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.
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