Women are key to economic growth in MENA region

There is clear evidence that confirms the positive relationship between women’s involvement in the job market and overall growth.
Sunday 18/02/2018
Saudi woman talks on her phone during the “MiSK Global Forum” held under the slogan “Meeting the Challenge of Change” in Riyadh, last November. (AFP)
Driving force. Saudi woman talks on her phone during the “MiSK Global Forum” held under the slogan “Meeting the Challenge of Change” in Riyadh, last November. (AFP)

“The Economy” is a seemingly innocuous term; however, democratic elections in the free world are invariably won on the issue of the economy.

US President Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the United States was underpinned by his ability to soothe the economic grievances of those in the Rust Belt. Outside established democracies, the longevity and sustenance of other forms of government are dependent on good economic performance.

The “Arab spring,” in large part, was fuelled by a perfect storm of economic grievances in the MENA region. In Iran, the recent disquiet was based on economic grievances and the cost of living with reference to everyday items such as meat, eggs and bread.

The MENA region faces economic challenges. Morocco hosted a conference exploring policies to improve economic growth and inclusiveness in the Arab world. The consensus was that the Arab world must do more to foment appropriate job-generating policies in a region where 25% of young people are jobless and where young people form a larger percentage of the population in comparison to Western countries.

At the Marrakech conference, a document outlining priorities was drafted on how to achieve transparency, improve governance and tackle corruption with an emphasis on reducing red tape to encourage trade. There were welcomed observations on the need to strengthen legal rights to empower disadvantaged groups such as youth, refugees and women.

The issue of women’s rights in the Arab world has not been viewed from an economic prism. The involvement of women in the workplace is the key to economic growth.

Restrictive measures on women, particularly in the workplace, are by no means exclusive to the Arab world. The World Bank says 155 countries have placed limits on women in the workplace, including spousal consent requirements and restrictions on the number of hours among many other shackles.

In Russia, women cannot seek employment in 465 prescribed occupations from woodworking to driving on the subway. Legislation in Argentina prevents women from entering “dangerous” careers such as mining and distilling alcohol. Even in France, the law prevents women from being employed in jobs that require the regular carrying of 25 kilograms.

In June, Saudi Arabia will make it legal for women to drive ending a ban ridiculed around the world for its restrictive nature. Saudi reformists recognise that ambitions of economic growth and diversifying the economy cannot get ahead if half of their human capital is left behind.

There is clear evidence that confirms the positive relationship between women’s involvement in the job market and overall growth. In 2013, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that a more gender-balanced economy typically boosts GDP by an estimated 12%. The International Monetary Fund made a similar prediction in which, for example, more female economic involvement could produce GDP gains of 34% in Egypt.

A 2015 report by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 if all countries took measures to close gender gaps in the workplace. It is no surprise, therefore, that reform is under way with more than 94 legal reforms on the statute books of 65 countries in the past two years. These legal changes are designed to increase female access in the labour force.

Notwithstanding this immense progress, the World Bank estimated that 90% of the world’s economies have at least one law that hampers access to the workplace for women and the Arab world, in general, is behind other regions in this area.

Saudi Arabia’s lifting of the driving ban seems like a small step. However, such a step represents progress that could change societal attitudes in seismic fashion by shattering profound societal prejudices. This, coupled with other reforms such as Saudi Arabia’s reservation of 20% of its seats for women on the Shura Legislative Council, signifies a much-welcomed form of progress.

After all, women earn more than half of all graduate degrees in Saudi Arabia but only represent 20% of the workforce. This represents a brain drain that needs to be addressed. It is encouraging that increasing women’s participation in the workforce forms an integral part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 economic programme.

Enough with the conferences, meetings and unnecessary reports and memoranda; there is a one-word answer to greater economic growth in the MENA region: women.

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