How Arab states can gain from women’s workforce participation

Green light for progress: According to studies reported by Scientific American, organizations with inclusive cultures have greater innovation, creativity and bottom-line results. (AFP)
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Updated 18 December 2019

How Arab states can gain from women’s workforce participation

  • Leaders and governments have come to regard women's workforce participation as an economic and strategic imperative
  • Bringing each GCC member up to the best regional standard would add $180bn to the bloc's combined economy

ABU DHABI: The importance of gender equality — equitable or fair representation of men and women — is gaining ground in Arab countries whose leaders and governments have come to regard it as an economic and strategic imperative.

The consensus view of a group of experts who took part in a panel discussion at the recent SALT Conference in Abu Dhabi is that countries that boost women’s employment are, sooner or later, likely to reap economic rewards.

Estimates show that bringing each GCC member up to the best regional standard for women’s workforce participation would roughly add $180 billion — or 7 percent — to the size of the bloc’s combined economy by 2025, while full gender parity would add 32 percent, or $830 billion.

“The Middle East has traditionally been behind other regions of the world in terms of the gender gap,” said Masuda Sultan, chief executive officer of Symbio Services and a women’s rights advocate. “But that’s changing, with countries like the UAE leading the way amid a revolutionary time for the region.”

From establishing a Gender Balance Council to guaranteeing that women will comprise almost half the seats in the Federal National Council (FNC), the UAE is seen as having made great strides in the field.

Dr Shayma Fawwaz, Emirati entrepreneur, at the SALT conference. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

“Since its inception, the UAE has been a champion of female empowerment and equality,” said Dr. Shayma Fawwaz, owner and founder of Gossip The Brand and an Emirati entrepreneur.

“The country’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed, started this mission and always saw that women were half of society and should be empowered through education and the workforce.

“My mother was one of the founding members of the UAE, convincing parents to let their children go to school and universities, but the leaders had a clear vision: Women have to be a part of society, educated and allowed to do work that they can be proud of.”

In 2012, the UAE Cabinet made it compulsory for corporations and government agencies to include women on their boards of directors.

“Women proved themselves in many workplaces and today we want them to have a strong presence in decision-making positions in our institutions,” Dubai’s Ruler and UAE Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid said on Twitter when he announced the decision.

Speaking as an Emirati woman, Fawwaz said: “Currently, we have equal pay between men and women and we have a new maternity leave extended from one to three months. I have always found Emirati men to be very supportive and I am very proud because it is part of our culture.”

As for Saudi Arabia, many gradual reforms had been introduced since its accession to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2000.

The announcement of the Vision 2030 reform plan in 2016 gave a massive fillip to women’s empowerment. Besides changes to laws and regulations governing their lives, Saudi women have been allowed to enter new fields such as aviation, state security, economy, entrepreneurship, tourism and entertainment.

According to studies reported by Scientific American, organizations with inclusive cultures have greater innovation, creativity and bottom-line results.

“When a company’s culture feels fair and inclusive, women and underrepresented groups are happier and more likely to thrive,” said McKinsey & Company in its “Women in the Workplace 2019” report.

Many say that the business case for equality and inclusion is no less compelling in the Arab world than it is in the West. Several studies have reported a correlation between an inclusive workplace and a diverse workforce with such positive business metrics as productivity, profitability, quality, employee commitment and retention.

That being said, in the Middle East and North Africa region there are legal impediments to progress on the issue of gender equality, according to Raya Abu Gulal, founder of the Women Lawyers Group ME.

“If we look at the constitutions of most Arab countries, they support gender equality, and one of the first provisions referred to is that men and women are equal,” she said.

“But the reality of regulations concerning women, such as domestic violence, sexual harassment and inheritance, is different. They are not in line with the provisions in the constitutions.”

Implementation is another story as many women and men are not adequately educated when it comes to their rights or women’s management of their money under Sharia law.

Raya Abu Gulal, founder of the Women Lawyers Group ME. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

“We also have to look at the culture, traditional barriers and ongoing conflicts in the Arab world that are holding women back from fully exercising their legal rights,” Gulal said.

“We have great initiatives and support but there are a lot of cultural as well as security issues, which are a major disadvantage for women because they are more vulnerable.”

Then are other drawbacks, such as bankruptcy laws that are not conducive to gender diversity, especially when one considers the risks aspiring female entrepreneurs face in the form of harsh penalties if they fail to clear their debts.

“There’s a myth about women with a family and children being less willing than men to take the risk of borrowing money to set up their own business when it could end in imprisonment,” Gulal said.

“We have to improve the relevant laws to make it easier for women to have access to finance and better terms if they can’t clear their debts.”

In the context of the UAE, Nabyl Al-Maskari, chief executive officer of Al Maskari Holding, said that gender inclusion, especially empowerment of women, was among the country’s foundational principles while education has been one of the main drivers of the achievements of Emirati women.

Currently, more than 70 percent of university graduates in the UAE are women, which perhaps explains why about 10 percent of the country’s total national income is driven by women, compared with the global figure of 1 percent.

“This has a lot to do with women receiving an education and pursuing a career,” he said. “It’s really about encouraging women to get an education.”

Al-Maskari recounted that his Emirati mother was one of the first entrepreneurs in the UAE and the first woman to receive a construction license in the country.

“My mother is well known among the community as a pioneering woman engineer, a Ph.D holder and geophysicist,” he said.

“She did that because, for her, it was the way in which she could contribute most back to her country and to her society.”

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 21 September 2020

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.


45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.


Twitter: @saeedalBatati