The economic stability of the Middle East has been recently defined with the continued waves of upheaval in a post-Arab Spring environment. Bessma Momani’s latest policy briefing, “Equality and the Economy: Why the Arab world should employ more women”, elaborates on how governments in the Middle East have dropped the ball in utilizing the potential of women. Brookings Doha Center communications assistant, Sumaya Attia, sat down with Momani, to discuss how specific policy changes can alleviate certain economic struggles in the Arab world.
Sumaya Attia (SA): Your policy briefing covered female employment in the Middle East and the lack of representation women have in the workforce. After the Arab Spring in 2011, how significant do you think this is in regards to the economy?
Bessma Momani (BM): Well, women make up 52 percent of the population in the Middle East. It’s a huge part of the economy. In effect, you are basically undermining, or at least, undervaluing, the potential of half of your economy. I think if you were to ask any businessperson and say, “Did you know that you are undervaluing 50% of the capability that you have right under your nose”, they would be alarmed and want to change it to increase their revenue. The same applies to government. The government needs to realize that half of their society is underutilized. Think of the prosperity potential if they were actually able to do more to make sure women had equal opportunity to be a part of the economy.
(SA): You mentioned prosperity. How can introducing a more diverse workplace help benefit economic growth in the Middle East?
(BM): From a basic level, studies show that when you bring diversity into a workplace, including more women, cultural diversity, age differences, etc.; you actually come up with more innovative, creative products and services. Companies recognize this. When you look at Google, they put together diverse teams to ensure success of their products and ideas. They know when you put people that are alike in a room, they don’t always come up with good ideas. They basically just reaffirm each other. If you want to have good ideas, you need diversity. If you are just producing ideas that only cater to 47 percent of society, then you’re not taking advantage of that part of the society that could better understand the needs of the other half of society. When women have full access to participate in the economy, we find that they are very innovative, they have successful businesses and they produce.
(SA): In Saudi Arabia, 21 percent of women had joined the labor force as of 2016, which doubled their rate of participation in the last few years. How can this increase in female participation be explained? Why are more women joining the labor force now?
(BM): There is a societal demand for it. Women are increasingly very educated in Saudi Arabia. Many women are going abroad and are coming back with degrees. University enrollment of women is very high. You have a demand from the bottom up. Despite popular belief, Saudi Arabians are not all rich. There are people in the country who are financially insecure and need a double income. Women are now an important segment to the family income that just didn’t exist before, under times of prosperity. There are also demands because young women who are educated want to be part of the workforce.
(SA): Has there been a change in policies that allow these demands to come into fruition?
(BM): Yes. Certain sectors have now opened up to women that have previously prohibited women to enter. We have also seen a rise of home-based businesses that allow women to work remotely. But Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country that has full gender segregation. Imagine if you could eliminate some of the stricter aspects of gender segregation, including the most notorious, which is not allowing women to drive. Women who cannot get to their workplace cannot work and this is a huge impediment to Saudi women. Making these little tweaks could have a huge benefit to Saudi Arabia.
(SA): What are the different ways women themselves can help pave their own way in the workforce?
(BM) It’s not incumbent on women because there are legal and cultural barriers, which are far more difficult than legal barriers. But there are real policy problems that need to be fixed which is incumbent on governments to solve. This includes the legal challenges, such as gender segregation. However, it also includes things like retirement age, property rights, and transportation, which still remains a huge problem. The challenge is for governments to understand that safe transportation for women is a huge impediment to the success of their economies. This requires public investment and infrastructure. It can even require gender-segregated transportation to ensure safer ways for women to travel. We can also increase fines and make it a real crime for harassing women. This is still a big problem in the Middle East. This is really about governments that need to make changes. Once the governments can make those changes, culture will slowly start to change.
(SA): The Arab Spring as well as the current conflict in Syria are just two examples of how conflict can be completely disabling for the economy. How do you go about employing women if employing men is considered top priority? What are your recommendations going forward?
(BM) When you have a civil war or a complete breakdown of law and order, it can be difficult to talk about some of these policy changes. It’s understandable, that in places like Aleppo or Libya or Yemen, things are too much in the extreme to do anything immediately. Ensuring overall safety and security of civilians is the first priority. But this cannot be the excuse forever. The lesson to be learned from the Arab Spring is that people are hungry for change. Economic issues are the primary concern. This is an opportunity for governments to recognize that if they can get the economy right, people will be far more satisfied and be more willing to talk about secondary issues. However, the economy is the priority. The policy capacity is in the hands of the governments to foster an economic growth strategy that includes the talent in their country, which also means women.