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Disingenuous or Not: Reforms in the Gulf Still Offer Opportunities for Women

While the virtuousness of the underlying reasoning is up for debate, the last couple of years have witnessed a surge of reforms allowing women to enter politics in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Saudi Arabia recently appointed its first female Ambassador to the US, part of a general trend of increased participation and gender quotas for women lawmakers in the Gulf. Political opportunities have shifted and have caused governments to implement top-down initiatives that have increased the political participation of women. This pattern is contradictory to both recent headlines and Freedom House reports that cite regresses in freedoms across the region.[1] There is a mixture of strategic reasons for the Gulf states’ deliberate role in empowering women, with two commonly arising. First, the leadership are aware that in order to develop economically they must engage women to have productive economies. Second, gender quotas or increased participation in politics by women are commonly perceived internationally as a signal of equality and freedom. It is palpable that these governments have a strong appetite to economically prevail and to maintain an overall positive image. Yet, the impetus behind these reforms is not necessarily out of good will or due to notions of equality.

For Saudi Arabia, a nation historically criticized for its draconian policies toward women, it is clear that the fallout from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has caused additional pressures to mount. In response to this scandal, the international community has pressed Saudi Arabia on women’s right issues including the release of jailed women activists. [2] Following the scrutiny and international outrage about these jailed activists, we have witnessed the Kingdom’s appointment of Reema bint Bandar Al Saud as its first female Ambassador to one of its most important posts: Washington, DC.[3] At the same time, the Washington Post has nominated its first Khashoggi Fellow, a prominent Saudi scholar and women rights activist Hala Al-Dosari.[4] After the dust settles, it will be interesting to watch how these two Saudi women who sit on opposite sides of Saudi political interests (one establishment royalty, one a grassroots Saudi women’s rights activists) are serving, in their view, the interest of their country by representing two powerful institutions of Washington. Regardless of their positions at opposite ends of the Saudi political spectrum, both women are united in that they each will be viewed, (perhaps unwittingly) as symbolic of gender roles in Saudi Arabia.

As widely acknowledged, Saudi Arabia tends to be the outlier when it comes to women’s rights, mainly because of the guardianship system. This system serves as an oxymoron in light of the appointment of women in politics because at its core guardianship embodies the idea that an individual is incapable of their own decision-making. Therefore, the government appointing women to political positions is antithetical to the foundational principles of the existing institutional arrangement regulating women’s rights. As more women enter into the fray of politics, this paradoxical situation should be at the forefront of reforms.

Similar to Saudi Arabia but for different reasons, other Gulf states have recently experienced political opportunities for women’s participation in politics that often do not receive due attention. As freedom has been decreasing, Gulf states are trying to appear more progressive by advancing the cause of gender equality. For example, you can see this in UAE where the government has instituted a 50% quota for women’s participation in the Federal National Council in 2019. Similarly, in Bahrain, women have experienced historic electoral victories, including the election of Fawziya Zainal, Bahrain’s first Female Speaker of the Council of Representatives.[5]

Another opportunity for women that appears as a proverbial blessing in disguise are those of Qatar and Kuwait, which throughout their respective histories have each found themselves under the threat of outsiders. In both cases, during these times of crisis, there were government-led initiatives to expedite women’s reforms. In the case of Qatar, the blockade has led to an escalated push for reform within the country. Shortly after the blockade in 2017, there were more women appointed to the Shura Council. A similar situation occurred in Kuwait after the Gulf War, when the  Kuwaiti government issued a decree allowing women to participate in politics that was ultimately rejected by parliament. This right finally came in fruition in 2005  when four women were the first to win historic seats in the Kuwaiti parliament.

Notwithstanding advancements, however, the level of female representation in positions of power is not reflective of women’s overall merit as measured by university graduation rates. In fact, in each of the six GCC states, women’s enrollment in university education outnumbers men. For example, in the UAE women comprised 70% of university graduates, and in KSA made up 57%.[6] [7] Also, according to the United Nations, in the remaining four GCC states, the gross enrollment ratio at the tertiary level among women was much higher than among men; in Kuwait 42.66% to 22.97%, in Qatar 51.04% to 6.59%, in Oman 59.69% to 32.77%, and in Bahrain 63.09% to 32.35%.[8] [9] [10] [11] [12]Yet, despite that women are more educated than men, there remains a substantial gap between women’s merits and their attainment of decision-making positions. For example, women comprise only 14% of parliamentary positions across the Gulf, while men have the overwhelming majority of 86% of the positions.

Interestingly, out of all the governments discussed, Kuwait is currently the one with the lowest representation of women in the parliament, in spite of having institutions that most closely resemble a democracy.  Kuwait’s lone female parliamentarian is evocative of a large dilemma of how to disentangle top-down governmental reforms that empower women from these nominally democratic results that seemingly quash women’s participation. For example, among the GCC’s elected parliamentary positions, only 5% were successfully contested by women. This stands in contrast to top-down government legislative appointments, of which 18% have gone to women.[13]

The fact is this dilemma leaves us conflicted. If women are not getting the majority of their representation through the existing electoral opportunities, then the current lack of female representation necessitates that we ask if Gulf societies really have an appetite to serve the cause of gender equality? Assuming this is truly the case, government-led reforms are in some regard helping the status of women. Yet, it is clear in many cases that women reforms are deliberately undertaken for national image-building in order to gain legitimacy in the international community, rather than for the cause of gender equality. However, at the same time, women should seize this opportunity, even if reforms advancing women are in some ways disingenuous.  After all, the more women that get seats at the table, the more society will grow accustomed to it and policymakers can be more vigilant of women’s needs and grievances.



[1] “Freedom in the World 2019”. Freedom House. Retrieved on March 8, 2019 from: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/saudi-arabia

[2] Tamkin, E. “For first time, U.N. Human Rights Council rebukes Saudi Arabia”. The Washington Post. March 7, 2019

[3] Mawal Sidi & Robertson Nick. “Saudi Arabia appoints first female ambassador to the US”. CNN¸ February 25, 2019.

[4] “The Washington Post announces the launch of the Jamal Khashoggi Fellowship”. The Washington Post. February 25, 2019

[5] Nader Al-Wasmi. “Bahrain’s parliament elects first female speaker”. The National. December 13, 2019

[6] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen. “Economic Inclusion in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States. Findings from an Expert Survey”. Baker Institute. P13. April 2018

[7] Meenu Satpreet Sethi. “GCC states need to empower the Arab woman”. Gulf News. February 1, 2017

[8] “UNESCO Country Report, Kuwait”. UNESCO. Retrieved on March 8, 2019 from: http://uis.unesco.org/country/KW

[9] “UNESCO Country Report, Qatar”. UNESCO. Retrieved on March 8, 2019 from: http://uis.unesco.org/country/QA

[10] “UNESCO Country Report, Oman”. UNESCO. Retrieved on March 8, 2019 from: http://uis.unesco.org/country/OM

[11] “UNESCO Country Report, Bahrain”. UNESCO. Retrieved on March 8, 2019 from: http://uis.unesco.org/country/BH

[12] Each United Nations Statistic also includes expatriate populations

[13] According to figures available on Gulf states parliaments’ official websites

Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum. Her area of expertise is on the Gulf region’s geopolitics, US-Gulf relations, and the political economy of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. She is also a Professorial Lecturer at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Dr. Thafer been widely published on matters concerning the Arab Gulf states including several articles and publications. She has co-authored two edited books “The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf States: Trends and Implications” and “The Dilemma of Security and Defense in the Gulf Region”. Dr. Thafer is currently writing a book focused on the effect of state-business relations on economic reform in the GCC states. Previously, she worked at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Dr. Thafer has a master’s degree in Political Economy from New York University, and PhD specialized in the Political Economy and International Relations of the GCC states from American University in Washington, DC.

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