December 7, 2016

Women’s Labor Force Participation Across the GCC

Emirati women participate in a cybersecurity training course at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. (ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller)

The current challenge for the oil and gas exporting states of the Gulf Cooperation Council rests in diversification of their economies, and perhaps more importantly, in the activation of a more productive and efficient workforce. That workforce is increasingly divided among nationals dominating the public sector and non-nationals populating the private sector. Women are underrepresented in the labor force, in the public and private sectors, across the GCC. Where there is greater integration of both national and non-national women in the labor force, there is also generally more opportunity for women’s political participation. Women’s employment in the GCC is emblematic of the intensity and pace of economic development. There has been so much change, over such a short period of time, that the simultaneous projects of capturing resource wealth, increasing social welfare, and building infrastructure have put in motion new challenges for states to manage. More diverse societies and workforces have created barriers to and opportunities for the economic empowerment and inclusion of women.

This paper examines women’s integration in the labor force in the Gulf Arab states, paying special attention to differences in public and private sector employment, and national and migrant female labor participation. There are a number of barriers to women’s full economic and political inclusion in Gulf societies. This paper probes how two critical factors might interfere with Gulf states’ policy objectives of increasing national and female labor participants. These are degrees of oil resource dependency (or alternatively stated, success in economic diversification) and the presence and overreliance on foreign workers in the labor market. Other social factors, including family life and cultural norms, also explain women’s preferences for public sector employment, or to stay home.