There are many examples of how the fundamental role of women in boosting economic growth has been recognized by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In recent years, the GCC economies implemented ambitious reforms to enhance women’s economic inclusion. They have improved women’s access to education, health care and employment, and have encouraged women to participate in political life. The reforms that took place in Saudi Arabia resulted in 30 women being appointed for the first time to the Saudi Shoura Council in 2013, and 17 women being appointed to municipal seats in 2015.
The World Bank’s annual report on Women, Business and the Law 2020 (WBL) highlights important reforms introduced around the world in the last two years related to women’s economic empowerment.
This year, Saudi Arabia was recognized as the global top reformer, following the enactment of breakthrough reforms supporting women’s participation in the economy. The UAE and Bahrain are among the top 10 global improvers, and across the MENA region Jordan and Tunisia scored highly, too. It is our hope that this strong reform momentum in the GCC is sustained and that we see further reforms across the rest of the MENA region. I would like to highlight some of the historic improvements that were introduced in the GCC.
Saudi Arabia increased its score on the WBL index by 38.8 points in the past two years and moved up 60 positions. Saudi Arabia enacted groundbreaking reforms in six of the eight indicators covered by the index, a few of which have caught global attention. The country allowed for more freedom of movement for women — they no longer need permission from a male guardian to travel abroad or to obtain a passport. The Kingdom also amended the Civil Status Law to allow a woman to choose where to live in the same way as men, and allowed women to be head of the household in the same way as men.
New legal amendments protect women in the workforce from discrimination, including criminalizing sexual harassment in employment, prohibiting employers from dismissing a woman during pregnancy and maternity leave, and equalizing the retirement age for women and men at 60 years, thus extending women’s working lives, earnings and contributions. Saudi Arabia also encouraged women’s entrepreneurship by prohibiting gender-based discrimination in accessing financial services.
Around 6 million Saudi women over the age of 21 are benefiting from these changes. The reforms, which were led by the Ministry of Commerce and Investment, reflect the government’s understanding that women play a major role in achieving Vision 2030’s goal of increasing women’s labor force participation from 22 percent to 30 percent.
The UAE has the second-largest improvement globally on the WBL index of this year and implemented changes in five of the indicators measured. The reform effort has been a continuation of reforms that were led by the Gender Balance Council, the federal agency responsible for implementing initiatives to enhance women’s representation in the country’s private and public sectors. Important reforms made include allowing married women to apply for a passport without the written consent of her husband, prohibiting discrimination based on gender in employment, introducing penalties for sexual harassment in employment, lifting restrictions on women’s work at night and in certain industries, and allowing women to be head of the household in the same way as men.
In Bahrain, the continuing reforms were led by the Supreme Council for Women, which introduced the adoption of provisions on sexual harassment in employment such as criminal penalties for perpetrators. Bahrain also began allowing women to be recognized as heads of their households.
These successful reform programs are making significant improvements to women’s lives and are inspiring the region to advance on this agenda, especially as Dubai gears up to host the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) MENA Regional Summit on February 16-17, 2020 as part of their Global Women’s Forum. We-Fi is a World Bank-housed global platform dedicated to advancing women entrepreneurs in developing economies through a collaborative partnership of 14 governments and other institutions. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been key partners to We-Fi, pledging $100 million to the initiative. Through commitments such as these, we hope to see the reform momentum sustained in the GCC and women’s economic participation continually increase.
• Issam Abousleiman is the World Bank regional director of the GCC countries, Middle East and North Africa. His regional expertise includes Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East regions.