Foreign Policy Blogs

Past, Present, Future: Gulf Women in the Economy


In the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century, one could find men pearl diving, hunting, and taking on labor intensive roles, contributing to the economy of their tribe for the security of their family. Women, too, offered a helping hand, and would fetch water, care for livestock, set up tents and camps, make saddles for markets, heavily supporting the economy of the family and tribe. At that time, the family structure revolved around the survival and security of the tribe, and as a result, women were welcomed into the economy and held roles similar to men.

But with the appearance of oil in the mid-20th century, the structure of the average Arabian family began to change. So, too, did women’s participation in the economy and their societal status.

Alanoud Al Sharekh, a visiting fellow at the London Middle East Institute at SOAS and a former senior political analyst at the Kuwait National Security Bureau, told me, “For many, oil and the inevitable ‘modernization’ projects that would follow its discovery, meant education and then economic opportunities in the labor market. This would eventually translate into greater social independence for the majority of women in the GCC.”

However, for Bedouin families who were once dependent on creating and harvesting for wealth, the industrialization of oil replaced human labor, relieving the woman of her agricultural and laborious duties.

“In the case of Bedouin women it restricted many of their freedoms by forcing them inside of a confined space and rendering their economic contributions,” adds Alanoud.

This fast wealth was considered a blessing insofar as it relieved hardships of tribes and allowed them to feel secure and confident under their monarchs. But the early years of oil discovery and subsequent industrialization pushed many out of traditional lines of work. Men were seen as the providers for their families, so if the men of the household were excluded from direct participation, women were discouraged from working as well.

In both the pre-oil or post-oil eras, women’s rights have been defined by how the family interacts with the economy and, more generally, the community.

Gulf states are generally considered to be collectivist societies — they place loyalty to one’s family or tribe above individual needs. Many considered family to be the building block of the state. Because the family was viewed as a critical part of the nation-building process, the Gulf’s laws placed a great deal of emphasis on the role of family. Take, for instance, the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia’s constitutions:

Article 15 of the United Arab Emirates: “The family is the cornerstone of the community. The law safeguards the family’s existence and maintains and protects it from corruption.”

Article 21 of the Qatar’s Constitution: “The family is the basis of the society. The law shall regulate adequate means to protect the family, support its structure, strengthen its ties, and protect maternity, childhood, and old age.”

Article 9 of Saudi Arabia’s Constitution: “The family is the nucleus of Saudi Society. Members of the family shall be raised in the Islamic Creed, which demands allegiance and obedience to God,” proceeding it, Article 10 shares, “The State shall aspire to promote family bonds and Arab-Islamic values.”

Articles like these are common in collectivist societies, and even some Western societies.

These sentiments are more prevalent in monarchy systems, where tribal leaders serve as representatives of a village. Having these local leaders ensures that a monarch can rule over a large territory while maintaining stability and security. In a way, tribal leaders are to monarchs, as governors are to Washington.

A new force has been introduced that would recalibrate the fabric of family and the woman’s interaction with economy — globalization. The rise of globalization has pitted individual interests against those of the collective. Prior to globalization, “family” was one’s tribe; since globalization, “family” is viewed more in the context of the nuclear family, as tribal security became less of a determinant of family’s survival.

Exposure to globalization has brought a new, exciting energy to these societies, increased international communication, and introduced more opportunities, and has lifted the nuclear family from its societal or tribal bonds and made it one with the global community. This trend is an international one, not solely Arab – and not a force correlated to Westernization.

Karen Elliot House, the author of On Saudi Arabia, documents a remark from an unnamed U.S.-educated Saudi:

“Society does. Now that we have moved to cities, it is the family rather than the tribe who controls our behavior with unwritten rules. So we do not have freedom or we will lose the support and protection of the family.”

Globalization’s effect on social structures is a double-edge sword. It brings these states into an era of modernization — one that is more reliant on global currents and less dependent on societal pressures. This trend has relieved the woman of some obstacles, but it also places the responsibility for women’s rights first on the nuclear family, rather than the tribe or government. If the region wants more women’s inclusion, families can’t just put the blame on the government but have to prove the majority of families are openly supportive of their women.

Many Bedouin families and women within them have clung to tradition as they are less exposed to international norms. However, for the many others the post-oil wealth and economic climate it brought increased “modernization projects,” which, according to Alanoud, “would eventually translate into greater social independence for the majority of women in the GCC, and a break with patriarchal traditions of women confined to the domestic sphere.”

Homes and compounds are becoming smaller, the practice of polygamy is decreasing, support of equal gender rights is increasing, and funding is pouring into high quality education systems — all of which have given families more reason to push for women’s inclusion in society. The family itself is becoming less moved by societal pressures, and more moved by international currents through globalization and social media. This concoction has created a violent collision between modernization and traditionalism — one that will lead to greater inclusion.

Alanoud describes the growing allure of women’s participation in the economy of which post-oil and globalization brought:

“Most women want to be socially and economically independent, regardless of their families wealth. The reality for all but a small percentage of GCC families is that a dual income household is necessary for a comfortable life, so working spouses are more desirable than stay at home mothers because of their ability to contribute. An educated and exposed woman will more often than not find a niche to fill whether in the private or public sector, and there is an economic need for greater female inclusion in the GCC labor markets.”

Careful not to mark this current a Western phenomenon, globalization has made women’s rightful and necessary participation in the economy more attractive and politically viable.

One product of globalization, social media, has allowed for exposure to trends, ideologies and communication — something many in the Gulf region couldn’t access due to physical immobility. Also, those who have chosen to use their wealth on travels have become more exposed to foreign norms, and have brought new-found social tolerance and understanding back home.

The status quo structure of society is being challenged. This is what has simultaneously challenged and embraced women, and for what it’s worth, they are powering through obstacles that governments and stakeholders once deemed a threat to stability, proving their female participation is a solution to the region’s sustainability and security. Between 1980–2000, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s women labor force doubled; in the UAE and Oman it tripled. This is substantial given the new independence and exposure of these countries, comparatively speaking, a pace of women’s inclusion more rapid than the West. Each year there are more women in CEO and high official positions, climbing the ladder, which is increasingly supported by the men of their society.

As governments are looking for sustainability and survival beyond oil, they are acknowledging the urgency for greater women’s inclusion. Contrary to popular belief, greater demands and freedoms by women is no surprise to governments, as the wealth post-oil was used to embark on robust development, and many of the ruling families focused on advancing women’s education. Women have not only become more engaged in society but are pursuing higher-education, which is supported by the government. Women are getting married later and are itching to apply their education to a career. Human capital in the Gulf is growing, and the family structure is changing for the better because of this.

The problem the region faces today, though, is the coexistence of rising individualism in a region that has embraced a traditional form of collectivism for some time.

If families – as they are at the core of the nation – support the economic inclusion of women, then this will expedite the pace of women’s inclusion they so desire. The government is a monarchy, but if the people push collectively while refraining from crass rhetoric toward conservatives, this will eventually lead to societal change – and even inspire Gulf ruling families to confront hardliners with confidence.

Still, the Gulf cannot afford to backpedal. The longer women are excluded from economic activity, the more groups will pop up and rally support around this issue to gain power, which could threaten established systems. It is a threat to the society and stability of all Gulf States if women remain a question mark for too long.



Sarah Elzeini

Sarah recently returned from Qatar where she worked in the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS), contributing to multiple projects, from the Changing Security Dynamics of the Persian Gulf, Arab Youth, to Cyberspace and Digital Communication in the Middle East.

Sarah holds a BSFS in International Politics from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. She comes from a multi-cultural American family, which has led to her open understanding of Middle East Affairs and U.S. foreign policy. She is also a passionate supporter of international development and women and youth empowerment.

Additionally, she has worked as Coordinator of Cultural Affairs for a music organization based in NYC, branched in Doha, Qatar; bringing together East and West cultures and stressing the importance of the cultural narratives that art and music brings.

Follow her on Twitter @SarahElzeini