Women & the Economy in the Gulf
I attended the closing session of the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Abu Dhabi this year. As all the delegates arrived and were seated I estimated a total of 60 people. I could not help but observe that from all the government delegations present, we were only 10 women in attendance. A clear reminder of the gender gap in our region.
I'm not of the mind to discuss the gender gap as it pertains to women's rights, but I will discuss it as it pertains to human rights and the resilience of our economies. United Nations Development Programme studies show that the lack of female participation is contributing to the depression of economic growth in our region.
According to the UNDP, "the lack of women's participation in the workforce costs the region billions of dollars every year. In countries such as ... Indonesia and Malaysia conservative estimates show that GDP would increase by up to 2-4 per cent annually if women's employment rates were raised to 70 per cent."
For our societies, which are heavily dependent on oil and gas resources, not addressing the economic integration of one half of society would be counter-productive and hinder efforts towards sustainable economic development.
It is worth noting that at the Summit's meeting table, where heads of member states and their key delegates were seated, there was only one woman: Shaikha Hind Bint Hamad Al Thani, the Qatar Emir's daughter and also his Chief of Staff. While her presence there did not break any glass ceilings, it was certainly enlightening to see one of our GCC countries bringing a woman to the helm.
This sends a message that women are part of society and should therefore be part of the decision-making process; that we are here; it is our God-given right to be active in public life and to contribute towards building our societies.
The issue of the gender gap did not make it to the GCC Summit agenda, it must in the future.
The first GCC Summit took place in 1981, where the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar met with the aim of ushering in an era of effective and sustainable regional integration and development.
The GCC Charter states as its objectives, the integration of member states in all fields by ".. formulating similar regulations in ... economy, finance, trade, customs, tourism, legislation, administration. Fostering scientific and technical progress in industry, mining, agriculture, water and animal resources, establishing scientific research centres, ... and encouraging cooperation of the private sector."
Since its establishment, the GCC has made substantial efforts to realise this unity and integration among its member states. This has been exhibited through unified fronts on foreign policy issues. In addition to cooperation in the areas of military, security, legislation, media, and economy. Under these stated areas the GCC has launched various initiatives, most notable; common market, customs union, common currency, investment fund, study for peaceful nuclear energy programme, railway linkage, electricity linkage among many other initiatives.
This year's summit emphasised a peaceful resolution to Iran's nuclear programme and its occupation of UAE islands, a just Palestinian peace process, the clamping down on terrorism and its funding, a common security pact, importance of Iraq's and Lebanon's stability through dialogue without external interference. The Summit also sanctioned companies owned by GCC citizens the right to open branches across six-nation bloc and ensured they would receive equal treatment as local businesses.
The combined oil output of the GCC is 13 million barrels a day. With over 50 per cent of the world's proven crude reserves and some of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, the GCC is in a unique place with endless possibilities for growth. However heavy reliance on oil wealth also make us seriously vulnerable to market fluctuations.
We have no time to sing praises to ourselves. We live in a highly globalised and competitive world and there is much work to be done. The lens of objectivity and accountability should be on how we view and assess our realities, with the aim of always providing, ethically, a better life for our people.
In our quest to always reinforce the strength of the GCC, we need to measure the actual effectiveness and impact of its stated initiatives. It is the right of GCC citizens to understand the success or challenges of these initiatives and to participate in the dialogue of moving forward.
Education, security, research and development, political participation, a vibrant civil society and human rights are also core to the sustainable development of GCC economies beyond the age of oil. We should not wait for oil to run out or to be come obsolete before we start this race towards development and cohesive strategic integration of GCC member states.
- Najla Al Awadhi is a member of the Federal National Council.