Barriers to Women’s Workforce Participation in the Gulf Arab States

In the Gulf Arab states, top-down policies are encouraging women to join the workforce and increase their visibility in the public sphere. Workforce nationalization policies rely on women’s participation to succeed, and state rulers are recognizing that they cannot overlook their female citizenry in crafting social and economic policies. Yet, even as women are urged to pursue higher education and career opportunities, they continue to face barriers to full participation in public life.

Legal norms and restrictive gender policies are holding women back from joining the workforce. Moreover, even as more women-friendly laws and policies are introduced, social and religious norms remain a major barrier to women’s public engagement. Without greater reform to state policies and more effective implementation, alongside the transformation of patriarchal social norms, the state’s gendered expectations for women to pursue careers and contribute to their nations’ economic and social development will remain in tension with political and social norms that require women to fulfill traditional roles.

Telling women in the Gulf they can “have it all” is an old trope that does not align with the realities of their professional or private lives. In order for more women to join the workforce, state support for working women must go beyond rhetoric and symbolic reform and it must be accompanied by support at home.

The Gender Gap in Education and the Workforce

Education rates for women in the Gulf are the highest in the Arab world. Women in all of the Gulf countries surpass men in higher education enrollment. In Qatar, women’s enrollment is over twice as high as that of men. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), women make up 70 percent of all university graduates.

Since the first discovery of oil in the Gulf region in the 1930s, increased wealth and rapid development have resulted in greater educational opportunities for women.

Since the first discovery of oil in the Gulf region in the 1930s, increased wealth and rapid development have resulted in greater educational opportunities for women. In recent years, women have witnessed a rise in opportunities to pursue higher education in particular. Branch campuses of well-known western institutions of higher education, like New York University and Georgetown, have popped up in the UAE and in Qatar’s Education City as an important component of initiatives to transition to a knowledge-based economy. Saudi Arabia founded an all-women university in 2010 to give women better access to studying in male-dominated fields like medicine and computer science.

Yet in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, there remains a gap in women’s high levels of education and their workforce participation. Women’s presence in the labor force lags behind that of men, with female labor participation rates as low as 22 percent in Saudi Arabia compared to 78 percent for men. Rates of female labor force participation are higher in the UAE and Qatar at around 52 and 57 percent, respectively. It is important to note that these numbers include working non-nationals as well as nationals. Figures from Qatar’s Planning and Statistics Authority indicate that while women’s labor force participation in Qatar was around 58 percent in 2018, the rate for Qatari women was only around 37 percent, with Qatari women comprising only two percent of the total workforce.

It is clear that despite high levels of education, women in the Gulf are not entering the workforce at the same rate as men. Fortunately, governments in the region have begun to address the gender gap in the workforce through political policies and agendas.

Workforce Initiatives Target Women

Gulf state policies aim to increase female citizens’ participation in the workforce largely to fulfill economic and social development goals and to decrease dependence on a foreign labor force. In the context of rapid development, these states have relied heavily on the low-wage labor of migrant workers for their development projects. Oil wealth has also drawn large numbers of western professionals to pursue employment opportunities in the Gulf. To mitigate the economic and social consequences of influxes of foreign workers, Gulf rulers have implemented workforce nationalization policies with the goal of transitioning toward higher levels of national workforce participation. Qatar and the UAE face the additional challenge of minority national populations, with Qataris and Emiratis only comprising 10.5 percent and 11.6 percent of their states’ populations, respectively.

To mitigate the economic and social consequences of influxes of foreign workers, Gulf rulers have implemented workforce nationalization policies with the goal of transitioning toward higher levels of national workforce participation.

The success of workforce nationalization policies requires a significant increase in female labor force participation. As a result, government agendas and initiatives explicitly target women and encourage them to join the workforce.

Rhetoric found in state documents places pressures on women to contribute to their nations’ economic development by pursuing educational and career opportunities. Saudi Arabia’s National Vision 2030 set a goal of 30 percent female labor participation by 2030. The vision describes Saudi women as a “great asset” and states, “With over 50 percent of our university graduates being female, we will continue to develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”

The Qatar National Vision 2030 includes a similar goal of “increased opportunities and vocational support for women.” The state’s first National Development Strategy highlights the importance of “measures to encourage more Qatari women to enter paid employment.”

Moreover, state-sanctioned women’s organizations and government initiatives in the Gulf also aim to increase women’s workforce participation and contribution to their states’ development agendas. For example, the Qatari Businesswomen Association was established in 2000 “to enhance women’s contribution to the economic activity which constitutes a real gain both to Qatari women and the society at large.” The UAE established a federal agency called the Gender Balance Council in 2015 with one of its objectives “to reduce the gender gap across all government sectors.”

Despite policies pushing women to join the workforce, a number of barriers, including legal policies and social norms, continue to prevent women from working.

State Laws and Policies Restrict Women

While Gulf rulers implement gendered initiatives to increase women’s workforce participation, they are simultaneously promoting traditional family values and gender roles in conflict with women’s desires to pursue careers. State rhetoric may encourage women to enter the workforce, but it also places pressure on women to fulfill traditional domestic roles, as rulers utilize women’s roles to symbolize their nations’ religious and cultural identities. For example, Qatar’s first National Development Strategy states that women hold an “indispensable role in upholding traditional familial and cultural values.” Along similar lines, the UAE Vision 2021 views “large and cohesive families” as the “nucleus of Emirati society” and states that women will “gain greater opportunity to combine full participation in active life with the joy and fulfilment of motherhood.”

In addition to governmental statements pressuring women to fulfill traditional roles, state laws and policies continue to place restrictions on women’s full participation in the public sphere by limiting their public movement, travel, and ability to work.

In addition to governmental statements pressuring women to fulfill traditional roles, state laws and policies continue to place restrictions on women’s full participation in the public sphere by limiting their public movement, travel, and ability to work. In Qatar, unmarried women under the age of 25 must obtain a guardian’s permission to travel abroad and Qatari men can appear before the court to prevent their wives from traveling. In Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, personal status laws allow men to stop their wives from working if they feel it is interfering with “marital duties,” the “wellbeing of the family,” or “acceptable Islamic conduct.” In the UAE, women are required to be “obedient” to their husbands by law. Women also still need the approval of a male guardian to marry in all the Gulf states.

Moreover, even when more women-friendly policies are introduced, they are often not enforced effectively due to legal work-arounds, loopholes, and a lack of desire on the part of male rulers to enforce them. For example, recent gender reforms to the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia made it possible for women to obtain a passport and travel abroad without a guardian’s permission. Yet, men can still report a female relative missing through a legal provision called taghayyub (meaning “absence” in Arabic) that can lead to the woman’s arrest.

As long as restrictive laws and policies remain in place and implementation of gender reform is half-hearted, women in the Gulf will continue to face barriers to their full participation in public life.

Patriarchal Social Norms Persist

Unfortunately, the restrictions women in the Gulf face go far beyond legal norms. Patriarchal social and religious norms also make it difficult for women to work.

Traditional social norms often discourage women from working and many women lack support from their families to join the workforce. A patriarchal understanding of the family unit in which men have authority over their female relatives is commonly held and makes it difficult for women to circumvent familial authority. Moreover, gender-mixing is often viewed as a violation of religious and cultural values; women who cannot find jobs in gender-segregated environments may choose not to work, due either to their own preferences or those of their families.

Furthermore, social and political expectations to fulfill domestic roles mean that women often struggle to be able to work. Many women are finding that it is not possible to pursue careers while also raising a family. As a result, women in the Gulf who want to work may delay getting married and starting a family in order to pursue careers, and women with careers often put them on hold when they marry or have children. In Qatar, the government has expressed concern in recent years that marriage rates have gone down while the divorce rate and the average age of marriage for Qatari women have gone up.

Women in the Gulf who want to work may delay getting married and starting a family in order to pursue careers, and women with careers often put them on hold when they marry or have children.

Despite the attempts by Gulf rulers to balance developmental initiatives that require women’s increased workforce participation with traditional cultural norms that compel women’s fulfillment of domestic roles, women in the Gulf continue to struggle with contradictory expectations from their governments, restrictive laws and policies, and patriarchal social norms that prevent them from engaging fully in the public sphere.

A Path Forward for Working Women in the Gulf

For women in the Gulf Arab countries, removing the barriers to joining the workforce necessitates both top-down changes and a societal shift.

One significant reason policies restricting women remain in place in the Gulf is that decision-making roles in politics and business remain male-dominated. Women are woefully underrepresented in leadership roles in both spheres. It would behoove Gulf rulers to appoint more women to decision-making roles in their governments and instruct businesses to follow suit. Putting quotas in place is one step toward greater representation of women’s concerns in the political and business realms.

In addition, more women will be encouraged to join the workforce if more women-friendly policies are implemented. Working mothers find it particularly difficult to manage raising children and working simultaneously. Government reforms should prioritize better policies for working mothers. Governments should also commit to reforming personal status laws and other restrictive laws and policies that continue to limit women’s travel and movement and to perpetuate the authority of men over their female relatives. Women who want to work should have full legal backing to make that choice, which is currently not the case.

To be sure, women-friendly laws and policies mean very little if they are not effectively implemented. Rulers need to go beyond symbolic reforms and better enforce their policies. There should be legal consequences for those who violate women’s rights within and outside the workplace. Loopholes in current gender reforms should be eliminated.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, a transformation in patriarchal social norms must accompany legal and political change. Support for working women must start within their homes and communities. Without a societal shift toward greater support of working women and a woman’s right to make her own personal and professional choices, many women will continue to be held back from entering the workforce.

Women will not be able to “have it all” if their societies and governments continue to present them with impossible choices and contradictory expectations. Rhetoric supporting working women in the Gulf will be ineffectual if it is not backed by action, reform, and a transformation of social norms.

Alainna Liloia is a research and analysis intern at Arab Center Washington DC