Lack of women in Middle East workforce hinders growth

Saudi women sit in a stadium to attend an event in the capital Riyadh, in this September 23, 2017 photo, commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the kingdom. (AFP)
Updated 18 October 2017
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Lack of women in Middle East workforce hinders growth

LONDON: Women in the Middle East now outnumber men in universities but this isn’t translating into jobs — curbing the benefits of the “demographic dividend” that fuels economic growth.
Almost all girls in the Middle East and North Africa now attend school, and more women than men go to university, according to the World Bank, but women’s participation in the workforce stubbornly remains among the lowest in the world.

The demographic dividend refers to an acceleration of economic growth as the working-age population expands relative to the non-working-age. But without enough women, its impact will be muted in the Middle East, experts said.

“The demographic dividend is not going to be as good as in Asia,” said Tiziana Leone, assistant professor in demography at the London School of Economics. “If they want the benefit of it then you need more gender parity.”

Lack of access to contraception is a hurdle keeping women from the workforce, according to a report by the United Nations’ Population Fund (UNFPA) released on Tuesday.

Poorly educated women in rural areas especially lack the means to plan when and how often they fall pregnant.

Barely a quarter of women in the region are in employment, but with sharp variations. Rates of women’s employment are lower in conflict-hit places such Yemen, Gaza and Iraq compared to the Gulf states and Iran.

The legal and social barriers hampering women’s access to jobs and careers in the Middle East and North Africa is costing the region an estimated $575 billion a year, the OECD said this month.
Such barriers include needing a guardian to travel as in Saudi Arabia or laws requiring permission from husbands or fathers to work, common in Egypt, Jordan and Libya.

A recent survey of attitudes in the region, by the UN Women agency and Promundo found more than two thirds of respondents believed a woman’s primary role should be caring for the household, while at least half the women surveyed also saw this as their most important duty.

Better investment in contraception and sexual health care and equality for women in the workplace could encourage more women into the workforce, according to the UNFPA report. “Poorer countries with large or emerging youth populations that reduce gaps in sexual and reproductive health care and promote gender equality also have the potential to reap and maximize a demographic dividend,” the report found.

In parts of the Middle East, change is already happening.

“Gender relations are changing,” Bessma Momani, a non-resident fellow at Brookings Doha Center think tank, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Children as status symbols has definitely gone down ...it used to be if you had 10, 12 children that was your status symbol as a woman, now education and careers have become the new status symbols.”

The types of jobs women do must also change, experts say. In the Middle East and North Africa only 17 percent of women have jobs in the non-agricultural sector such as engineering and finance, according to the World Bank, while the region has the lowest proportion of female entrepreneurs in the world.

Overcoming these obstacles and tackling underlying gender inequality are crucial to progress, the UNFPA report found.

“Without a greater and equitable engagement of women, the demographic dividend will remain an elusive objective,” it said.

- Thomson Reuters Foundation


OPEC oil ministers gather to discuss production increase

Updated 19 June 2018
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OPEC oil ministers gather to discuss production increase

  • Analysts expect the group to discuss an increase in production of about 1 million barrels a day
  • The officials were arriving in Vienna ahead of the official meeting Friday

VIENNA: The oil ministers of the OPEC cartel were gathering Tuesday to discuss this week whether to increase production of crude and help limit a rise in global energy prices.
The officials were arriving in Vienna ahead of the official meeting Friday, when they will also confer with Russia, a non-OPEC country that since late 2016 has cooperated with the cartel to limit production.
Analysts expect the group to discuss an increase in production of about 1 million barrels a day, ending the output cut agreed on in 2016.
The cut has since then pushed up the price of crude oil by about 50 percent. The US benchmark in May hit its highest level in three and half years, at $72.35 a barrel.
Upon arriving, the energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, Suhail Al Mazrouei, said: “It’s going to be hopefully a good meeting. We look forward to having this gathering with OPEC and non-OPEC.”
The 14 countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries make more money with higher prices, but are mindful of the fact that more expensive crude can encourage a shift to renewable resources and hurt demand.
“Consumers as well as businesses will be hoping that this week’s OPEC meeting succeeds in keeping a lid on prices, and in so doing calling a halt to a period which has seen a steady rise in fuel costs,” said Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets UK
The rise in the cost of oil has been a key factor in driving up consumer price inflation in major economies like the US and Europe in recent months.
Already US President Donald Trump has called on OPEC to cut production, tweeting in April and again this month that “OPEC is at it again” by allowing oil prices to rise.
Within OPEC, an increase in output will not affect all countries equally. While Saudi Arabia, the cartel’s biggest producer, is seen to be open to a rise in production, other countries cannot afford to do so. Those include Iran and Venezuela, whose industries are stymied either by international sanctions or domestic turmoil. Iran is a fierce regional rival to Saudi Arabia, meaning the OPEC deal could also influence the geopolitics in the Middle East.