Cracking the Glass Ceiling: Gulf Women in Politics
This post is part of a series examining women’s labor force participation in the Gulf Arab states, including areas of growth and challenges facing women in the Gulf.
The Gulf Arab states have made notable progress in recent years in reducing gender inequalities in education and labor force participation, however, women have not made the same gains in political participation and representation. The driving force behind such advances in education and workforce inclusion is economic reforms supported by international organizations’ studies resolutely stating the economic benefits of closing the gender gap. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bypassed decades of strict laws against female participation in the economy with little resistance. As Arab states, including some Gulf Cooperation Council countries, have realized the importance the international donor community attaches to women’s empowerment, research by Bozena Christina Welborne has found that they have moved to implement gender quotas in their parliaments as a means to attract financial assistance.
Despite efforts to promote women’s presence in government and elected legislative bodies, women across the GCC countries are facing a number of challenges in realizing gender equality, including patriarchy, religion, culture, and lack of political awareness, often among women themselves. To illustrate, according to a study on citizen’s perceptions of women in politics in Kuwait, women voters are heavily influenced by their husbands, fathers, or brothers, due to lack of political awareness among Kuwaiti women. However, more women would vote independently if they had a better understanding about the political system and vote for candidates who advocate for their rights.
Women’s Representation in Gulf Councils and Legislatures
Most of the representative bodies in the GCC states act as advisory bodies to the rulers of the country such as Qatar’s Advisory Council, Oman’s Consultation/Shura Council, Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, and the United Arab Emirates’ Federal National Council. They have little to no legislative authority. Bahrain and Kuwait are the only GCC countries that have parliaments with legislative authority. Although women were given the right to run for Parliament in 2005 in Kuwait, of the 50 members of parliament, there is currently only one woman.
Women’s representation in municipal councils and national parliaments in the Gulf states is low compared to women’s inclusion elsewhere in the Arab world and internationally. Women hold 9 percent of seats in representative bodies in the GCC states: 7.5 percent in Bahrain; 3.1 percent in Kuwait; 1.2 percent in Oman; 0 percent in Qatar; 19.9 percent in Saudi Arabia; and 22.5 percent in the UAE. Comparatively, women hold 18.8 percent of seats in the Arab world and 29.1 percent in OECD countries. Moreover, it has been relatively recent that women gained the right to vote in the Gulf Arab states. The first country to allow women’s suffrage was Oman in 1994, followed by Qatar in 1999, Bahrain in 2001, Kuwait in 2005, the UAE in 2006, and Saudi Arabia in 2015.
Political Empowerment of Women
It is important to have women’s representation in policymaking positions to support women’s needs in the country. Research indicates that, globally, the number of women elected to office is positively correlated with the number of policies that emphasize quality of life, prioritizing family, women, and minority groups. The newly appointed female minister of community development in the UAE, Hessa bint Essa Buhumaid, announced the National Family Policy, which includes the drafting of new regulations for child protection, granting paternity leave, and conducting workshops and awareness campaigns for youth and newlyweds. Such issues are top priorities for women and have a direct impact on them and the family unit more broadly.
GCC countries can draw lessons from women’s political advancements in the broader Middle East and North Africa region. Progress in women’s political participation in the region has been attributed to the introduction of quotas, political awareness campaigns for women, and leadership commitment to political empowerment of women.
Gender quotas are easily implemented as a top-down policy. They have increased women’s representation and have been critical in overcoming high barriers of entry to political participation. However, quotas need to be kept under close supervision to ensure full inclusion of women in policymaking rather than merely a fulfillment of a legal requirement. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the GCC states that has a quota for women’s representation in the kingdom’s Shura Council. The 20 percent quota was issued in a royal decree by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2013. The rest of the GCC countries have yet to implement gender quotas in legislative bodies. According to Sharifa al Barami, an entrepreneur who plays an active role in promoting women’s causes, women’s campaigns in Oman tend to focus on issues that affect the community, but such issues tend not to get votes, which discourages women from entering elections. “There is need for a quota for women because men tend to campaign as representatives for their tribes and regions,” Barami suggested.
Increasing women’s political awareness as voters and candidates would help women make more educated decisions when it comes to their political interests. For example, the EKWIP (Empower Kuwaiti Women in Politics) program is a first of its kind in the GCC states. The yearlong training program aims to prepare Kuwaiti women to run for elected office, assist in other women’s political campaigns, or advance professionally in other sectors. Athra Al Rafae, a Kuwaiti women’s rights lawyer and EKWIP candidate, announced her intention to run for Parliament in 2020.
There are noticeable efforts to promote women in leadership and policymaking positions such as the appointment of a female parliamentary speaker in the UAE and the first female deputy minister of labor in Saudi Arabia. On October 19, 2017, the prime minister of the UAE announced a Cabinet reshuffle, with women comprising 30 percent of the Cabinet. Although there is no official quota provision in the UAE, there is a commitment from the country’s leadership to increase women’s representation in policymaking positions. One initiative to promote the role of women in the workplace, at home and internationally, was the formation of the UAE Gender Balance Council in 2015, which was responsible for the recently approved law on equal wages in the UAE.
Ministerial Portfolios Held by Women in the Gulf Arab States
Such initiatives are encouraging, although much more needs to be done to allow women to fully contribute to their societies. Political empowerment of women should go hand-in-hand with economic empowerment of women. Women will need to play a bigger role in the current economic reforms to ensure more laws and opportunities are created to support gender equality.
Thuraiya Alhashmi is a former visiting fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.