If we put together the words “MENA region” and “women-led startups” into the same sentence most of us probably would not expect the following statement: one in three start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa region is founded or led by a woman, which is a much higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. Women in Arab countries make up for 34-57 per cent of STEM graduates, a figure which is also much higher than in universities across Europe and the US. This led us to ask ourselves: how come, given these numbers, the proportion of female workforce in 13 out of 15 Arab countries remains among the lowest in the world?
This is how Wamda‘s Thought Leadershipon 11 May, 2020 introduced the hot subject of gender equality in the MENA region.
How can we encourage more women to pursue entrepreneurship?
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, Sana Afouaiz, founder of Womenpreneur, an organisation established to support women entrepreneurs, toured three countries in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) to gain an insight into the challenges faced by women founders in the region. In this article, Afouaiz outlines the steps needed to overcome these challenges.
The answer to this is neither short nor simple. It is safe to say, however, that the figures above unveil the amazing potential to be unlocked in the region. For this reason Womenpreneur Initiative and SANAD’s Entrepreneurship Academy joined forces to promote female tech entrepreneurship in the Mena region. The goal of this unprecedented empowerment campaign was to give visibility to women in tech, innovation and entrepreneurship as well as to provide platforms to assess the current state of the tech ecosystem in three countries: Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan.
During the Womenpreneur Tour we interviewed female tech entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds. They shared with us what motivated them to launch their businesses, as well as every obstacle they encountered on their journey. Did you know that 71 per cent of Tunisian women started their enterprises with absolutely zero resources and zero support? Or that only 10 per cent of Moroccan women are entrepreneurs despite them representing half of the population of the country? Or that only 6 per cent of women entrepreneurs in Jordan are generating revenues exceeding $100,000?
Mindset as major drawback for women entrepreneurs in the region
Most of them point out mindset as the main barrier preventing women from having equal access to the job market or promotion opportunities. Traditional values in Arab countries are still deeply-rooted and this is reflected in recruitment processes for example, where women are still inquired about their marital status and left as second choice in the presence of a male competitor. High demands in the family setting are another major drawback for women to advance their career. This traditional mindset extends to the investment-seeking process too. Due to lack of precedent in the region, investors are more likely to distrust the profitability of women-led businesses.
What can be done to eliminate these constraints?
Many argued that a change of mindset is slowly emerging. For example, Jordan recently passed a new labour law providing equal day care obligations to both female and male parents in the workplace. This is a great achievement but real changes are taking too long to materialise. During our tour across these countries we also interviewed multiple experts from various fields who shared their recommendations to make the tech ecosystem more accessible and fairer to women. Most of them agreed on the need for gender quotas in the public administration to ensure the involvement of women in strategic decision-making at the political level as well as in board of directors in the private sector to promote that they reach top management positions. Recruitment processes should be revised from a legal perspective as well in order to prevent gender-based discrimination due to marital and family status. On the other hand, many pushed for the need to break the glass ceiling as well as gender roles and stereotypes which traditionally portray women as more suitable in social and human sciences and men as more capable for physics, mathematics and technology.
Further recommendations related to the financial sphere, where some of our experts suggest a democratisation of processes and requirements for opening a business bank account is needed. This would facilitate that women receive funds quickly to start their activities and demonstrate recorded payments and credit history. As a result, female tech entrepreneurs acquire financial credibility and are in a better position to fundraise further. Additionally, the creation of female-oriented or women-only funds for all stages of start-ups, in forms of government grants or equity investments, would facilitate women access to funding and present the investment-seeking process as one based on merit and business skills rather than a risk journey into gender discrimination.
After the great success of our tour we are embarking ourselves into a second edition that will explore three new countries: Algeria, Egypt and Lebanon. This time, however, in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis our aim is to find out how this pandemic is affecting female entrepreneurs’ lives across the Mena region and how the female talent is tackling this challenging situation and bringing about solutions.
If you want to know more about all the inspiring female tech entrepreneurs we met, then watch our documentary
Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (RAKEZ) has today launched its BusinessWomen Package, a ‘first-of-its-kind’ product in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) designed exclusively for women who are passionate about business.
The package is offered at a pocket-friendly rate starting from AED 6,200 with instalment plan options, a free zone licence, a shared workstation and various support services in a one-stop shop.
Businesswomen who want to set up their company with the economic zone can either select the 1-Year or 3-Year Package. Both packages come with value-added services such as free usage of RAKEZ shared workstations, free printing of business cards, priority tokens at RAKEZ Service Centres and eligibility for a UAE Residence Visa(s). The 3-Year Package has an added benefit of one free investor visa, which is equivalent to AED 3,950.
In addition, the newly-launched package gives businesswomen eight free zone licence types to choose from: Commercial, Educational, E-Commerce, General Trading, Individual/Professional, Media, Service and Freelancer Permit.
Commenting on the introduction of the new package, Ramy Jallad, Group CEO of RAKEZ, said: “We are very proud to launch the RAKEZ BusinessWomen Package, which is a clear testament to our commitment of encouraging more women to achieve their entrepreneurial dreams. In the past, we have conducted events exclusively for women, such as networking sessions. We have used these events as platforms to get to know what challenges they are facing and what can we do to support them. Then, here we are, we have introduced an entire package that has all the elements to help them become the successful businesswomen that they are meant to be. It comes with a selection of cost-effective office spaces, licences, as well as support services. All they have to do is pick the solutions that suit their needs and they are good to go.”
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr Jallad added. “Watch out as we are going to work on more initiatives to inspire women to be in business.”
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, there is a 40% gender gap in the Middle East and North Africa in various areas of the society, including business. Closing this gap by promoting female entrepreneurship can help the region achieve a more sustainable and inclusive economic growth path.
For purposes of mainly Invigorating Female Entrepreneurship in Egypt’s ecosystem, a “SHE CAN – 2019” organized by Entreprenelle, kickstarted by Rania Ayman in 2015 as an organization eventing conferences as a mean to empower and motivate women so as help them believe in their ability to change their destiny.
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SHE CAN 2019, a conference dedicated to MENA women entrepreneurs, hosted its third annual edition at the Greek campus, Downtown Cairo, Egypt, with the theme ‘Successful Failures’. Launched by Entreprenelle, an Egypt-based social enterprise which aims to economically empower women through awareness, education and access to resources, the conference held a wide range of panel discussions, talks and workshops on innovative thinking, creativity, technology, raising capital and invigorating female entrepreneurship in the ecosystem.
Gathering more than 5,000 participants and 50 partners, including UN Women, the Swedish Embassy, the National Council for Women, Nahdet Masr, Avon, Orange and Export Development Bank of Egypt, it also highlighted the endeavors of Entrepenelle alumni. It was also an opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from sessions featuring tips on pitching business ideas, mentorship, as well as startup competitions. Female-founded startups were also able to showcase their products and services in an exhibition area.
Speaking about the conference focusing on the necessity to experience failure on one’s entrepreneurial path, Dorothy Shea, Deputy Ambassador of the US Embassy in Cairo, commented, “As far as I’m concerenced, the sky is the limit. Women should be able to achieve whatever their dreams are. What I was struck by was this idea of “successful failures,” we need to not fear failure, it’s not a destination, it is a stepping stone to success. Sometimes there can be a fear of failure, but as part of this entrepreneurship ecosystem, they are really trying to move that inhibition away. We learn from our failures and then we take our plans to the next level. I was really inspired by this theme.”
Founded in 2015, Entreprenelle has more than 10 entrepreneurship programs conducted in nine governorates, including Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, Minya, Assiut, Sohag and Aswan.
The most water-scarce region in the world is the
Middle East and North Africa (MENA) where more than 60% of the population has
little or no access to drinkable water and over 70% of the region’s GDP is
exposed to high or very high water stress.
scarcity in MENA involves multiple factors such as climate change leading to
droughts and floods, low water quality, and poor water management in the
context of fragility, conflict, and violence. This is one of the reasons why at
the World Economic Forum 2015, experts on the MENA region stated that the water
crisis is “the greatest threat to the region—greater even than political
instability or unemployment”.
water quality in the region is caused by unsustainable water consumption,
pollution and untreated wastewater. The cost of these in the region represents
0.5-2.5% of the GDP annually. This causes multiple problems, ranging from
waterborne diseases to the pollution of fresh water necessary for ecosystem
services such as fisheries. For this reason, according to the International
Union for Conservation of Nature, 17% of freshwater species in the region are
on the brink of extinction.
Meanwhile, life carrying
on, here is a story that happen to be part of everyday life in a country that had
only a few weeks ago, very unusual heavy precipitations followed by heavy floods.
Safaa is one of Jordan’s few female plumbers. She runs her own company in Irbid, and together with her team of around 20 female plumbers, Safaa tries to raise awareness among her customers on the importance of preserving water in a water-scarce country like Jordan
Jordan only has a small number of female plumbers, Safaa says demand for women
in this profession is growing. “Having female plumbers has solved a big
problem,” she said. “Women can now have repairs done in their homes at any
also conducts her own training sessions for women in her field of profession.
She recently jointed an International Labour Organization (ILO) Training of
Trainers (ToT) programme to help her build better skills in coaching. The ToT
programme provides participants with adequate learning methods,
techniques and approaches that are needed to enable them to better
transfer knowledge to other learners and apprentices.
The UAE has been ranked as the top country in the
Middle East and North Africa for wage equality, according to a new report
released by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
However, the UAE’s performance on the WEF’s Global
Gender Gap Report 2018’s wage equality indicator saw a slight decrease
compared to last year, a statement said.
The Emirates also topped the region in terms of the
number of women in ministerial positions, with improvements recorded in gender
parity in the legislators, senior officials and managers and healthy life
Overall, the report found that despite the gender
gap across the MENA region closing narrowly in 2018, it remains the world’s
least gender-equal region.
It will take the Middle East and North Africa
economies “153 years to close the gender gap at the current rate of change”, the report stated.
While Tunisia topped the region for gender equality
– ranking 119 globally, the UAE ranked 121 with the gender gap closed at 64.2
per cent. Saudi Arabia, ranked 141 with a 59 per cent gender gap rate, showed
“modest progress”, with improvement in wage equality and women’s labour force
participation, the report stated.
Globally, the report found that the global gender
gap only slightly reduced in 2018, as stagnation in the proportion of women in
the workplace and women’s declining representation in politics, along with
greater inequality in access to health and education, offset improvements in
wage equality and the number of women in professional positions.
According to the report, the world has closed 68
per cent of its gender gap, as measured across four key pillars: economic
opportunity; political empowerment; educational attainment; and health and survival.
Last year was the first since the report began
publishing in 2006 that the gap between men and women widened.
At the current rate of change, the report indicated
that it will take 108 years to close the overall gender gap and 202 years to
bring about parity in the workplace.
Globally, having closed more than 85.8 per cent of
its overall gender gap, Iceland topped the list for the 10th
consecutive year. It was followed by Norway, Sweden, Finland and Nicaragua.
“The economies that will succeed in the Fourth
Industrial Revolution will be those that are best able to harness all their
available talent,” said Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the
“Proactive measures that support gender parity and
social inclusion and address historical imbalances are therefore essential for
the health of the global economy as well as for the good of society as a
The report also found that while the income gap
between men and women has become narrower, fewer women are participating in the
“This a worrisome development for which there are a
number of potential reasons,” the report said.
“One is that automation is having a
disproportionate impact on roles traditionally performed by women. At the same
time, women are under-represented in growing areas of employment that require
STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills and knowledge.
Another potential reason is that the infrastructure needed to help women enter
or re-enter the workforce – such as childcare and eldercare – is
under-developed and unpaid work remains primarily the responsibility of women,”
the report explained.
“The corollary is that the substantial investments
made by many economies to close the education gap are failing to generate
optimal returns in the form of growth.”
According to Saadia Zahidi, head of the Centre for
the New Economy and Society and member of the WEF managing board, industries
must “proactively hardwire gender parity in the future of work through
effective training, reskilling and upskilling interventions and tangible job
“It’s in their long-term interest because diverse
businesses perform better,” she added.
The beauty and personal care industry in the MENA region, valued at $15.9 billion, is set to grow twice as faster than the rest of the world with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.5 per cent in the next three years, a report said.
Meanwhile the global industry, which is worth $444 billion, is estimated to grow at 4.2 per cent per annum, added the latest MENA Beauty Care Report from Dubai-based Millennial Capital, an emerging venture capital firm specialising in developing partnerships with global brands in the consumer, retail and wellness sector which target to enter or operate in the GCC market..
The report cited reasons of high spending per capita, affordable prices, strong consumer confidence, high literacy rates, young population with a high social media exposure and on top of that new entrants with the aim to fill the gap in the “masstige category”.
Among the key categories that contribute most of the beauty and personal care market size are skincare, haircare, colour cosmetics, fragrances and men’s grooming. Globally, the Skincare category dominates the market and as a brand, L’Oréal Group captures the largest market share. Contrary to global trends, fragrances is the most loved category in the Mena region. The same is evident from the fact that two local brands, Arabian Oud and Al Qurashi, control over 20 per cent of the market share due to their appeal to the local masses and cultural significance.
While Saudi Arabia retains the highest market share of 33.2 per cent in the MENA region, the UAE stands higher in terms of spending per capita at $239. Despite the fact that UAE constitutes only 2 per cent of the Mena population, the high spending per capita is a result of the strong consumer confidence, high literacy rates and predominantly young population with a high social media exposure.
There is great opportunity for new players with the right value proposition to step in and gain market share weighing on the gradually shifting consumer focus to quality products that not just pamper and protect, but also pay attention to cleaner and more organic ingredients, along with personalised offerings so that wider audiences can love and appreciate them just as much, according to the report.
All of this, with an affordable price point has enabled new entrants like O Boticário, KIKO Milano and Benefit Cosmetics to lure the millennial consumer away from luxury tags, it added.
“In the age of beauty ‘retailment’ with consumer preferences shifting from being product-based to experience-based, by having alchemy and innovation in its DNA, brands such as O Boticário bring to Dubai an unprecedented emphasis on quality and retail innovation, offering customers an experience complete with interactive shopping content, products that narrate stories combined with the latest retail technologies, such as the LED screens inside the store which enable customers to get to know the stories behind the products when they lift the product from its display,” said Andreea Danila, founder & managing director at Millennial Capital Ltd.
Millennial Capital joined hands with Brazil’s O Boticário Group to introduce the largest cosmetics franchised network in UAE with the opening of two flagship stores in Dubai Mall and Mirdif City Center. The brand received an overwhelming response since the opening of the store in Dubai and its preparing for Saudi Arabia regional market expansion.
“With 33 per cent of global consumers citing brand sustainability as a key deciding factor in their product choices according to Unilever, there is an untapped potential of $1.1 billion for cleaner and sustainable brands in the market,” said Kanchan Khemani, senior investment analyst at Millennial Capital.
“O Boticário has been a pioneer in the research on alternative methods of product testing such as 3D skin instead of animal testing. The brand invests 1 per cent of revenues in forest conservation, and have reduced their electricity consumption by 70 per cent, leading to a saving of 3,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.”
Internet penetration in the Middle East has outpaced the world average of 51.7 per cent, with the largest markets boasting over 90 per cent penetration; thereby having a tremendous influence on consumers aged 18-24. Being avid smartphone users, today’s millennial is more comfortable going to the e-tailer citing lower prices, personalised offerings, and flexible payment methods as factors driving their preference.
Despite the high Middle East social media usage at 38 per cent of total population and average internet penetration of 60 per cent, only 15 per cent of retailers in the Middle East maintain an online presence, hence losing out on the 56 per cent shoppers who purchase products online through their smartphones.
It is interesting to note that health and beauty sales contribute 48 per cent of the Middle East’s online sales, the report said.
This article was written by Kelly Ommundsen, Community Lead, Digital Economy and Society System Initiative, World Economic Forum and Khaled Kteily, Founder and CEO, Legacy posted on the World Economic Forum of July 21, 2018, does bring to the fore only what has been happening throughout the MENA region’s diverse youth. Urbanised as never before, these are in increasing numbers educated and open onto the world. And a fact that is more and more obvious on the ground is that Arab women outnumber men in pursuing university degrees, but . . . . how is this fact affecting the rest of the region’s populations?
The Brookings back in 2015 noted in its website that “Echoing the trend observed globally, women in the Arab world outnumber men in pursuing university degrees.” However, it added that “For Arab women, hard-won progress in education has not earned them the economic progress they deserve. Although young women seek and succeed in tertiary education at higher rates than young men, they are far less likely to enter and remain in the job market. Understanding and tackling the barriers that hinder women from working would unlock Arab women’s potential and yield significant social and economic benefits to every Arab State.”
It remains however that according to the World Bank, “Thirteen of the 15 countries with the lowest rates of women participating in their labour force are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), according to the 2015 Global Gender Gap Report (2015). Yemen has the lowest rate of working women of all, followed by Syria, Jordan, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Oman, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Turkey.”
“So, why is women’s participation in the workforce so low in MENA, especially when the education rate is at parity for girls and boys, and especially when, often, the girls outperform the boys?”
Here is the WEF’s article that covers that segment of activities as helped today by all the ‘smart’ technological advances of recent years.
Palestinian entrepreneur Samar Hijjo developed an app for women during pregnancy. Image: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
It may surprise some to learn that one in three start-ups in the Arab World is founded or led by women. That’s a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. Women are becoming a force to be reckoned with on the start-up scene across the Middle East. Because the tech industry is still relatively new in the Arab world, there is no legacy of it being a male-dominated field. Many entrepreneurs from the region believe that technology is one of the few spaces where everything is viewed as possible, including breaking gender norms, making it a very attractive industry for women.
Despite many challenges, including societal pressure on women to stay at home, a digital gender gap, and structural disadvantages in fund-raising and investments, female entrepreneurs are finding new and creative ways to overcome barriers to entering the workforce and starting their own business.
Key to these efforts has been their ability to leverage the internet and engage through online platforms to reach new markets. They are able to work from home if they wish. As Saadia Zahidi argues in her book Fifty Million Rising, these digital platforms allow women to be unimpeded by cultural constraints or safety issues, and they lower the implicit and explicit transaction costs of transport, childcare, discrimination and social censure.
Finding how to tap into this valuable resource of highly educated women could be a game changer for the region. Given the market power of women’s increasing participation in the workforce, which by 2025 could add an estimated $2.7 trillion to the region’s economy, the growing trend of women in start-ups could be transformative for the Middle East.
Unlocking the potential of female start-ups
The rise of women in the Arab world starts early, with girls outperforming their male peers in school. In Jordan, girls do better than boys in school in nearly all subjects and at every age level, from grade school to university. When it comes to STEM subjects (which include skills critical to launching and running a start-up in the Fourth Industrial Revolution) several Arab countries are among the global leaders in terms of the proportion of female STEM graduates. According to UNESCO, 34-57% of STEM grads in Arab countries are women, which is much higher than in universities in the US or Europe.
Despite the fact that many Arab women are thriving in school and graduating with advanced degrees, this success has not necessarily translated to the job market or the start-up world. Many women are instead staying at home, whether from choice or because of cultural, social or familial pressures. In fact, 13 of the 15 countries with the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce are in the Arab world, according to the World Bank.
Restrictive laws in many countries across the region put women who wish to join or start their own businesses at a disadvantage. These include prohibitions against women opening up a bank account or owning property, limited freedom of movement without a male guardian and constraints on interactions with men who are not in their family, as well as further cultural and attitudinal stigmas.
In fact, even women who do start a company face structural disadvantages. On average, female-led start-ups receive 23% less money than male-run firms, and are 30% less likely to have a positive exit, according to the OECD.
Changing the ecosystem, one woman at a time
To close this gap, the entrepreneurship ecosystem needs more women. One data point makes this clear: venture firms with one or more female partners are twice as likely to invest in a start-up which has women in the management team, and three times more likely to invest in a company with a female CEO.
This is also true for female founders. Female-owned businesses hire more women (25%) than their male counterparts do (22%), according to the World Bank. Female-owned firms also employ a higher percentage of women in managerial roles, helping women to climb up the ladder, compared to those who are only hired for lower, unskilled positions. And women-led businesses are hiring more workers in general. In Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, firms run by women are growing their workforces at higher rates than those run by men. Womena is an investing platform based in Dubai, dedicated to encouraging gender diversity and inclusion in tech. It believes that in order to increase the number of female tech entrepreneurs, you need to build networks of women that can help support one another to grow and thrive. Role models are also important, such as HE Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, who studied computer science before opening one of the region’s first B2B marketplaces. She is best known for being the first woman to hold ministerial posts in the UAE, as Minister of Economy and Planning, Minister of State for International Cooperation, and then Minister of State for Tolerance.
Womena co-founder Elissa Freiha also believes that investing time, energy and money into female entrepreneurs will pay huge dividends.
“Women from the Arab World need to fight. The struggles they face in society, in their communities and sometimes even in their families create an amazing resilience that makes these women incredible entrepreneurs. If given the right platform, these women can become the business owners and leaders for the future of the region.”
Go digital, young woman
Digital represents a key opportunity for women in the region to solve technical and societal challenges. For example, Egypt-born Rana El Kaliouby is the co-founder of Affectiva, which has developed cutting-edge AI technology to help computers recognize human emotions based on physiological responses and facial cues. Meanwhile, Loulou Khazen Baz founded the Middle East’s first freelance marketplace, Nabbesh, as a way to help tackle the region’s youth unemployment. She has been recognized as one of the World Economic Forum’s 100 Arab Start-Ups Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
As Zahidi writes in Fifty Million Rising “If the narrative of American expansion was ‘Go West, young man’, the new narrative for up-and-coming women in the Arab World may well be ‘Go digital, young woman’.”
Evidence points to this being the case. Nearly 60% of women who are not currently employed believe that flexible hours and working from home, full- or part-time – which going digital can enable – would help them find work, showed a study by Accenture. The digital economy is also opening up opportunities for women looking to get back into the job market. The same study points out that more than 60% of women who have left and want to rejoin the workforce have entrepreneurial aspirations to start their own business.
Crucially, studies from the US demonstrate that gender pay gaps are lower in industries where there are more flexible work arrangements. Moreover, women who gain ICT skills increase their wages by 12%, which is higher than equivalent gains in men’s salaries. With a large market potential, a low amount of resources needed to get started, and productivity efficiencies enabled by technology, digital opens up a whole new world of opportunities and possibilities.
Paving the way forward
Many incredible women across the region are paving the way forward, such as Joy Ajlouny, who recently helped close a $41 million Series B funding round for UAE-based Fetchr, or Gaza Sky Geeks, the first tech hub in Gaza providing mentorship to start-ups with a focus on women. But there is still a long way to go. The digital gender gap in Arab states remains at 17.3%, down from 19.2% in the last four years, according to the ITU. Women are still a minority across the entire start-up ecosystem.
But as more women throughout the Arab World start their own businesses, break down gender barriers and push through the glass ceiling, these pioneers become an example for other women. They inspire them to imagine what’s possible for an Arab woman in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
After years of campaigning by women activists, on June 24 the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia will be lifted. It is the most visible of a bundle of recent initiatives taken by the Saudi king and the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, to strengthen the role of women in Saudi society.
These include more public sector job openings for women, an apparent relaxation of women’s strict dress code, the extension of suffrage to women to vote and stand as candidates in the 2015 municipal election, and small but important steps to decrease influence of the country’s male guardianship system, which requires a women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.
In the weeks before the ban was lifted, a number of female driving activists were arrested in Saudi Arabia, casting some doubt on the government’s resolve in relaxing the social control on women. In a country where the central hold on individual ministries is relatively weak, this is most likely an expression of disapproval by some parts of the religious establishment at the speed and content of the reform process.
Saudi Arabia is known to be one of the most conservative regimes in the world. So why is this general easing of societal control over women taking place right now? In a recent research paper, I argue that it’s foremost out of necessity to boost the economy by making both women and men more productive at work.
Saudi Arabia currently finds itself in a grave economic situation. Over the past 60 years, plentiful oil income allowed the state to build an extensive cradle-to-coffin welfare system, which on top of free housing and other lucrative features provided citizens with well-paid jobs in the public sector, with few demands, long vacations and early retirement.
This model worked well as long as the population was small and the oil income plentiful. But this is no longer the case. The population is growing rapidly and will continue to do so over the foreseeable future. Today, 60% of the 22m Saudi nationals are below the age of 30. The price of oil plummeted in 2014 – though it has now recovered a bit – which had a severe negative impact on the Saudi state income.
With this in mind, in 2017, the young crown prince, announced Saudi Vision 2030, the most radical reform of the Saudi economy to date. The ambitious long-term goal is to transform the economy from one dependent primarily on oil incomes to a post-oil economy, and to bring larger parts of the Saudi population into the labour force. Out of the 12m paid jobs in Saudi Arabia, today only 5m are held by Saudis while the remaining 7m are held by migrant workers. A further element of Vision 2030 is for recruitment to be based on merit, and not family or tribal connections.
Women in the workforce
Women play an important part in Vision 2030. In general, Saudi women are slightly better educated than men and so the government believes they can play an active role in developing the country. Women may also be less reluctant than their male counterparts to take over some of the jobs – such as nurses or other service related jobs – today held by migrants. They are also significantly underemployed today. Only one in five Saudis employed in Saudi Arabia are women – extremely low compared to elsewhere in the world.
Part of the reason why women are largely absent from the workforce is related to cultural traditions and religious interpretations which pronounce that women should take care of the home while men take jobs outside the house. But there are also a range of practical impediments that make it difficult for women to actually take a job, if they should want one. Foremost among these has been the issue of women and transport.
Saudi Arabia lies in a very hot climate where it’s physically challenging to be outside in the sun. Cities are also designed in the American fashion with long distances between work, home, services and shopping. So even if there were no cultural barriers, the possibilities of women walking or cycling to work, are very limited. Public transport is significantly underdeveloped and taxis are culturally not an option unless at least two women travel together. Under the female driving ban, this has meant that to leave the house a woman must be driven by a male relative, or if the family can afford it, by a driver.
For well-off families, to hire a driver and buy an extra car is not a problem, but for the majority of employers in public sector jobs, employing a driver is simply too expensive. The crown prince has also urged public public sector institutions to create or expand transport services for women workers.
But the issue of transport also has an impact on how effective men can be at work. Husbands without drivers are obliged to leave work to drive their wives if they need to go to the dentist, doctor or attend other appointments deemed important. Most employers who I’ve witnessed as part of my research in Saudi Arabia, at least in the public sector, accept this cultural norm, implying that driving one’s wife is a legitimate reason not to be present at work.
This makes lifting the ban on women driving an essential step in order to make the Saudi economy more efficient in the long run. It could potentially bring more educated women into the labour market, while also increasing the efficiency of the male workforce. But foremost it is spearheading a change in cultural norms that in the future will allow men and women to occupy the same spaces and work alongside each other.
Rebecca Wright, of Sheffield Hallam University wrote this article on how since women in Great Britain and else where in the western world got the right to vote, things have developed worldwide. 6 world spots were zoomed in with amongst the countries of the MENA, Saudi Arabia that as reported has lately been witnessed to have taken positive steps towards more freedom of women’s movements, etc.
Demonstration of suffragettes in London, arrest of feminists, 1907, Great Britain. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)
On February 6, 1918, British women – (well, the wealthy ones over 30) – were given the right to vote. And since the 1960s, women have been voting in British national elections at basically the same rate as men. But how is the rest of the world doing? Here’s a snapshot.
In Ecuador, men and women vote separately. The country was in the headlines last year when it decided to allow transgender people to choose the male or female line, according to the gender with which they identify. Diane Rodriguez, a transgender woman, described the harassment she would face in the male line and her relief that she could now vote without discrimination.
2. Vatican City: only place women can’t vote
The only election held in Vatican City is when cardinals vote for a new pope. Women cannot be cardinals (despite the hope a few years ago that Pope Francis might appoint female cardinals) and so this is an exclusively male electorate.
That said, the majority of Vatican City’s approximately 800 residents, including men, are excluded from this vote.
3. Saudi Arabia: latest place to let women vote
Saudi Arabia is the most recent country to grant women the vote. In 2015, they were given the right to take part in municipal elections.
Although this marked significant progress for Saudi women, a system of male guardianship makes it difficult in practice for women to vote. Saudi women are unable to drive themselves to the polling booths (though from June 2018 women will be granted driving permits). It’s therefore no surprise that less than 10% of Saudi’s voters in the 2015 elections were women.
4. Pakistan: one of the biggest gender gaps
Female participation in Pakistani elections is among the lowest in the world. Statistics from Pakistan’s 2013 elections showed that turnout for women voters was less than 10% in nearly 800 polling stations. In some areas, female voter turnout was as low as 3%. Although Pakistani women were given the vote in 1956, community and religious leaders in some of the most conservative parts of the country prevent women from voting.
Human Rights Watch published a report in 2017 which documented the sexual violence against women in Kenya’s 2017 elections. These incidents were unfortunately representative of a growing rise in violence against women in elections. A recent United Nations report documents how women are increasingly victims of politically motivated rape and other forms of sexual violence, preventing them from participating freely in elections.
6. China: women voters vastly outnumbered by men
In 2017, more than 2,000 delegates attended the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China in order to plan a five-year strategy. These powerful delegates were elected but only Party members were able to vote – and 74% of those members are male.
A century on from votes for British women, progress has clearly been made around the world. The majority of the sexist laws that prevented women from voting have been repealed. However, there are still significant practical or cultural barriers that prevent female electoral participation.
An article of Asharq Al Awsat Marrakesh, Morocco by Heba El Koudsy followed by another by Abdul-Kabeer Al-Manawi and Hassan Moqna reading would give a pretty clear idea of how concerned certain governments and elites of the MENA in procuring employment to the increasingly populous and educated youth of their respective countries whilst “the importance of Arab countries continuing reforms to promote inclusive growth, empower women and the youth, support the private sector, fight corruption and counter terrorism to create an attractive investment climate.” It must be added that at this conjecture, it might not be as easy as it has generally been in the recent past. These articles cover the said happening in Morocco, but all facts relate more to the Gulf countries than to those of the Maghreb where demand for jobs vs. youth population are diametrically opposed.
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde addresses an IMF economic conference in Marrakesh on January 30, 2018 (AFP Photo/STR)
Participants in the “Opportunity for All” Conference in Marrakesh underlined the importance of continuing reforms to promote inclusive growth, empower women and the youth, support the private sector, fight corruption and counter terrorism to create an attractive investment climate.
The two-day conference, which was held on Monday, is organized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Marrakesh in cooperation with the Moroccan Government.
During his speech on Tuesday, Saadeddin al-Othmani, Prime Minister of Morocco, emphasized the need to bolster reforms.
He said that changes in the global economy have resulted in economic and social challenges in most countries, including demographic transition, changes in population structure and social culture, as well as the higher aspirations of young people and women.
This necessitates the development of policies to respond to those aspirations, including raising the quality of education, health services, social coverage and employment opportunities, according to Othmani.
IMF Director Christine Lagarde focused on three points needed for the Arab region, which include the necessity for inclusive growth, change and transformation and an agenda for the whole region.
She noted that achieving growth should start with creating an active private sector to promote jobs, supporting vulnerable groups, women and the youth, and exploiting financial policies to invest in people and infrastructure.
For his part, Dr. Abdulrahman bin Abdullah Al-Humaidi, Director General of the Arab Monetary Fund, stressed three priorities in tackling the challenges of unemployment and growth in the Arab region.
He pointed out that the first was the need to achieve economic diversification in the Arab economies, while the second priority is to support entrepreneurs, and the third is to enhance access to financial services.
Humaidi explained that only 13 percent of women in the region had access to financial services, compared to 47 percent globally. He stressed the need to exploit modern technologies in financial activities and services.
Job-seekers stand in line to talk with a recruiter at a booth at a job fair in Riyadh. (Reuters file photo)
A conference held in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh witnessed a series of discussions focused on the job-creating process in regional countries.
Creating job opportunities is vital in order to absorb the millions of young people entering the labor market in coming years and is expected to be realized through utilizing new sources and reinforcing growth across sectors and getting governments to be supportive of needed policies.
Held under the theme “Opportunity for All: Promoting Growth, Jobs, and Inclusiveness in the Arab World,” the conference also focused on specific policies needed to gain new sources of growth.
The meeting was attended by Glowork founder Khalid Alkhudair, Director of Trade, World Bank Regional Integration and Investment Climate Caroline Freund, Careem General Manager – Emerging Markets Ibrahim Manna, and Moroccan Capital Markets Authority (AMMC) Chairperson Nezha Hayat.
Participants focused on how large-scale SME prosperity could be achieved. They also addressed education and training reform to prepare young people for employment in the private sector.
They agreed that growth has not been strong enough to reduce unemployment significantly, as 25 percent of young people in the region are jobless.
Protracted regional conflicts, low commodity prices, weak productivity and poor governance have been identified as main factors gelding back the considerable potential of the region.
In order to boost inclusive economic growth, the conference summarized the priorities of the path to be taken in Marrakesh Call for Action, which calls on governments to “Act Now” to pursue a set of actions or reforms.
These reforms promote accountability through increasing transparency and strengthening institutions to improve governance, tackling corruption and ensuring responsibility for inclusive policies.
The document urged for a more vibrant private sector through improved access to finance and a better business environment with fewer barriers and less red tape. It also called for leveraging technology and nurturing trade to generate new sources of growth, create jobs and foster prosperity.
It stressed the importance of building strong safety nets and strengthening legal rights to empower disadvantaged groups, including youth, women, rural populations and refugees.
Limited Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia is a fact that is acknowledged throughout the world, but it is also well known that the situation of women in their everyday life generally as well as in their representation in all socio-political and economic institutions in that country would perhaps be understood relatively differently. For that, we published on March 19, 2016 an article ironically titled Women Pilots Driving Saudi Men Crazy and written by our own Lee Light.
It remains that women in business or in any other professional commitments whether in education, healthcare, sports if compared to many of the country’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia does not seem to be too much left behind; we would recommend reading this article of National Geographic The Changing Face of Saudi Women published in February 2016 on the subject that is quite of an eye opener in this respect.
Per local media reports, the Saudi King issued recently an order that allows women to benefit from certain government services without the consent of a male guardian. This looks to many observers like a move by Saudi Arabia to give women more control over their life choices by relaxing the prevailing system of male domination that could hopefully to a little more gender equality.
Meanwhile another but recent article of Al Bab written by Brian Whitaker on May 2, 2017 is republished here as another way of looking at the same topic of women’s status in Saudi Arabia. Apart from the first thing that comes to mind which is who to believe, the issue here seem to be far more concerned about how a country could vote for therefore endorse a country usually depicted as to put it mildly overbearing towards women. Or is it a matter of how to vote in a country into this or that international institution on the basis of its performance on this or that domain?
The Belgian government has admitted supporting Saudi Arabia’s election to a UN body which champions women’s rights – and now says it regrets doing so. Meanwhile, numerous other countries supposedly committed to gender equality are refusing to say how they voted.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of institutionalised discrimination against women and is one of the world’s worst offenders in that respect, but last month it was elected to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women. The commission is described on its website as “the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women”.
Commission members are chosen by ECOSOC, the UN’s Economic and Social Council. In a secret ballot, Saudi Arabia won a place on the commission with 47 out of 54 countries voting in its favour and only seven against. The electoral arithmetic means that at least three EU countries (and possibly more) voted in favour.
In the Belgian parliament on Saturday, prime minister Charles Michel said his government had been informed of the ballot “only a few hours” before it took place. He continued:
“Thus, a vote was expressed by our diplomats on behalf of Belgium. I regret this vote. [Applause]. If it could be done again and if it was possible to proceed with a political assessment at the government level, I of course would have pleaded against a favourable vote. There is no ambiguity in this matter …
“I regret this vote. We will draw the consequences of this in the future and I have given instructions for a political assessment to be made at the highest level in order for this not to occur again. In short, we are fully determined to promoting the universal values of human rights.”
The other EU countries casting votes in the election were Britain, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Sweden. It is still unclear how any of them voted.
In a comment posted on Facebook (translated by UN Watch), Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström wrote said: “The decision on how Sweden would act in the vote for the Women’s Commission … was not something that was decided at the political level.” She added that the government would reveal how it voted to parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee – but the committee’s meetings are confidential.
A spokesman for Ireland’s mission at the UN mission said “it is not our usual practice to disclose publicly how we vote in such ballots”, claiming that ballot secrecy “facilitates the conduct and management of sensitive international relationships”.
Norway, a non-EU member which boasts of being “one of the foremost advocates for women’s rights in the UN and in the Commission on the Status of Women” is refusing to disclose how it voted – again citing ballot secrecy.
“Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I would like to ask for access to the decision on the vote cast by the United Kingdom in ECOSOC regarding the candidature of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to CSW.
“Given the salience of the candidature, I assume a decision was taken either at ministerial or at senior official level and instructions were then communicated to the UK Mission in New York. If the decision itself is not recorded in written form (e.g. by endorsement of a submission), I would instead ask for a copy of the instructions sent to the UK Mission.”
This brought a Kafkaesque brush-off from the Foreign Office. It said the request should be redirected to the Government Equalities Office in Manchester – a body which appears to have nothing to do with foreign policy.
Although the UN ballot was secret, there appears to be no rule preventing any country from disclosing how it voted. Vote-trading between countries is a common practice at the UN and would probably embarrass a lot of governments if details became public – hence the desire for secrecy. Britain has previously been suspected of trading votes with Saudi Arabia in connection with membership of the UN Human Rights Council.
Markaz of Brookings Doha Center published this article written by Firas Masri, Research Assistant at the Doha Center, on February 6th, 2017, so as to make a clear point with regards to women generally not only of the GCC countries but possibly of the wider region of the MENA countries. These do indeed share the cultual, cultural and historical background that for centuries bore on all beings, particularly women of all ages and social backgrounds. According to FS_Masri, employment of women would not impinge on that of the men but could also help the economies of those countries; she does make a point that preoccupied many and notably the European Union. It said in its study that examined the economic, political and socio-cultural changes which have affected the situation of women in the Gulf region over the last decades by focusing on women’s rights and gender equality in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and provided a socio-cultural, political and economic analysis of women’s situation in the Gulf region. Firas Masri in her essay looks at more recent trends and gives us an outlook that is not different from that of the EU’s. So, is it Women at the rescue of the MENA Economies ?
Governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continue to search for ways to repair their fragile economies. For some countries in the region, experts wonder whether high unemployment and poor economic growth could precipitate another round of political upheaval, similar to the uprisings in early 2011.
Despite this ominous scenario, there is one strategy that MENA governments persistently overlook to ease economic pressures: increasing female employment, a topic that Bessma Momani explores in a recent Brookings policy brief. Momani explains that the lack of female representation in MENA workforces limits economic growth in the region. She also argues that government policies encouraging greater female participation in the workforce will have a host of other economic and social benefits, in addition to boosting GDP. Furthermore, Momani contends: “introducing diversity through gender parity will benefit economic growth and can help Arab countries generate prosperity—as well as the normative and social imperative of change.”
Unfortunately, as Momani outlines, several barriers impede women in MENA from joining the labor force. In order to counter this, in her view, MENA governments should conduct gender impact studies for regional policymakers to understand how policies shape cultural attitudes toward gender. MENA governments manage primary and secondary school curricula, which studies have shown contain direct and indirect gender biases in the national education curriculum. Momani’s research shows that such gender impact studies could expose the types of gendered language used in textbooks that help reinforce male-dominated workforces in the region. Government-sponsored internships allocated for women could overcome stereotypes in industries previously gendered as masculine, she adds.
Other factors that prevent women from entering the workforce in MENA countries include the following: low salaries, early retirement, underwhelming job benefits, difficulty securing capital for entrepreneurial ventures, and harassment in public spaces. By addressing these concerns in the short-term, Momani argues that regional governments will lay the foundation for economic prosperity in the long-term. Regional policymakers face an enormous challenge if they address these issues simultaneously. Nevertheless, with many economies in the region facing a grim outlook for 2017, she contends that it would behoove them to seriously consider policies that encourage more women to join the workforce.
Women’s full employment in MENA could increase household incomes by as much as 25 percent:
According to a World Bank report, “women’s employment can significantly improve household income—by as much as 25 percent—and lead many families out of poverty.” It continues that increased household income will not only positively impact MENA economies on the micro level, but it will bolster economies on the macro level as well. The IMF supports this claim by noting that from 2000 to 2011, the region
“could have gained $1 trillion in cumulative output (equivalent to doubling average real GDP growth during the past decade) if female labor force participation had been raised enough to narrow the gender gap from triple to double the average for other emerging market and developing countries.”
Momani’s new research indicates that such predictions remain relevant today.
Higher female employment rates could reduce poverty due to lower birth rates and improvements in child welfare:
As Momani further discusses, echoing other researchers, greater economic opportunity for women could contribute to reducing poverty. Research by the National Institutes of Health, for one, has shown that financially independent women demonstrate a greater ability to support their children, which greatly improves child welfare. Momani points to studies showing that women in the beginning stages of their careers—especially younger women, who make family planning decisions later in life—tend to have fewer and healthier children, as well as higher earnings, which can reduce poverty rates among youth.
Women-led households save more money:
Momani’s brief illuminates that as working women gain financial independence—and in some cases become the breadwinner of the family—they can gain more decisionmaking power in the family. As one gender equality study she cites argues: “Women’s propensity to save is greater than men’s, and women’s consumption focuses to a greater extent on the children and on household necessities.” As another report shows, this change in the household dynamic will also boost regional economic growth in the short-term, which will lead to sustainable economic development in the long term.
Even in households where financial responsibilities are shared equally among men and women, a cross-country panel study of semi-industrialized nations found “that an increase in women’s wage share relative to men is associated with increase in the domestic savings rate.” Whether women take sole responsibility of household financial matters or share this responsibility with their spouse, the benefits of this development will make families in MENA more fiscally secure, Momani shows.
If women were employed at the same rate as men, they would contribute $2.7 trillion to regional GDP by 2025, a 47 percent increase:
According to a McKinsey report, if MENA countries close the gender gap in the labor force, the region could see an additional $2.7 trillion added to MENA countries’ GDP by 2025. Momani concludes that Arab countries must overcome numerous cultural and societal challenges to stimulate increased female participation in the labor force, but by initiating policy changes that encourage a shift in this dynamic, MENA countries will find themselves more financially secure in the future.
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