Women in the Gulf countries: Perceptions and reality

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These days, a lot of discussion is taking place across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — about the role of women in economic and social life. Why are there restrictions on women’s mobility and economic activity? Should they be modified or lifted entirely? How can women reach their full economic potential and contribute to economic development and growth?

Outside the GCC, there is a lingering impression that women are limited in their choices by what their families and societies as a whole deem acceptable. However, the reality is more complex. In the past decade, the GCC countries have made a number of steps towards improving women’s access to education, health care, and employment, as well as encouraging women to participate in political life. Maternal mortality, primary and secondary school enrollment, and higher education are on par with the OECD countries. Educational outcomes for women in the GCC countries outpace those of their male counterparts.

Women’s participation in the labor force in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries lags behind other regions, however, and for some GCC countries, this indicator is still lower than the MENA average: In 2018, 39% of the global workforce were women, but in MENA, women’s share was just 20.3%, and in the GCC it is even less. Close to half of the GCC region’s population are women, and their full participation in economic activities would augment their children’s prosperity and the overall economic growth of their countries.

Delegates from Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia came together with World Bank staff at the Bank’s Annual Meetings in Washington, DC, October 2019 to discuss their countries’ reactions to the findings of the Bank’s most recent Women, Business, and the Law and Doing Business flagship reports, both of which highlighted the need for more active gender reforms. The officials provided information on reforms programs implemented by their governments and on the prospects for women’s economic empowerment resulting from these.

While legal changes introduced recently by Saudi Arabia are extremely positive — such as lifting restrictions on freedom of movement by enabling women to obtain passports and travel without permission from their male guardians; prohibiting discrimination in the workplace; and protecting women from harassment and persecution — other GCC countries began the process of enabling women to participate more fully in economic and social life much earlier and have made headway towards women participating in political life, as well as towards gaining a share of public employment and encouraging women’s entrepreneurship.

The participants shared some of their experiences from their own countries. In Bahrain, the Supreme Council for Women leads the effort to inspire women to become business owners. The country has an incubator center from which women could base their businesses and sell their products. Women also have access to micro-financing loans to start their small businesses which have subsidized interest rates. In 2015, Bahrain also started the Ryadat Fund, focusing on medium to big business to give women access to credit and loans.

Kuwait’s experience has proved similar, with its Supreme Council for Planning and Development pushing for a future based on private sector initiative, both for women and men. Kuwait has also established political incubators, not just economic ones. Women in Kuwait participate actively in political life and can be elected to the national assembly.

Saudi Arabia may have started with a lower ranking for women in international indices, but it is catching up with its neighbors at a very fast pace. Walking the street of Riyadh, one could feel the change that has been introduced over the last three years. Entering ministries and government agencies, today you find a good number of educated women sitting in the offices and sharing responsibilities with their male colleagues. The latest statistics from the Business Center in Riyadh shows that 42% of people using the “one-stop shop” for small and medium enterprises are women.

The World Bank Group strongly supports efforts by GCC countries to promote inclusion and create opportunities for women to engage in all aspects of economic and social life. But, in its view, empowering women to become fully active participants in the GCC’s economic and social activities requires further effort. Legislative changes are laudable but need a support system developed to help women win elections, be promoted at work, open their own businesses, and become board members and high-level decision makers.

Conversation on greater women’s equality will continue at the 9th Kuwait Women’s Forum, organized by Kuwait’s General Secretariat for the Supreme Council for Planning and Development, the United Nations’ Development Program (UNDP), and the Women’s Research and Studies Center at Kuwait University. The Forum will include regional experts and policy makers and be facilitated by representatives from UNDP, UN Women, the World Bank and academia to identify the next steps that need to be taken towards achieving gender equality in a challenging region. These could include the use of innovation and technology to help make result in a real-world impact on women’s rights.

These discussions are especially relevant in a year where Saudi Arabia has taken over the chair of the G20 from Japan. Preparations have already begun on Saudi Arabia’s W20 agenda, which focuses on gender priorities within the G20. Japan had faced challenges, too, some caused by its shrinking workforce, to which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s catch phrase “womenomics” was seen as government-backing for easing women’s entry into the workplace, and their retention in it.

Women’s economic participation is integral to the success of the different visions of the GCC countries. The gains already achieved in women’s education should be used to become part of the building block of its workforce and economic diversification agendas.

Authors

Issam Abousleiman

World Bank Regional Director for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

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