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Which GCC country is closing the Middle East gender gap?

The top 3 countries in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “Global Gender Gap Report 2017,” which benchmarked 144 countries on their progress towards gender parity, were the freezing cold nations of Iceland, Norway and Finland.

The Middle East came last, with the GCC fairing very poorly, including the UAE at 120th position, Saudi Arabia at 138th and Qatar at 130th. It seems that those stiflingly hot climate countries have not warmed enough to the ideas that women are as effective as men are in the workplace and that the cost of sidelining them is hefty.

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However, don’t take that at face value. Saudi has lately made clear moves towards narrowing that gap, more aggressively than its GCC counterparts, but why is the Middle East still so far behind?

WEF and the Middle East

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) scored the poorest, with the highest ranking Arab nation being Tunisia in 117th, followed by the United Arab Emirates in 120th position.

At a global level, in 2017, four regions have a remaining gender gap of less than 30 per cent. The MENA region, for the first time this year, has a remaining gender gap of slightly less than 40 per cent.

“The Middle East and North Africa region continues to rank last globally on the overall Index, but the region’s best-performing countries this year are Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, having closed between 65 per cent and 63 per cent of their overall gender gaps,” said WEF.

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“The United Arab Emirates sees notable improvements on gender parity in ministerial positions and wage equality for similar work, and Bahrain  records a sizeable increase in gender parity in estimated earned income,” it said.

Kuwait (129th) witnesses notable improvements in gender parity in professional and technical workers as well as healthy life expectancy, but records a decline in wage equality for similar work and women’s share of estimated earned income.

The WEF said that Saudi Arabia re-closed its gender gap in enrolment in primary education and witnessed some progress in gender parity for professional and technical workers. However, it also experienced a modest decline in wage equality for similar work and women’s share of estimated earned income.

“It has recorded the region’s largest improvement on the overall Index over the past decade, as well as the second-largest relative improvement globally on the Economic.”

A recent report by Financial Times reported that 67 per cent of university graduates in Kuwait were women, along with 63 per cent in Qatar and 57 per cent in Saudi Arabia, yet only four per cent of all firms in the MENA region were majority-owned by women and only five per cent of firms were led by women.

Despite saying some kind words about the Saudi Kingdom, did the WEF overlook recent Saudi efforts to close the gender gap?

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Saudi drive for gender parity

No country has lately been in the news on women issues more than Saudi Arabia.

In brief, the ban on Saudi women drivers was lifted last September, as part of Saudi displaying more openness to provide Saudi women with the tools they need to compete and thrive, starting with sports.

On October 13, 2017 Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan was appointed the first woman to head a federation as President of the Community Sports Union, and the government has begun granting licenses for women-only gyms.

Saudi women are taking over previously male-dominated posts. On September 25, a female was appointed Assistant Mayor of Al-Khobar Municipality.

Last February, NCB Capital Co-Chief Executive Officer Sarah Al Suhaimi became the first woman to chair Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange, the largest stock market in the Middle East.

In that same month, Rania Nashar was named Chief Executive of Samba Financial Group, becoming the first female CEO of a listed Saudi commercial bank, and Latifa Al-Sabhan was appointed Chief Financial Officer of Arab National Bank (ANB).

Costly findings

The WEF report indicated a global lack of progress and momentum stalling in 2017, following years of tangible movement towards tightening the gender gap.

It will now take 100 years to close the gender gap, dramatically up from the 83 years estimated just a year ago, with the number for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) being 157 years.

In the workplace alone, “we’ll have to wait another 217 years,” the report said.

Reaching gender parity is profitable. The McKinsey Global Institute found that supporting women’s economic advancement could add $12trn to global GDP by 2025.

The WEF says that East Asia and the Pacific reportedly loses between $42bn and $47bn annually, due to women’s limited access to employment opportunities and quotes research by the World Bank that similar restrictions have also imposed sizable costs throughout the MENA.

A report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that $1trn dollars in additional output could have been possible, if MENA governments had narrowed the gender gap between 2000 and 2011. An IMF report found that if Egypt leveled the economic playing field, it could boost its GDP by 34 per cent.

WEF said: “The rate of progress for women has been slow. Over the past decade, the proportion of female leaders has increased by an average of just over two per cent across 12 industries studied.”