In Middle Eastern countries, the status of women has been vulnerable prior to the twentieth century. Today, the situation is changing, as Arab females can obtain higher education, including education abroad, and also be employed, and they are expanding their ideas about what permissible and normal behavior is. A devoted wife and a caring mother of many children who wears a burqa and is afraid to go outside her home without her husband – this stereotype is widespread. However, women of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia are allowed to participate in many activities and are becoming increasingly emancipated, even though some challenges still need to be addressed.
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This paper will focus on the legal framework of women’s employment in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The fact is that females in these countries have been discriminated against and their ability to work has been limited for many centuries, and they still comprise a small part of the workforce compared to males. This situation is largely determined by the local culture and religion, which define a woman as a person belonging to a man and therefore required to be dependent on him. The modern reality dictates new requirements and challenges, as women also want to become active members of society. In this regard, it is critical to examine the current position of women, their employment rights, and potential opportunities for further initiatives with the aim of achieving equality.
Examining Women’s Employment Rights in the UAE and Saudi Arabia
The position of women in the societies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia is a cause for endless controversy. On the one hand, many of the first impression seem to be true. Public relations between women and men are limited in the given countries, and women are required to dress following strict canons of Islamic law and not appear in public without a male relative.1 There is a female half of the house that is strictly separated from males where women receive guests, and most of women’s duties are reduced to taking care of the house and raising children. Nevertheless, this does not mean that women are perceived as or treated as slaves.
Under a black garment covering the whole body, a dress from the best fashion designers in the world can be hidden, often decorated with embroidery or precious stones. In addition, women may enjoy the benefits of globalization, including the Internet and other technologies. In other words, one should stress that women are not treated as slaves but limited under the rules of Sharia and other legal restrictions.
At any time, a woman may apply to a Sharia judge to demand a divorce. The reason for this may be noncompliance with the conditions of the marriage contract: the appropriateness of the living conditions or mistreatment by her husband may play a role. The UAE constitution states that “equality, social justice, ensuring safety and security and equality of opportunity for all citizens shall be the pillars of the society (Article 14).”2
Even the ban on education for women has long been lifted, although in many educational institutions, female students are still not allowed to attend lectures by male teachers. In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, approximately ten local colleges teach only women, focusing on the most popular professions. However, in some areas of Saudi Arabia, primarily in the southern region of the country, morals are quite conservative, and local women are obliged to cover their hair and face and care only about home.
In the UAE, women’s s rights are in a special position and reliably protected by a legislative framework. According to the UAE constitution, “All persons are equal before the law, without distinction between citizens of the Union in regard to race, nationality, religious belief or social status.”3 It is unacceptable to disparage, harass, or insult a woman; there is no right to video or photograph Arab women.
For violations, the law provides for severe penalties, which can be expressed as significant fines or imprisonment. In the UAE, women occupy an important place, serving as inspirations and mentors for their husbands. An Arab woman should be able to provide her husband with all possible support in all situations and provide the right advice. In turn, Arab men should serve as support and protection for their wives. Along with the status of a caregiver for children and a hostess of the house, they are acquiring the role of active members of modern society. This situation is bringing about a completely new level of women’s work and education.
In 2008, Saudi Arabia ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was established in 1981.4 A proviso was included that in the event of any conflict between the convention and Islamic law, the kingdom would not be obliged to those provisions as noted. Only in 2004 was a ban lifted that did not allow women to obtain business licenses. Previously, women could open a business only on behalf of a male relative. According to Human Rights Watch, women do not have the right to travel without the permission of their male guardians or contact government agencies where there are no special departments to serve women.
Saudi Arabia, under strict Sharia law, is one of the most conservative countries in the world. The custody rules for men over women are regulated there by judicial authorities who are controlled by the clergy. The strict manner of Islamic norms is exacerbated by the fact that the country officially follows the doctrine of Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd Al Wahhab, who promoted the so-called purity of Islam. In other words, this 18th-century Islamic theologian claimed to be following Islamic tradition in its most radical interpretation. Al Wahhab rendered important services to the Saudi princely house long before the establishment of Saudi Arabia.
It should also be remembered that modern Saudi Arabia was formed under the active influence of the Ikhwan. This was a movement for pure Islam, and its military units helped the first Saudi King, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, to seize Mecca and Medina and create Saudi Arabia.
Legal Discrimination: Women in the Workforce
Today, women make up one third of the government of the UAE, two thirds of civil employees, and two thirds of graduates of national universities. All this is part of the National Strategy for the Empowerment of Emirati Women, which was launched by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi in 2015. The UAE, according to Thomson Reuters, ranks tenth out of 22 on the rights of women among Arab countries. At the international level, it takes the 109th place out of 148 countries in the context of gender equality. While employment and education offer good opportunities for women, their personal life and related restrictions remain a critical issue.
Only after 1960 were women given the opportunity to do some activities outside their homes and families. The situation started to change after the discovery of large oil reserves in the UAE. The first president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, allowed women to work and opened elementary schools for female children. The sheikh’s wife, Fatima, headed the women’s federation and encouraged more and more women and girls to receive education, which should be regarded as a large step towards promoting women’s employment rights. Women composed 6.2 percent of the country’s workforce in 1988, working mainly in the education and health sectors.
“Society shall esteem work as a cornerstone of its development. It shall endeavor to ensure that employment is available for citizens and to train them so that they are prepared for it (Article 20, UAE Constitution).”5 At the same time, “every citizen shall be free to choose his occupation, trade or profession within the limits of law (Article 34, UAE Constitution).”6 Currently, the UAE has the highest level of female employment, namely 59 percent, among Gulf region countries, which is however only 14 percent of the total workforce.
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On the Abu Dhabi Stock Exchange, 43 percent of investors are women, and the city’s association of emirates entrepreneurs includes 14,000 women. In 2006, women accounted for more than 22 percent of the Federal National Council. According to recent information, there are only two women judges in the country. The situation seems to be worse in Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to participate in investment, and they received the right to drive a car only in 2018.
The women of the UAE, unlike those of Saudi Arabia, are welcome to join government departments, including the police. In rural areas, many women work on par with men and occupy posts of responsibility in many industries. The participation of women in the public and political life of the UAE has received close attention. In the first elections of the representative body of the UAE, the Federal National Council, more than 1,100 women participated as electors, representing 18 percent of the people having the right to vote. In the government, the posts of minister, deputy minister, and department head in a ministry are occupied by women in 5.6 percent of cases. The law is part of the Women’s Empowerment Strategy in the UAE. In Saudi Arabia, females cannot participate in elections or occupy positions in ministries.
The UAE government passed a law equalizing the remuneration for men and women in similar positions. In making them partners in the country’s development, this new legislation provides equal opportunities for women. In other words, the law gives them a stronger right to contribute to the implementation of national strategies and ambitious projects and reduces the gender gap. In 2015, the Council on Gender Balance was established in the UAE, lifting the country to a principal position in gender issues among the leading countries worldwide.7
The approval of the new law by the cabinet is consistent with the government’s goal of protecting the rights of women and supporting their role in the development of the state. The foundations for this initiative were laid by Sheikha Fatima, chairman of the Women’s Supreme Council. “Women throughout the region earn less than men despite labor laws that mandate equal pay for the same type of work and equal opportunities for training and promotion.” This shows that not only laws, but also the manner of their implementation should be developed and monitored.
There are still a number of barriers to the participation of women in Arab countries in economic activity, which is associated with religious traditions. There is an insufficient level of development of productivity and wage discrimination. Therefore, only a third of women are included in the group of economically active women. The consideration of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia requires closer attention to their cultural traditions and the way women are perceived in Saudi society.
Since early childhood, girls are taught that their main role is to support the family, give birth, and raise children. In other words, it is believed that a man is obliged to work, while a woman takes care of the family.
However, Sharia allows a woman to work, provided she does not neglect her family responsibilities, and also if no one is able to ensure her basic needs. According to Saudi law, a woman can work only in specially designated places for women, or as a doctor or teacher and in areas where a female client should avoid contact with men. In theory, a woman can perform any government work in which she can come into contact with men. In practice, this is done in the private sector, where men and women work under the same roof, although private businesses are supposed to follow the example of government agencies. Officially, a female cannot take a business trip without a mahram (husband or relative).
The key barrier is associated with the fact that a woman can work only when she is allowed to do so by a mahram, while the work is also supposed to be suitable for the female physique and mentality. For example, women cannot work in the judicial field or occupy important government positions. Although educational institutions and medicine remain key areas of work for women, the number of women working in the field of finance slightly increased between 2000 and 2008. This means that the female part of society is gradually increasing its economic role in the country.
The empowerment of employment for women has been resisted by the Ministry of Labor, religious conservatives, and Saudi citizens. They follow strict Islamic principles that dictate that a woman’s working is contrary to her nature. The Saudi Ministry of Labor is also skeptical about the possibility of expanding labor rights for women, citing the fact that the best place for a woman is in her home. They emphasize that no woman can work without the consent of a guardian, so she cannot replace her family responsibilities with work. However, in recent years, women are beginning to play an increasingly significant role in such industries as banking and medicine.
If men and women work in the same industry, men tend to receive higher wages and other benefits. According to Saudi legislation, health insurance is not provided to a woman during childbirth, but is to be given through a male employee, her husband.
Nowadays, women in Saudi Arabia make up 17 percent of the workforce. For comparison, in other Muslim countries, for example, the UAE or Kuwait, their share is more than 40 percent. According to Al-Ahmadi, women’s career development in Saudi Arabia remains extremely slow due to the active resistance of men and the state.8 Only two influential women in the country, Dr. Al-Hazzaa, the head of the King Faisal’s ophthalmology department and Dr. Al-Olayan, an entrepreneur, are widely known. In 2013, the first woman was registered in Saudi Arabia as a novice lawyer, after women were officially allowed to work as lawyers. The question of how much attention is given to their arguments and work remains controversial.
In the kingdom, there is an initiative to build a separate district in the city of Al-Khufuf where only women can work. Without violating the conditions of gender segregation, the women would be able to successfully implement their careers without hiding from the public. Women’s companies and facilities for production are expected to be located there. Western agencies are skeptical of the project, calling it a PR campaign to improve the image of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the placement of special jobs for women in a particular city does not fit the concept of gender equality. On the other hand, such a step may be regarded as a way to allow women to work and then improve their situation. As declared in Saudi Vision 2030, the state aims to increase women’s participation in the labor force to 30 percent, thus revolutionizing the Saudi economy.
Unemployment rates for women in Saudi Arabia are almost five times higher than for men, as about a third of women of working age do not have a job. Moreover, among university graduates, there are more women than men: 105,494 versus 98,210 in 2016.9
However, due to the cultural characteristics and traditions of Saudi Arabia, women find it difficult to get a job. It has become evident that not only legislative obstacles but also cultural stereotypes impede women’s entrance into the workforce. It is very difficult to get interviews, as young women who have graduated from the university with certain degrees have noted. They hope to quickly find work in Saudi Arabia, yet have to spend months before becoming employed. In 2011, the government banned men from working in lingerie stores. Since then, the number of women in retail has reached 200,000. Retail is the only sector where many women can work, which may help the broader society understand the fact that women can participate in every sphere.
The difficulties faced by Saudi women are largely caused by a conservative culture and outdated laws. Many get married early and take care of home and children, having no time for education. Those who want to have a career encounter barriers due to bans on certain types of activities. For example, driving was not allowed. Gender segregation in many public places and the unwillingness of companies to hire women also violate the rights of women. Changing this situation is one of the key elements of the economic reform plan of Prince Muhammad ibn Salman. One of its tasks is to increase the share of women employed in the workforce and cut the total unemployment rate almost in half.
In the UAE, women’s rights are enshrined in the basic law. The country’s constitution declares that a woman in the UAE can receive an education and work on par with men. Today, there is some progress in this issue and some opportunities are available.10 For example, in Dubai, many modern Arab women are engaged in various spheres of public and political life. These changes have had a beneficial effect both on the state as a whole and on the Arab public. In Saudi Arabia, the situation is similar to that of the UAE: young women prefer receiving higher education in order to be employed and find a career. However, a review of the available literature shows that more opportunities are available to UAE female citizens based on various programs, grants, and state projects.
More and more young Arab women are beginning to enroll in higher education and receive relevant diplomas. A modern woman in the UAE occupies a position no less respected than men and is able to earn just as much as men. This situation does not mean that Arab women are actively fighting for independence or are trying to prove their worth. On the contrary, the changes are happening quite harmoniously, and Arab women understand and realize the importance of modern educational processes. In the UAE, women who receive higher education contribute to the rising of the country to a completely new level.
In order to better understand the actions of the UAE, it is useful to take note of the 2030 Dubai Industrial Strategy, which includes 75 initiatives and involves investing $44 billion in the emirate’s economy. The strategy is based on five objectives, which include the development of industry and innovation as well as the promotion of energy efficiency. The goal of the strategy is to attract more international industrial companies to Dubai. All this indirectly will have a positive impact on the Dubai economy in particular and the UAE as a whole, thereby strengthening the country’s position in the international arena.
By 2018, the Dubai transport system will also change significantly: 25 percent of the city’s traffic will make use of autonomous transport. The neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi is implementing a number of important initiatives, including Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, Environment Vision 2030, and Plan Abu Dhabi 2030. All of these will have a positive impact on the development of the UAE and the region as a whole. By 2030, significant results will be achieved by implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) program for the UAE’s sustainable development. This includes 17 targets based on the UN Millennium Development Goals and should greatly improve living conditions throughout the country.
It should be emphasized, however, that traditions in these countries still remain very significant and are highly respected. Even in traditional educational institutions, women are separated from men — these are the requirements of the Sharia, the custom since ancient times, when Arab statehood was in its infancy. Females in the UAE and Saudi Arabia are educated separately from males. Arab scholars stress that it may seem that women’s rights are being denied, but this is not the case, and Arab women have all the rights and freedoms of a modern individual.
As an example of the ongoing economic empowerment, one may note that in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, women attorneys have received the right to appear in court. This was reported in 2012 by the Egyptian newspaper Al Watan.11 The decision of the Ministry of Justice of the Saudi kingdom came into force at the end of the great Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha. The ministry’s document notes that a female attorney with a diploma and having completed a three-year internship at a law firm has the right to appear in court. Until now, women lawyers did not have such a right. Many young female attorneys are currently undergoing internships to be eligible to speak in court.
To return from statistics about the status of women to their rights, one may note that Saudi Arabia is the only state in the world where women had no right to drive a car until 2018.12 Several campaigns by human rights defenders failed to convince the government to lift this driving ban. In Saudi Arabia, seven activists fighting for women’s rights were arrested, as reported by Human Rights Watch. Among the detainees, there are two men and five women, including the blogger Eman al-Nafyan and the activists Aziza Al-Youssef and Loudzhan Hatlul, who had already been arrested for trying to enter the country by car. Representatives of the authorities said the detainees were suspected of trying to undermine the security and stability of the kingdom and had suspicious contacts with foreign countries.
The Saudi crown prince wants to make it clear to all citizens that they are eligible for all freedoms and rights, and there are certain steps towards this. Now the women of Saudi Arabia have received the right to drive a car. The decree of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud on the elimination of the prohibition on driving vehicles for residents of the kingdom came into force. The lifting of the ban is one of the most significant steps in the framework of the Vision 2030 strategy that was adopted at the initiative of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The key objectives of the strategy are to turn Saudi Arabia away from oil dependence and transform it into one of the most modern economies worldwide. Thus women are now empowered to use a car to get to work, and public transportation is developed as well.
Previously, work in Saudi Arabia for women was possible only in the fields of education or healthcare. In the medical industry, women could only be employed as gynecologists and dermatologists. Employment in the oil industry can provide access to the profession of engineer, although only one company in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Aramco, employed women. Other organizations did not have similar employment rights for women. In 2015, women were allowed to work at sales counters in department stores, but only under the condition that women’s faces were completely covered. They also have the right to work as storekeepers in these organizations.
The demand for foreign labor is due to a lack of qualified specialists among the local population, the low level of women’s labor activity, and the unwillingness of the majority of Saudi citizens to work in unpopular and underpaid sectors of the economy. The main factor behind the demand is the rise in world oil prices and, as a result, the growth of the kingdom’s economy. Saudi authorities are working on a draft of new labor legislation that is similar to the existing law in the UAE.
The Ministry of Labor of Saudi Arabia has created a department for the rights of foreign workers, optimized a labor complaints mechanism, created shelters for abused female servants, and tightened penalties for employment agencies, sponsors, and employers who violate the rights of workers.13 For a two-month delay in wages, an employer may be deprived of the right to hire employees for a period of one year. If an employee is not paid a salary for three months, he has the right to change his sponsor without any sanctions (the system established in the kingdom determines that the place of work can be changed no more than three times, and a foreigner has to pay a fine for this change).
Vision 2030 mentions the creation of new jobs in the state, including for women, as priorities for the next fifteen years. In addition, the Saudi authorities intend to concentrate on the development of industries not related to oil production. In this way, they hope to cope with oil dependence in a country whose revenues have noticeably decreased after the fall in world prices for oil. For example, Saudi Arabia plans to create a state-owned investment fund with total assets of $2 trillion, which according to the authorities will become the largest in the world. Another key point will be the possible privatization of such sectors as healthcare and education.
Today, the state is ready to entrust women with positions of high responsibility as civilian pilots and air traffic controllers. In addition, more recently, women have been able to enter service in law enforcement, become road police and instructors in driving schools, as well as serve at the border. The right granted by the monarch to women to drive cars essentially became a prologue to numerous innovations in the life of the kingdom and opened the way toward a modern society. While Saudi Arabia was formerly one of the most closed countries in the world, and the ultraconservative culture of Islam played a decisive role here, it is rapidly undergoing dramatic changes.
More educated women tend to join the labor market, and the percentage of women employed is reaching higher rates: in Qatar – 50.5 percent, in Kuwait – 42.3 percent, the UAE – 37.5 percent, and in Saudi Arabia – 14.6 percent. During visits to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the representatives of the United Nations have been encouraged by the latest efforts of the countries of the region in the area of human rights. Many of the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have made a number of changes to their legislation governing women’s rights related to employment.
United Nations data indicates that the share of women in key roles such as lawmakers, senior officials and executives has reached ten percent in the UAE and eight percent in Saudi Arabia. This demonstrates the need for further laws that may increase the prevalence of women in the public and private sectors of these countries.
As for the issue of employment, women’s involvement is now higher, even though it is still limited in some regions of these countries. Arab women are now attaining positions that were earlier thought to be beyond their capabilities. They occupy prominent roles in government. Arab women are also developing as entrepreneurs, beginning their own companies, and succeeding in economics. As measured by their achievements and rewards, women are still not equal to men. Today, Arab women are a force in their own countries, creating the groundwork for future generations. These women are working hard to become leaders in their fields and succeed in their own countries. With ambition and determination, they are conquering endless horizons with their achievements.
The low status of Saudi women has affected their educational level. In a recent report, a high level of illiteracy among Saudi women was noted, with literacy rates lower than that of the UAE women. Official publications reflect the backlog in women’s education in the country in the statistics for the last 25 years of the country’s development. The number of school students increased from 537,000 (400,000 boys) to 2.8 million (of which 1.5 million are boys).14 The number of university students increased from 6,942 to 122,100 people. At the same time, the number of female students increased from 434 to 53,000. The positive tendency is obvious, and further strategies are likely to be beneficial in empowering young females to receive higher education.
In Saudi Arabia, there are special universities for both men and women, which are separate for each sex. Not only women but also men are taught in the whole range of disciplines, but without direct contact between them. The teacher can be in one room, and the female students are in another, and the training is conducted with the help of a large-screen display. If a female student has a question, she can call the lecturer on a special internal telephone.
Women believe that their education is quite good, and they enjoy this opportunity. It is unclear to what extent the segregation affects the quality of education, but in Saudi Arabia, the number and diversity of classes offered to men are much greater than those available to women. Also, some gaps in education according to location are revealed in communication, which, however, can be attributed to the objective of not confusing the names of places where education has not been present.
With respect to female schools and universities in the UAE, one should state that the strategies of the country to eliminate the gender gap are evident. In particular, of almost 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students registered at Zayed University in 2017, 89.9 percent were women.15 At the Higher Colleges of Technology, the ratio of male to female students is more balanced and stands at 62 percent.
Pennington notes that attracting and retaining male students is becoming a challenge, since they have a wide range of educational opportunities. While both men and women can be expected to be present in the country’s workforce, special attention should be paid to this challenge. In 2015-2016, the prevalence of female graduates was 77 percent, which shows that Arab females are being offered a full range of educational options so that they can further progress in their careers.
Educational quality and relevance constitute the basis of the highest priority state programs of the United Arab Emirates, which makes it a leader in the world rankings for educational prestige and relevance. Building on the centuries-old experience of the developed countries of the world in the sphere of education, the UAE government created a unique educational system, using a completely new methodological basis. Today, education in the UAE is a universal symbiosis of innovation, technological potential, and culture. In addition, a high level of educational potential and interest among the population led to the creation of elite universities of international reputation in the country along with training centers for the largest global companies.
Within the last decades, pivotal changes and developments have occurred that have beneficially affected the situation of women in Arab countries. These changes include overcoming gender inequality by opening new paths in education. Education has become the most powerful tool for women’s empowerment, serving as a core facilitator of economic and social changes. The prevalence of women students has risen at all levels of education in Arab countries, and the number of applicants among young women tends to exceed the number of male applicants.
Achievements, Needs, and Recommendations
The Ministry of Labor and Social Development of Saudi Arabia has tried to assist women in addressing the ban on driving by offering them travel vouchers using Uber and Careem. In 2016, 400 women took part in a pilot program of the ministry, and the program should serve 150,000 women by 2020. In addition, the government no longer requires companies to divide the jobs of women and men. Now, they are obliged only to provide women with separate toilets, a security system, and rooms for food and prayers.
However, the majority of office buildings in the country are designed without an expectation of the presence of women, so their hiring may require significant redevelopment costs. Therefore, one of the needs is associated with the redesign of workplaces to make them women-friendly. It seems that the issues mentioned here constitute the core of special adjustments that companies must take into account.
One more need relates to the resistance of some companies to adopting the new policies. Saudi Aramco, the oil company, has always been one of the rare exceptions, as men and women have worked together there for a long time. Other state-owned companies are slowly adapting to the new policy, and some critics accuse the authorities of an inability to clearly convey the new requirements to companies. Some initiatives follow the best international practices in the field of gender equality and women’s involvement in the labor market, but this seems to be incomprehensible to some businesses. For example, if the company employs 50 or more women, there should be a place for their children, but this is not clearly explained and has not worked in practice.
An effective example is Dubai Airport management with its Purposeful Women Program, which targets women managers and is meant to enable them to be among the future leaders of the company. The nine-month program helps Emirati women to advance in leadership knowledge and skills based on multifaceted assignments and master classes. Also, it assists them in creating a set of professional communication networks in the organization and outside it. According to the outcomes of the training, women are obtaining a professional certification that is approved by the Institute of Leadership and Management.
The program strives to meet the goals of the UAE’s national policy in accomplishing gender balance in the workforce and meeting the country’s goal to be among the 25 most progressive countries in the context of gender equality. Today, Dubai Airports has more than 200 Emirati women in various positions, of which 32% occupy management positions. Dubai Airport is encouraging more women to build a career in the aviation sector of the emirate and hopes that their numbers in the state will increase over the coming years.
Similar strategies based on the education of women may be applied to other sectors, although they should be specific to the selected professional area and pertinent to modern requirements. In this context, the UAE is outpacing Saudi Arabia by introducing the National Tolerance Program, which includes a number of initiatives aimed at promoting the ideas of tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and acceptance of all people.
These initiatives are related to the denial of any manifestation of violence, intolerance, and discrimination, including against women. In addition, the Ministry’s tasks include strengthening the role of the family in building the nation and spreading the idea of tolerance among young people. Preventing the adverse influence of fanatics and extremists and enriching the scientific and cultural components of society are also targeted. The ministry can play a role in international efforts to promote tolerance while emphasizing the leading role of the UAE in this area.
In light of the review of women’s employment rights, it is critical to give attention to the question of whether companies and the government should utilize positive discrimination in favor of women. In addition, in the UAE labor market, discrimination against men can be observed. The annual Arabian Business Women’s Forum was held in 2016 in Dubai (UAE), at which the current situation of women in the UAE’s labor market was discussed.
The forum was attended by representatives from the Gulf countries as well as from European countries and the USA. Habib Al-Mullah, head of the Baker and McKenzie law firm in the UAE, noted that currently in the Emirates, there is a problem of labor discrimination not against women, but against men. For example, in a situation where there are two candidates for a position, one of whom is a man and the other is a woman, the choice will almost always fall to the woman.
Al-Mullah believes that the tendency to choose women for workplaces in the UAE can have negative consequences. In the pursuit of creating an image of a country that welcomes women’s work, the UAE government has acted against the interests of both men and women. Women are confident that they will get jobs, which ultimately leads to a decrease in labor productivity. The so-called gender-based quotas appear to decrease labor market competition, thus leading to a failure to employ the most competent specialists. “According to a Pricewater house Coopers report, at 77 percent, the UAE is registering the highest rate of females in higher education in the entire world. The United Nations also recognizes the UAE to be among the most developed nations in educating women.”16 The path forward may lie in a return to a system equal for all. Jobs should not be reserved for someone, and women as well as men should have incentives to compete for a particular position.
Thus the decision to apply positive discrimination seems to be appropriate for both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “The UAE leadership believes that positive discrimination towards women and active encouragement for their entry into previously male dominated fields is an essential first step towards an equal society. In order to prove themselves in their chosen careers, women must first be given the platform to achieve.”17 As for the UAE, such discrimination is necessary to achieve equality with men, while Saudi Arabia needs to address the perception of women as subjects belonging to men.
A number of cultural, organizational, and personal problems prevent women from gaining leadership positions. Women live in a patriarchal society, in which the social system is still based on the authority of men, while women are discriminated against in workplaces.18 Men still firmly hold power over high-level positions, and women are not encouraged to participate at the top levels of large government agencies and private companies. Another reason is the division of domestic work according to traditional gender norms and stereotypes, seeking to limit the role of women only to childbirth and child rearing. Many women refuse to move up the career ladder so that they can raise their children. The general perception remains that women cannot devote all their time to any duties other than their family.
The third reason is related to the type of education women receive, where traditional ideas about what constitutes relevant areas for women’s employment strengthen their internal self-concepts. Most young women are graduates in the field of education, humanities, and natural sciences. Thus they create a gender imbalance in the labor market that affects the filling of key positions. Work labeled as feminine usually includes teaching or social services. Meanwhile, current research suggests that women as top managers can positively influence a company’s performance and improve its productivity as they bring different management styles, skills, and experience to the corporate environment.
As a result of initiatives undertaken by the UAE government to empower women today, up to 60 percent or more of those employed in the public sector are women, and they hold positions of responsibility. An important role in reinforcing women’s rights in the UAE is played by the General Women’s Union (GWU), which emerged from the UAE Women’s Federation, uniting various women’s organizations in the country.
The Union actively participates in the public life of the country and cooperates with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Development Program. However, the evidence shows that the private sector lacks the presence of women, which can also be observed in Saudi Arabia. Both countries are promoting their visions of future economic development, where women will be given a greater role in enhancing the workforce. By increasing the share of women, it is expected to achieve greater results, both in terms of gender equality and economic prosperity. In this context, there is a need to introduce measures to raise the number of women working in the private sector by cooperating with global organizations.
In order to develop the skills of female employees in decision-making and leadership and assists them in realizing their potential, the government should provide women with appropriate training, guidance with career development, mentoring programs, and networking opportunities. It is also necessary to consistently pursue a gender policy in private enterprises so that women can be equally involved in the social, economic, and political issues of the country. The government, non-governmental organizations, civil society, and the private sector should work to promote women and guarantee gender balance in leadership positions.
Today, women working in the Gulf region are ready to solve problems in all positions, their expectations are growing, and they require reforms and changes in society. It is important that they receive support from both the family and the state.
To conclude, it should be stressed that for many years, it was believed that Arab women are weak and submissive, that they are largely dependent on men, and that they lack leadership qualities. At the same time, men were always considered stronger, more powerful, and competent. Today, there are many female voices in the Arab region. Their numbers are rising, specifically in terms of employment opportunities. The women of the UAE come from a traditional society but are transforming it into a more flexible one, while Saudi Arabia women are still in need of laws and regulations to expand their rights. In these ways, women are striving to address the gender gap by breaking down biases, gender stereotypes, and traditional internal barriers in patriarchal Arab society.
Despite some progress, Saudi women’s entry into the arena of socio-economic and socio-political life has a specific character, corresponding to the degree and quality of social transformations. Like most social changes in the kingdom, women’s employment laws lie within a framework of Islamic values and social policy. First, progressive changes in the labor status of women are taking place in parallel with the general course of development, but segregated from men.
Second, even the most ardent supporters of women’s rights recognize that there are undoubtedly restrictions beyond which women cannot enter into this society. Although Saudi women gained the right to education and employment, the priority in decision-making still primarily depends on men, which speaks to the stability and continuity of traditions. The Islamic traditions that influence the changes in the status of Saudi women should be integrated into the necessary changes.
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- Catharine A. MacKinnon, Are Women Human? (New York, NY: Harvard University Press, 2007), 277.
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- “Women in the United Arab Emirates,”.
- Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014), 56.
- “Women in the United Arab Emirates,”.
- Abdallah M. Elamin and Katlin Omair, “Males’ Attitudes Towards Working Females in Saudi Arabia,” Personnel Review 39, no. 6 (2010): 751.
- Hanan Al-Ahmadi, “Challenges Facing Women Leaders in Saudi Arabia,” Human Resource Development International 14, no. 2 (2011): 152.
- Roberta Pennington, “Women Continue to Dominate UAE Federal Colleges and Universities,” The National, 2017. Web.
- Beverly Dawn Metcalfe, “Women, Management and Globalization in the Middle East,” Journal of Business Ethics 83, no. 1 (2008): 91.
- Pennington, “Women Continue to Dominate,”.
- Kareem Fahim, “Meet the Saudi Women Who Advocated for the Right to Drive — And Are Paying Dearly for it,” Washington Post, 2018.
- Dimah Talal AlSharif, “How Saudi Labor Law Caters to Women,” Arab News, 2018. Web.
- Kelly Sanja, “Recent Gains and New Opportunities for Women’s Rights in the Gulf Arab States,” The Solutions Journal, 2014. Web.
- “Women in the United Arab Emirates,”.
- Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (London: Zed Books, 2014), 109.