Of course, there was really only one way for Gulf women to go, given how far they lag behind their peers in other parts of the world when it comes to gender equality. This is clear from the Global Gender Gap Report for 2013, issued annually by the World Economic Forum. The seven Arab Gulf states all place near the bottom when compared to the 136 countries in the survey when it comes to the four vital areas of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment of women.
Here are the rankings: United Arab Emirates 109, Bahrain 112, Qatar 115, Kuwait 116, Oman 122, Saudi Arabia 127, and, in last place, Yemen at 136.
For Saudi women, 2014 may bring positive changes. That is because the government is promoting greater participation of women in public life. The expansion of universities in recent years has given young females more educational opportunities, and women now make up at least 58 percent of all students in all higher educational institutions.
Saudi women will also likely continue to have a higher, though limited, political role. For example, in January 2014, 30 Saudi women will mark the first anniversary of their appointment to the previously all-male Majlis Al-Shura. This followed a 2011 royal order from King Abdullah specifying that women were to constitute “no less than 20 percent” of the Shura Council. That quota means that Saudi female participation in politics is greater than in all other Gulf states except Bahrain.
Other Saudi women will no doubt spend part of 2014 planning their participation in the 2015 municipal council elections. For the first time, they will be permitted to run as candidates and to vote in those elections, under the same 2011 royal decree. While municipal councils have little real authority and limited budgets, women’s participation marks a major symbolic shift: for the first time, they are on a par politically with men.
Job opportunities are also increasing, again due to government policies. Lingerie shops can no longer employ male clerks, and those retail jobs are being filled by women. Other job opportunities for women are appearing daily as the private sector responds to government demands to replace foreign workers with Saudis.
Finally, 2014 may be the year that Saudi women at last are permitted to drive. The recent push by some activists to bring the issue to the front burner by repeatedly flouting the ban on female drivers has attracted attention. In late November, Interior Minister Prince Muhammad Bin Naif met with two activists. One of them, Aziza Al-Yusef, told Agence France-Presse that the minister had been positive, telling her and fellow activist Hala Al-Dosari: “Rest assured that the issue is being discussed, and expect a good outcome.” Yusef added that “we expect a royal decree that gives us this right” to drive.
In other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, women have far more pressing concerns than driving. In Yemen, for example, women are still afflicted by widespread poverty and illiteracy. Armed conflicts threaten their personal security. Still, the large role played by women in the 2011–2012 revolt against President Ali Abdullah Saleh has brought them a higher political profile. They account for 27 percent of the National Dialogue Conference, and women’s demand for 30 percent female participation in all levels of government has been accepted despite opposition from religious extremists and the Yemeni Socialist Party, according to a recent report by anthropologist Najwa Adra for the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center.
Bahraini women also are caught up in the continuing political impasse between the island nation’s government and its Shi’a-majority population. Women have been active on the political scene, but the coming year is likely to see little movement on women’s rights.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the Gulf, young women—like men—will find that their biggest challenge is one they share with their counterparts throughout the Arab world: finding a meaningful job, or just finding a job, period. Close to 60 percent of the Arabian Peninsula’s population is below the age of 30. These youths are emerging in greater-than-ever numbers from universities at a time when the public sector is no longer a reliable source of jobs because it is over-staffed.
Young Gulf women, who are only beginning to break through the gender barrier in employment, usually stay in university longer than their male peers, according to a recent whitepaper entitled “Education—Middle East Public Sector national necessities” issued by the consultancy firm Deloitte Middle East. For example, 75 percent of those enrolled in public universities in the UAE are women. But they only account for 12 percent of the Emirates’ workforce.
But there is some good news for women on this front, according to a study by Schlumberger Business Consulting, “The Gulf Challenge: Creating Opportunities for Leadership and Human Capital Development in the Middle East.” It found that the oil and gas industry, the region’s most vital sector, is on a push to take advantage of what the study calls the area’s “enormous female talent pool.” Kuwait Oil Company leads the Gulf region in employing women with technical expertise such as geology, geophysics and petroleum engineering, the study said, adding that “there is an increasing number of conferences dedicated to women in the industry with high-level involvement of [oil company] executives as well as international companies.” The study noted that regional universities with a focus on petroleum-related disciplines have a good percentage of female students (28 percent of student body). As a result, “there is significant potential to integrate women more effectively in the national talent pool.”
With some exceptions, then, particularly where conflict is pervasive such as Yemen and Bahrain, 2014 may well bring improvements in the situation of Gulf women. And this will be good for the region.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Asharq al-Awsat or The Majalla magazine.