Why gender equality reforms in the Arab world can benefit everyone

Reforms allow economies to tap into the productivity of 50% of their populations while reducing poverty and contributing to equality for women in both public and private spheres

Saudi women work the production lines in Sudair Industrial City. Courtesy Modon
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In my previous article about the road map for reforms in the Gulf Cooperation Council, I talked about the importance of human capital.

Today, and as the world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8, 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 use all their human capital to achieve the developmental goals that they set for themselves.

Over the past couple of years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged as the region’s leaders in this effort. Along with Bahrain, they have introduced groundbreaking reforms that allow women to fully participate in economic activities, as they also support equal treatment for women in their personal lives.

The benefits of such trend-setting reforms for the societies and economies of these three countries cannot be overstated. Furthermore, a spillover effect is taking hold across the rest of the Mena region.

The reforms focused on gender not only allow reforming countries’ economies to tap into the productivity of half of their populations, they also contribute to poverty reduction, sustainable growth and, most importantly, equality for women in public and private spheres.

To ensure the maximum impact of these benefits, GCC countries that have introduced reforms must keep a laser focus on effective enactment, while those in the region that have yet to expand opportunities for women can look to their neighbours 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 places of any country in the world, as compared to its 2018 ranking.

That was in large part due to the kingdom’s historic enactment in July 2019 of a series of measures to expand the role of women in Saudi society and give them economic freedoms.

Saudi women work the production lines in Sudair Industrial City. Courtesy Modon
Saudi women work the production lines in Sudair Industrial City. Courtesy Modon

The reforms included increased freedom of travel and movement by giving women the right to obtain passports on their own, as well as measures that enable women to become heads of households in the same way as men and allow them to choose a place of residency.

They also included a workplace prohibitions on gender discrimination and the dismissal of pregnant women, a mandate of non-discrimination based on gender in securing access to credit, the alignment of the retirement ages of men and women and a removal of the obedience provision for women.

A year later, there were amendments to the Labour Law that lifted restrictions on women’s ability to work at night and opened all industries to women, including mining.

In September 2020, the UAE became the first country in the Mena region to introduce paid parental leave for employees in the private sector.

This historic reform was part of a broad package to support women’s labour force participation, which, at 57.5 per cent, is one of the highest in the Mena region.

The 2020 reform package builds on work the UAE has engaged in since 2019 to prioritise gender equality and the economic empowerment of women.

In 2019, the Emirates introduced a first set of reforms to guarantee equality between sexes in passport applications and measures allowing women to head households.

It also passed laws to combat domestic violence, imposed criminal penalties on sexual harassment in the workplace, removed job restrictions for women in specific sectors such as mining and prohibited gender-based discrimination in employment, including the dismissal of pregnant women.

These reforms were recognised 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 last year address persistent legal inequalities, including those related to women’s mobility, their rights within a marriage and with respect to parenthood, and their ability to manage assets.

Specifically, the reforms lift restrictions on women's ability to travel outside the country and include the amendment of the Personal Status Law to remove the provision on women’s obligation to obey husbands.

They also introduce provisions that allow women to choose where to live and to travel outside the home in the same way as men, and amend the Labour Law to mandate 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 use of information campaigns to support 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 it is carried out.

For example, the UAE government updated the Explanatory Note of the Personal Status Law to support the effective enforcement of family-related reforms in the courts and to ensure accurate interpretation of new provisions by judges. Saudi Arabia updated all employment regulations to reflect the new legislative reforms.

Effective collaboration and co-operation among government ministries is also important. In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the recent reforms were championed by several 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 co-ordination 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 labour market and the incidence of domestic violence.

Effective 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 after global crises. As the world continues to adapt to the effects 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 such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will be critical going forward, not only for inspiring reforms but for sharing reform experiences, success factors and lessons learnt from the reform effort.

These three countries can play a transformational role in the Mena region and beyond in encouraging and supporting the enforcement of gender-neutral laws.

Issam Abousleiman is the World Bank's GCC country director.