In recent years, Gulf countries have adopted national strategies and visions to diversify their economies away from oil. The UAE’s Vision 2021 and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 have both focused on women’s empowerment vis-à-vis the workforce, in addition to certain high-profile appointments in government. Furthermore, women’s role in these projects has been essential in constructing a national identity in line with the state’s development aspirations while showcasing a positive image of progress to an international audience. As a result, Emirati and Saudi women have increasingly been depicted as “partners” in the development of their countries. This emphasis on partnership is crucial as it highlights women’s increasing importance for their countries’ economic prosperity and image-making. While the UAE and Saudi Arabia are on similar trajectories, the difference in size as well as the level of diversity in their populations has impacted timing and policy choices differently.
The United Arab Emirates: From Women Empowerment Towards Gender Balance
In the UAE, women’s role has over time been adopted in the construction of an Emirati national identity that portrays them as both “authentic” and “modern”. This duality is important for UAE citizens who needed to connect to the uniqueness of being Emirati while remaining relatable to the large expatriate community living in the country. The attention given to Emirati women’s role has also gradually shifted from its centrality in the emerging national narrative to one that focuses on the UAE’s modernization efforts. This effort has been both domestically driven as well as geared towards image-making internationally. The appointment of the first female Emirati cabinet minister in 2004 was meant to illustrate the UAE’s development achievements while — at the same time — utilizing this appointment as a role model strategy to encourage more female employment in government positions.
In 2015, the UAE established the Gender Balance Council, which, among its objectives, is meant to enhance the country’s ranking in global competitiveness reports. The UAE also announced the commemoration of Emirati Women’s Day, to be celebrated on August 28th, which has become an annual showcase of female achievements in the country. The following year, seven out of the 29 cabinet positions were allotted to Emirati women, including the youngest government minister for youth affairs, a minister of happiness, as well as a minister of state for tolerance. The number of women in the government sector has since increased, as they now account for 66 percent of government sector workers, 30 percent of which are in leadership positions. These data demonstrate the UAE’s shift in efforts and discourse from focusing on women’s empowerment to supporting gender balance —even though such efforts remain mostly concentrated in the public sector.
Women in Saudi Arabia’s Narrative: Nation-Builders and Image-Makers
Saudi Arabia’s deployment of women in the emerging national narrative and in efforts to diversify the economy has taken some inspiration from its neighbour. However, unlike the UAE where women’s role shifted gradually from nation-building to image-making, Saudi women are simultaneously playing both roles, as highlighted in national celebrations and international events hosted by the kingdom. Since 2016, the Saudi leadership has significantly curbed the role of religious scholars in order to open up the country and detach it from the religious identity it once fostered. This has allowed the government to use women as the face of authenticity and modernization necessary to attract tourism and international investments. This twofold emphasis has been on display in recent events, such as the international Saudi Cup horserace and the kingdom’s inaugural celebration of its Founding Day in early 2022. These and other occasions offer a unique blend of authentic local Saudi content with modern (and international) aspirations. The dual role women play at these high-profile events is meant to showcase Saudi Arabia’s diversity while simultaneously highlighting the fast-paced modernization of the kingdom.
The kingdom’s ability to utilize women in Vision 2030 has benefited from the modest, yet important, reforms introduced during King Abdullah’s reign between 2005 and 2015. One of his significant contributions was a scholarship programme, established in 2005, which specifically enabled women to study abroad, even though it still required their guardian’s consent. It ultimately allowed many Saudi women to pursue higher education in various fields at different international institutes. This helped create a national talent pool that came in handy for the new Saudi leadership’s aspirations related to international image-making and Vision 2030. Many of these women are now depicted as symbols of the kingdom’s progress through their passion for filmmaking, acting, racing, and yoga teaching, among many other professions. The government has now changed the scholarship programme into one that focuses on certain sectors in line with the Vision 2030’s goals. This is especially true for arts and culture, in which the Saudi leadership is investing immensely.
Nonetheless, female employment in Saudi Arabia is still a more nuanced story. Women’s role in the workforce has traditionally been focused on education and healthcare, due in large part to the country’s conservative society. This factor, combined with the kingdom’s large population, has for decades contributed to low workforce participation among women. While female unemployment remains high to this day, the last two years have seen massive efforts from the government to increase the female workforce, especially in the private sector. However, unlike the UAE, Saudi women’s employment in government has not increased at the same rate. This includes leadership positions, where the number remains limited, accounting for only 2.5 percent.
Women in Diplomacy: (also) A Tale of Countries’ Image-Making
An interesting demonstration of the importance of women and image-making can be found on the global stage at diplomatic missions. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have made similar efforts to increase female employment in their diplomatic service. Women make up over 40 percent of the UAE foreign ministry’s workforce, including 30 percent of the diplomatic corps, and in 2021 women accounted for 60 percent of graduates from the diplomatic academy. The UAE has appointed nine female ambassadors, the latest appointed in 2021 as ambassador to France. Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry began to employ women in 2008 in an attempt to increase female representation in diplomatic mission. The ministry has appointed three female ambassadors in the past three years to the United States, Norway, and Sweden (also accredited to Iceland). The appointment of a female ambassador to the U.S. in 2019 was meant to improve ties amid tensions between the two countries following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The appointment of female ambassadors in Scandinavian countries is also not a coincidence, as it helps highlight the kingdom’s stride towards greater gender inclusion in nations known to be especially engaged on the issue.
Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia believe they have achieved great progress in their efforts toward women empowerment and gender balance and are actively promoting their achievements. The UAE highlights its accomplishment in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap as well as its 24th ranking on the 2021 global Women Peace and Security Index. Saudi media and the kingdom’s official (and unofficial) social media accounts constantly emphasize new gains for women empowerment, especially in new or uncommon sectors such as the military and sports. Moreover, the kingdom has enacted several legal reforms since 2017 which have contributed to achieving higher scores related to “women, business and the law” than the regional average, according to the latest World Bank report.
Gulf Women and “Vision” Plans: Partnering Towards Power?
The patriarchal system that came to characterise the relationship between citizens and their leadership sustained a social contract specific to the Gulf. This arrangement has become difficult to maintain in the current transition to a post-oil era. Diversification strategies are not only weakening the social contract but are increasingly expecting citizens to contribute, a process which was further accelerated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The emphasis on women as “partners” rather than simply “actors” in this changing environment has facilitated increased female participation in many sectors, which in turn has contributed to increased rankings on different development indicators. UAE women’s role has changed gradually, yet significantly, to accommodate for a small and relatively homogenous population. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s vast territory makes it home to a diverse population that allows the state to pick and choose from a large pool of highly educated women. As such, the process of drawing on these resources to take part in the kingdom’s modernization efforts are just underway.
Overall, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have come a long way in incorporating women in the workforce and certain high-profile positions. However, an important distinction should be made between being in position versus a position of power. Today, there is little doubt that the emphasis should be on position – be it in government, arts, culture, sports, and the military – rather than power. But compared to just a few years — let alone decades — ago, the difference is stark and can serve as a barometer of progress for both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.