gender inequality is a global problem not limited to a specific region. Recently however, the discourse on women’s rights in the Gulf has attracted global attention. With the media hype, it is important to flesh-out its development. Marking the crucial changes that have occurred in the discourse is essential for evaluating the path of reforms. Furthermore, recognising the social engagement and the means of women empowerment highlights important facts that shatters stereotypes and the politicisation of the issue. It is undeniable that each of the Gulf states has come a long way in their reforms, indicating the seriousness their leaders take on the issue. 


The Traditional Model of Reforms in Perspective


Despite cultural similarities between the Arab Gulf states each embarked on a unique path towards women’s rights. The first movements emerged in Bahrain and Kuwait marking out these countries as hubs of women’s rights discourse in the Gulf. The Young Ladies Association in Bahrain was established in 1955 as the first of its kind followed nearly a decade later by the Women Social Cultural Association (Kuwait) in 1963. Women’s associations then began to spread to the rest of the Gulf states. The last arrival was Qatar; a subsidiary of women’s rights association to the Red Cross Society was established in 1982. Generally, the typology of these associations was limited to state-governed unions or elite associations. Social and legal obstacles crucially influenced the nature of these organizations’ functions, limiting their activism to charities and religious affairs. 


A New Path Towards Empowerment 


Fast forward to now and there is a new wave of social engagement related to women’s empowerment that attempts to catch-up with global trends. This has been facilitated by social media platforms and encouraged by the global feminist activism such as the #MeToo movement. This is not a labour-free process and despite acknowledgement of the urgency to change ⏤ from both the authorities and the public ⏤ state-led reforms and civil activism were often in competition, not cooperation. The bottom-up reforms were led mainly by pioneering women, who proved that change is possible despite the obstacles. Their role was crucial and for the first time leading female figures have taken positions as high ranked legislators, professionals in unconventional careers, leading academics, sports players, and in many other public posts. Their achievements have also influenced the second type of reforms, the state-led top-down process, as many states employed these pioneers to be the main architects of the social transformation plans. This duality has paved the way to overcome the traditional model towards a deeper, if more critical, dialogue between civil society and the decision-making bodies in the Gulf states. Gradual societal reforms took place, included a robust plan for women’s empowerment, improving women’s access to economic resources, removing legal obstacles and confronting social biases by raising social awareness through effective programmes of education and mass communication. Presenting the achievements of these models, case by case, is important. Consider that:


Bahrain — Embarked on a national transformation plan under the auspices of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa since his 2000 accession. Bahrain’s Vision 2030 focuses mainly on economic and social transformation. Subsequently, in the government framework of 2015, Manama adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs), as national priorities, linking them to the executive actions of the Government Work Programme (2015-2018). In addition to the economic part of the Vision, Bahrain has also taken huge strides in promoting women’s contributions to public life. According to the Bahrain Human Development Report, produced by the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (Derasat), in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) the gender income index in Bahrain was fairly balanced and more than 50% of new-found companies in the past years have been registered by women. Also, Bahrain's Human Development Index (HDI) is currently 0.846, putting it in 43rd place of 189 countries. The Kingdom was able to close the gap in laws and legislation supporting gender equality and women’s protection from violence by 67%, according to the report of Gender Justice and the Law, issued by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in 2018. These accomplishments can be traced to the efforts of the Supreme Council for Women which was established on 22 August 2001. Chaired by Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the Council took serious steps to implement its agenda of empowering Bahraini women through development programmes. The Council was able to achieve harmonisation between theirs and the government’s programmes up to 43% and with the Bahrain Economic Vision 2030 about 78%. 

Kuwait — has made significant progress in closing the gender gap in various social fields. Supporting women’s education topped the governments’ agendas for decades. This policy resulted in important achievements as the number of women in higher education is almost double the number of men. Still, there is more to address regarding their engagement in the labour market, as women’s representation in leadership positions stands at less than 15% in the government sector and at less than 20% in the private sector. In this regard, Kuwait’s Vision 2035 shifted the conventional methods of achieving social equality from supporting to empowering women. The state invested in providing women with the necessary skills to overcome this deficit, launching training programmes and initiatives to optimise their leadership potentials. 

Oman — has had a remarkable and distinguished path from the other states in the Gulf. Despite the similarity in promoting social equality and empowerment of women, the Sultanate is keen to build a reputation in finding common ground in other difficult regional conflicts in the region and improve its status as a destination for foreigners as a peaceful, socially modernised state. Such a policy approach has further boosted the state’s intentions on socio-political reform. The current numbers indicate a promising future of gender equality. Women represent 41% of the workforce and 54% of students in higher education are female. Although Oman’s Vison 2040 targets mainly youth empowerment, the plan emphasises women and their participation in all aspects of public life as well. 

For Qatar — empowering women is also part and parcel of its development strategy. Qatar’s social transformation plan, its Vision 2030, is also related to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Remarkably, women’s engagement in post-secondary education is among the highest in the world, as 70% of the 2016-2017 academic year’s graduates were female. Along with education, women began to register a higher engagement in the business sector; with 37% of the workforce being represented by young women aged between 25-29 years old. Since 2017, there has been a further boost to the trend and a general encouragement of Qatari women to engage more substantially in business and public life.


Saudi Arabia — the ascension of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (June 2017), produced serious steps towards modernising Saudi society. In that, Prince Mohammad is following the footsteps of King Abdallah bin Abdulaziz al Saud (2005-2015) who ratified of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women on 07 September 2000. In February 2011, King Abdallah announced that, for the first time, women could participate in political life through Majlis Ashura (Consultative Council). Women hold at least a fifth of the Majlis’ seats and the reforms allowed them to vote and stand as candidates in the 2015 municipal elections. More significantly, key legislation was implemented in the Saudi Vision 2030. King Salman issued an order to overturn the longstanding ban on women driving in June 2018. Furthermore, the latest Royal Decree, on 2 August 2019, marks the most significant of the reforms underway. The decree includes gender-neutral reforms to the Personal Status Law mainly on the Guardianship System. It grants women the right to hold a passport and travel abroad, register a child’s birth, marriage and divorce and issue family documents without having to receive the approval of a male guardian. Women are now able to be registered as co-heads of their household. These reforms create the conditions to favour women’s participation and engagement in the workforce. This is a crucial goal of Vision 2030, which aims to increase the employment rate among Saudi women from 22% to 30%, since the country has a low employment rate among women ––despite that more than 50% of Saudi women are university graduates. 


The United Arab Emirates — achieving equality between men and women and having women fully involved in all aspects of public life has long been considered a priority. As a small country with a small population, the UAE has made this a part of its larger development strategy of including women in the workforce and leadership positions. This has been, since the establishment of the relatively new state, one of the main pillars of the national identity-building process. The seven emirates –– re: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah –– were able to build one of the most open and inclusive societies in the Arab world and have been able to strike a balance between modernisation and preserving its Islamic heritage while isolating itself from the radicalization trends in the region. Between 2013 and 2014, the UAE participated in an Open Working Group meeting with the United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA), during which the UAE adopted the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. One of the main achievements took place within the Federal National Council established in 2015, when 8 among 20 of the appointed members were women. In the same year, the UAE also established the Gender Balance Council (GBC), which focuses on integrating women across government entities and in public life. Remarkably, the UAE also established the region’s first military college for women––the Khawla bint Al Azwar Military School. In 2017, women represented 66% of public sector workers, occupied 30% of leadership positions and 15% of technical and academic functions. Looking ahead, the UAE's vision is to become one of the world's top 25 countries for gender equality by 2021.


While each country in the Gulf has very distinctive socio-political contexts and structural realities, the substance of the social transformation inscribed in their development visions is largely replicated as a general trend. Likewise, these countries still have many goals to achieve and obstacles to overcome. For instance, the emerging reformist trend in the Gulf is accompanied by popular concerns over the future of local culture. Some view women’s empowerment and social equality as indivisible from larger-scale human rights reforms and an essential part of the movement towards building a shareholder society. Women’s rights are being promoted by GCC governments at a rate that reflects the delicate context the Arab Gulf states find themselves in. 

02 September 2019

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