On the occasion of this International Women's Day, I find myself thinking about the Middle Eastern women I met during my years of studying, living and working in the region. Social barriers to women's empowerment exist everywhere, but they are particularly high in the Middle East. According to data compiled by international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the legal barriers women face in the Middle East and North Africa are exceptionally high when compared to those faced by men in the region. Add to this the societal expectations placed upon women in more conservative cultures, like many in the Middle East, and you have the ingredients for an uphill battle.
I find myself thinking of women in the region not because they are burdened by these constraints — even though they do have to work harder than men just to reach an equal plane — but rather because they have found creative ways to work within and around them. In my time working and living in Morocco, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, I was consistently humbled by the entrepreneurial know-how and leadership chops of the women I encountered, despite the barriers they faced.
One example among many was the young Saudi friend I met in graduate school who built one business from behind her computer while dreaming up two more. During a walk through the Dubai mall in 2015, she explained to me how her father's request that she return home early to Saudi Arabia from her study abroad in America (because he feared for her safety as a single woman) was indeed a nuisance. But she took solace in her online businesses, grew them substantially, and used her confinement to home to cultivate an online presence. Her Twitter following, an important metric in Twitter-obsessed Saudi Arabia, has grown to nearly 125,000 in the years that I've known her. She is deeply excited about the possibilities opening up for women in her country, but cognizant of the remaining challenges ahead.
Empowering women to be assets and not liabilities in an economic and social system is what makes the issue of women's rights deeply geopolitical.
At Stratfor, we spend a lot of time thinking about demographics in countries and regions and brainstorming what could shift in different areas should geopolitical trends accelerate. The Middle East is full of political systems striving to maintain the status quo. But it's also a region undergoing signficant economic change, driven largely by desires to diversify away from hydrocarbons and boost private sector activity. Such economic change, and the need for states to embrace it and work towards it, means there are structural societal shifts that women can take advantage of in new ways, even if their individual motivations are less economic. Women's activism in the Middle East has never before merited as much attention as it does today.
Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 Depends On Women
Saudi Arabia is one country of particular focus for Stratfor thanks to the rapid pace of economic, social and political change within the kingdom. The government is actively searching for ways to increase economic production, cut down on unemployment and shepherd Saudis toward a common vision. Plugging Saudi women into the system is critical for Saudi Arabia to even partially achieve its Vision 2030 reform plans. New opportunities for Saudi women are being announced all the time now, from the first-ever job training programs in certain fields to discussions about ending the guardianship system (which stipulates that male family members accompany women in certain situations) and the approaching legislation that will allow women to drive.
For the Saudi women who are eager to take advantage of these reforms, there is a clear economic argument for their inclusion in the country's economic system. Although it looks to the West like a gesture toward freedom and it will open up some unprecedented social freedoms to Saudi women, the state is primarily motivated by economic gains. The country's lift of its driving ban for women is a great example of this. Thousands of women will now have the opportunity to work as drivers, thereby replacing foreign expatriates and cutting down on the daily costs families otherwise incur for employing drivers. Car sales are up in the kingdom, and more women will eventually be able to take jobs farther from home, which will increase national labor participation.
International Women's Day is about celebrating how far women have come in fighting for equal rights and representation, as well as acknowledging the full scope of work that still lies ahead. In places like the Middle East, the work ahead remains substantial, but the women of the region are already well-practiced at working skillfully and creatively within tightly constrained systems. As further economic freedom gets introduced to the region, there is no telling what we will see emerge from its populace.
For more on this topic, listen to our related podcast episode on Women and Geopolitics.