Nazneen Akbari
Last updated: 23 July, 2013

Is the MENA region equipped to handle a new culture among women?

By 2022, one billion women will enter the world's workforce, but what makes the women labor in the MENA region particularly distinct?

The MENA workforce is heralding a change.

In recent years, we have seen a new women’s culture emerge; they are educated, inspired by their bold womenfolk during the recent and current uprisings, increasingly syncing with social media and a majority are affluent potential investors. The latter are the GCC women who account for 20.2 percent of the GCC’s wealth, a figure that is expected to grow by 15 percent in the next 10 years.

However, employment among these women hovers at just 25 percent, compared with 50 percent worldwide. Astonishing is the high rate of public expenditure on education in the region which tops global average by 4.4 percent. This has created a generation of educated women that MENA countries have wisely invested in, but are still not utilizing as an engine for growth.

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The Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, Dr Nemat Shafiq, confirms that despite admirable increases in education, employment in MENA was at a low of 18 percent in 1990 but has risen by three percent since, hitting 21 percent in 2010.

Speaking at the fifth annual Women In Leadership Forum in Dubai, she highlights the huge variations across countries in the MENA. “Women employment is high in Qatar, Kuwait and UAE but incredibly low in Iraq, Algeria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.” Egypt was the worst performer, with women employment dropping from 25 percent to 22 percent between 1990-2012.

In contrast, levels in UAE rose to 59 percent in 2012, 42.5 percent in Kuwait and 36.4 percent in Qatar, according to Booz & Company, a global consulting firm.

“Cultural factors and massive ignorance about women’s position in Islam are impediments to employment,” says Saudi Princess Reem Mohammad Al Faisal Al Saud during an interview with Naseba, a deal facilitator and organizer of the annual WIL forum.

“As the Muslim world became poorer and ignorant, they also became ignorant of their own history, their own religion and therefore women suffered,” says the granddaughter of late King Faisal, while citing women icons in early Islam.

“Our benchmark country is Malaysia,” adds the Chairperson of Sharjah Business Women Council, Ameera Bin Karam.  

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“It is the most progressive environment and we totally relate to them as a country that relates to ours. Not so much in our culture but our religion. With the same limitations, same challenges, same education levels, same mindsets, Malaysian women due to the support of the government and the private sector have advanced significantly.”

A similar approach of broadening opportunities within the private sector of the MENA region is required.

“45 percent of employment is in the public sector, that ranges from a low of 10 percent in Morocco to as high as 80 percent in GCC,” said the IMF official. “In 2012, the economies of oil exporting countries grew by six percent, as oil prices soared, however, 2013 is predicted to be a year of decline”.

GCC women’s net worth is currently $224 billion and if given the right opportunities, these potential investors can add enormous value to the private sectors of their country.

Paramount is the direct and indirect influence of the current uprisings on this mobilizing workforce. Armed with Internet access and social media, they are politically and legally conscious of their environment. The Arab Social Media Report heralds women as the ‘main drivers for regional change’, with their social media use far more focused on networking, accessing information, looking for work and activism.

Despite this momentum, international media is often criticized for creating negative perceptions about Arab women. Diffusing such remarks, BBC’s presenter for Middle East Report, Nima Al Wardeh, says, “If a woman is truly empowered she will do what she truly wants to do within her parameters. If countries and people want to deal with what media is saying about certain issues, they need to fix those issues.”

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