Groundbreaking reforms in countries lead to socioeconomic progress 

Groundbreaking reforms in countries lead to socioeconomic progress 

Groundbreaking reforms in countries lead to socioeconomic progress 
Short Url

I moved to Riyadh in August 2018. In that period a major socioeconomic transformation had already started in Saudi Arabia under Vision 2030.  Today, Riyadh is a different city than the one I moved in. 

The vision of the Kingdom, as well as the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council region, aims mainly at improving the standard of living of the people and at diversifying the economy while moving the majority of it from the public to the private sector. I can write a book on this which I will probably do in the future. However, in this piece I will talk only about a few things.

Last month, Rayyanah Barnawi made a remarkable step as the first Saudi female to venture into space. I was not surprised hearing this news. Since the time I was appointed as the World Bank Country Director of the GCC countries in 2018, I have met energetic youth and ambitious women in this region. 

In the past five years, I have seen GCC countries make significant changes in many different areas like health, education, business environment, women empowerment and tourism. One area which saw immense progress among the many reforms made in this region is women’s economic inclusion. First, supporting women’s economic participation was vital to reaching the goals set in the different visions of the GCC countries. Thus, lifting legal barriers was an important reform undertaken. 

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been at the forefront of this movement, introducing groundbreaking legal changes that eliminated many barriers to more women getting jobs and joining the economic activities.  The Kingdom introduced a historic set of legal reforms in 2019-2020 such as the civil status law, labor law, enforcement law, and laws on access to finance. And the results are showing women’s labor force participation increased from 22 percent in 2019 to almost 37 percent today, exceeding the target of 30 percent set by the Saudi Vision 2030.

The UAE, guided by their Gender Balance Council, has also been a pioneer in its efforts to eliminate legal barriers for women and moving towards gender neutral ecosystem. The UAE opened up many new social, educational, and economic opportunities for women and unsurprisingly has one of the highest WLFP rates in the Middle East and North Africa region — at 55 percent. The average WLFP for MENA is 19 percent.

The UAE has also undertaken a role as a regional leader. We recently launched a World Bank-UAE Gender Center for Excellence. The center will serve as a platform for knowledge exchange on gender issues in the MENA region and beyond through research, innovation, and knowledge exchange.  Bahrain has also moved on several fronts to make it easier for women to be part of the economic activities on the country. Kuwait passed a law combating domestic violence as well as prohibiting gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment at the workplace in 2020 and 2021.

In other areas, the GCC has been focused not only on women but on empowering its people, its human capital. The GCC’s engagement in human development has substantially strengthened health, education, and social protection and jobs systems.

Regarding social protection and jobs, some key achievements made across the GCC include effective support on the broad range of labor, skills and social protection transformational reforms. This includes the design and implementation of a National Labor Market Strategy in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia which has already led to key labor market reforms adopted, including labor mobility and adjustment to levies for expatriates and their dependents in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been at the forefront of this movement, introducing groundbreaking legal changes that eliminated many barriers to more women getting jobs and joining the economic activities.

Issam Abousleiman

When it comes to health, many things have improved. In Saudi Arabia, support to various health sector agencies has contributed to shaping and driving overall reform of the health system, from health financing reform to service delivery, including employment and workforce reforms in pharmaceutical and other provider sectors.  World Bank technical assistance contributed towards the increased Saudization of the health workforce, the scaling up of nursing competencies, strengthening the pharmaceutical supply chain, and developing and implementing strategic purchasing in the health sector.

A notable achievement included putting non-communicable diseases high on the development agenda in Saudi Arabia and the broader GCC, as they are a major health challenge and a leading cause of death that needs to be addressed. NCDs were the focus in our latest Gulf Economic Update.

Saudi Arabia has also, in the last five years, made other reforms that have a big impact: introducing physical education for schoolgirls, plain packaging of tobacco products, regulating the amount of salt in bread and implementing the highest sugar-sweetened beverage tax rate in the world, among other reforms.  In Bahrain, the World Bank team is providing critical support to the government in the design of an effective nutrition warning label, to nudge consumers away from unhealthy to healthier food alternatives.

The GCC countries have also proved that they are a leading region in making use of technology and handling crises.  During COVID-19, the GCC region made tremendous efforts to fight the pandemic. Although COVID-19 represented a “twin-shock” for the region, as the drop in oil prices weighed heavily on fiscal revenues and then pandemic-related disruptions brought general economic activity to a virtual standstill, the GCC countries worked hard and took the necessary actions to recover well. 

I experienced firsthand how technology helped all the GCC countries in controlling COVID-19 by counting how many people had the disease through phone apps and participation, and some of these apps are still being used today for other health and service purposes. The Seha Virtual Hospital in Saudi Arabia is another first of its kind in the region, taking the advancement of technology and merging it with the health sector. It underscores how modern digital platforms can significantly expand health services.

And to continue the growth and changes made to develop human capital, the GCC countries focused on reforming and improving their education sector.  One of the most important decisions was to prioritize student-teacher connections through a virtual school experience using a custom-built Madrasati (my school) platform containing a suite of tools for instructional planning and videoconferencing, along with books, educational games, virtual laboratories, test items and more.  The major work that the GCC countries had done and their accumulated experience in education technologies were the reason they had the capacity to adapt to online learning during the pandemic.

And lastly, let’s not forget tourism, which is a vital part of economic growth and diversification in which the GCC governments made a lot of efforts to flourish. I should mention that the World Bank worked with some Saudi Arabia’s leading cultural heritage and tourism sites and corresponding agencies such as the Royal Commission for AlUla and Diriyah Gate Development Authority to help drive this advancement forward. The World Bank  has supported these entities to ensure the spatial, social, environmental and economic sustainability of the development of AlUla and Diriyah tourism areas.

While in one piece I cannot give justice to all what is going on, one thing is for sure, all sectors are being reformed in a way that is transforming the GCC countries that could introduce a new renaissance era for the MENA region.

After these five years that I spent in the GCC, I am so proud of all the successful reforms and this special journey.

  • Issam Abousleiman is the World Bank’s country director for the GCC.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view