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Advancing Women’s Political Representation in Gulf Governance

Executive Summary

This report examines the policies and strategies utilized by the Gulf Cooperation Council states to increase the political representation of women in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) consists of six nations: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since the late 1990s, GCC states have pursued various initiatives to increase women’s representation in national politics. This action represents the convergence of a heightened domestic policy focus on women’s rights and the solidification of gender-equitable political representation as a global development objective.1 This report examines the efficacy, magnitude, substantiality, and impact of these strategies on rates of women’s representation across branches of government in Gulf states.

Analysis of national case studies reveals regional trends crucial to understanding the strategies leveraged by Gulf nations, the barriers to women’s participation, and the status of women’s representation in governance since the turn of the 21st century. Regional analysis revealed:

Gulf states have achieved a significant increase in women’s political representation.

In the past three decades, the GCC states enfranchised women and facilitated a historic increase in women’s political participation.2 Though gains have occurred across branches of government, they are largely concentrated in legislatures. In the 21st century, the average rate of women’s representation in Gulf legislative bodies increased by nearly 15 percentage points. This increase indicates an unprecedented degree of political and societal will to enable women’s participation in national governance.

GCC nations have started the practice of gender mainstreaming.

Arab Gulf nations have begun the pursuit of gender mainstreaming, the integration and consideration of gender equity in the formulation of domestic policy.4 Gulf states have included gender equity goals in national development plans and established governmental organizations responsible for women’s affairs.5 These initiatives illustrate a growing recognition of the centrality of gender equity to effective governance.

Disparities in women’s representation between elected and appointed houses in bicameral parliaments remain.

In the Omani and Bahraini legislatures, the only bicameral parliaments in the region, rates of women’s participation in the elected lower house are significantly smaller than the appointed upper house. Currently, this disparity is roughly fifteen percent in Oman and 7.5 percent in Bahrain.6 This discrepancy contradicts the assertion that appointments quickly normalize women’s political participation and reduce the impediments to women’s electoral success. Instead, it exposes the continued existence of barriers to women’s participation in elected bodies, and reveals differential governmental and societal sentiment regarding women’s representation in legislatures.7

Women are starkly underrepresented in regional judiciaries.

Representation reached nine percent in Bahrain, but remains at one percent or less in the rest of the GCC states.8 This underrepresentation is a response to the dominant focus of media, international development organizations, and academia on women’s participation in legislatures at the expense of cabinets and judiciaries.9

Quotas have not facilitated cross-branch gains in rates of women’s representation.

The Saudi state has thus far confined women’s political participation to the Shura Council, with no women serving in ministerial positions and one woman serving in a quasi-judicial position.10 In the United Arab Emirates, women amount to 16.6 percent of the cabinet and less than one percent of the judiciary despite 50 percent representation in the Federal National Council. This data denotes that quota implementation does not effortlessly generate cross-body gains in women’s political participation.

The region is overly dependent on appointments as a strategy to increase women’s political participation.

Highly publicized appointments have been the primary strategy utilized by Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait to increase women’s political representation. However, data from these nations confirms that isolated appointments do not engender meaningful, stable levels of representation.

Instances of state co-optation of women’s empowerment occur.

Across the region, Gulf nations utilize women’s political participation as a strategy to strengthen and legitimate the power of the state. This calculated, and at times superficial, engagement with women’s political empowerment is a response to GCC states’ awareness of international pressure to democratize and liberalize.

Based upon the aforementioned analysis and consideration of regional and global best practices, the report recommends a series of policy actions to encourage the consolidation, diversification, and strengthening of women’s political participation in GCC states. These recommendations are substantiated by the binding commitments made by Gulf nations to ensure women’s full participation in public life and by the robust body of evidence indicating the positive effects of women’s representation on governance at large. The GCC states, international development organizations, and academics are recommended to:

  • Shift focus to cross-branch strategies to increase, equalize, and diversify women’s political representation across forms of governance.
  • Explore barriers and solutions to women’s electoral success.
  • Pursue substantive, accountability-driven strategies with clear numerical commitments for rates of women’s representation.
  • Make efforts to diversify the voices amplified by appointment to reflect socio-economic, racial, ethnic, linguistic, ideological, and cultural diversity.

The findings from this research enable comprehensive understanding of the effectiveness of the divergent policies and regional strategies utilized by Gulf states to increase women’s political representation. Further, they elucidate the present gaps in political empowerment. This research allows the reformation of policy and resource provision of states and intergovernmental organizations to address areas of underrepresentation and encourage continued development in women’s representation.

Read full report here

Sheridan Cole is a Visiting Research Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a Boren Scholar. Her research interest is focused on gender representation in the Gulf’s political systems.

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