In my previous Op-Ed about the road map for reforms in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), I talked about the importance of the human capital. Today, and as the world celebrates International Women’s Day this March 8th, it is a good moment to take stock of the impressive progress that some countries in the GCC are making in expanding opportunities for women in order to utilize all their human capital to achieve the developmental goals that they set for themselves. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged over the last couple of years as the region’s leaders in this effort. Along with Bahrain, they have introduced groundbreaking reforms that are allowing women to more fully participate in economic activities, as they also support equal treatment for women in their personal lives.
The benefits of such trendsetting reforms for the societies and economies of these three countries cannot be overstated. Furthermore, a spillover effect is being seen in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The reforms focused on gender not only allow reforming countries’ economies to tap into the productivity of 50% of their populations, they also contribute to poverty reduction, sustainable growth and, most importantly, gender equity for women in both the public and private spheres. To ensure the maximum impact of these benefits, those GCC countries that have introduced reforms must keep a laser focus on effective implementation, while those in the region that have yet to expand opportunities for women can look to their neighbors for inspiration.
In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s ranking in the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law report jumped by the largest number of points of any country in the world, as compared to its 2018 ranking. This was in large part due to Saudi Arabia’s historic enactment in July 2019 of a raft of measures to expand women’s roles in Saudi society and give them unprecedented economic freedoms. The reforms included increasing freedom of travel and movement by giving women the right to obtain passports on their own; enabling women to be heads of households in the same way as men and allowing them to choose a place of residency; a prohibition on the dismissal of pregnant women from the workplace; a mandate of non-discrimination based on gender in access to credit; the prohibition of gender-based discrimination in employment; the equalization of retirement ages between women and men; and a removal of the obedience provision for women. A year later, amendments to the Labor Law followed, which lifted restrictions on women’s ability to work at night and opened all industries to women, including mining.
As for the UAE, in September 2020, it became the first country in MENA to introduce paid parental leave for employees in the private sector. This historic reform was part of a broad package enacted by the UAE to support women’s labor force participation, which, at 57.5%, is one of the highest in the MENA region. The 2020 reform package builds on work the UAE has engaged in since 2019 to prioritize gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. In 2019, the UAE introduced a first set of reforms, including guaranteeing equality between women and men in applying for passports; allowing women to be heads of households like men; passing legislation to combat domestic violence and impose criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace; prohibiting gender-based discrimination in employment and the dismissal of pregnant women; and removing job restrictions for women in specific sectors such as mining. These reforms were recognized in the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2021 report, in which the UAE was the highest-ranked country in the MENA region.
The additional reforms introduced in 2020 address persistent legal inequalities, including those related to women’s mobility, their rights within the marriage and with respect to parenthood, and their ability to manage assets. Specifically, the reforms include the amendment of the Personal Status Law to remove the provision on women’s obligation to obey husbands and to lift restrictions of women’s ability to travel outside the country, new provisions to allow women to choose where to live and to travel outside the home in the same way as men, and an amendment to the Labor law that mandates equal pay for work of equal value across different industries and sectors.
Lessons Learned and Ingredients for Success
Three common elements underpin the success of these reform efforts: strong government commitment, effective collaboration across ministries, and the deployment of information campaigns supporting the reforms.
Strong government commitment is crucial because it ensures not only that reform-minded legislation is passed in the first place, but that it is underpinned by tools to ensure implementation. In the UAE for example, the government updated the Explanatory Note of the Personal Status Law to support the effective implementation of family-related reforms in the courts and to ensure accurate interpretation of new provisions by judges. To support implementation in Saudi Arabia, the government updated all employment regulations to reflect the new legislative reforms.
Effective collaboration and cooperation among government ministries is also key. In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the recent reforms were championed by a broad swath of government entities. And in Saudi Arabia specifically, a June 2019 royal decree established the Women’s Empowerment Committee, which includes representatives from a wide range of ministries and has as its mandate the coordination of efforts to achieve women’s empowerment through legal reforms.
Such cooperation among ministries is important because it can help support governments’ effective decision-making going forward. Specifically, all ministries whose mandates touch on issues related to women can collect reliable, uniform data to be used to support policy choices aimed at helping both women and the economy. In the UAE, for example, ministries are collecting gender disaggregated data on topics ranging from women’s opportunities for entrepreneurship to their dropout rate from the labor market to the incidence of domestic violence.
Effective implementation efforts have also included strong communication and information dissemination campaigns. The governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have placed great emphasis on raising awareness of the new provisions to ensure compliance with the legal framework and to show the economic and social benefits of these reforms. The reforms were widely covered by local and international media. The government also used social media, government websites, and government-sponsored seminars and workshops with various stakeholders to spread the word.
Throughout history, women have played a critical role in economic recovery following global crises. As the world continues to adapt to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal reforms in the Gulf are enabling women to contribute more effectively to recovery this time, as well. The role of regional leaders like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will be critical going forward, not just for inspiring reforms, but for sharing reform experiences, success factors and lessons learned from the reform effort. These three countries can play a transformational role in the MENA region and beyond in encouraging and supporting the implementation of gender-neutral laws.