Amid widespread and often heated contemporary debates about an existential ‘clash’ between the ‘Islamic World’ and the ‘Christian West’, there is growing evidence that Arabic-Muslim women are already playing much more influential roles in their societies and national economies.
My recent book, A Quiet Revolution: the Rise of Women managers, Business Owners and Leaders in the Arabian Gulf States, describes a transformation that is taking place in the lives of tens of thousands of university-educated Muslim women in three Arabian Gulf States: the United Arab Emirates, Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It documents the growing economic power and civic influence of these women, the effects of these changes on ancient and deeply held Islamic religious and cultural beliefs, and how attitudes towards the ‘correct’ roles of women in these societies and in public and private-sector organisations are changing and evolving in unexpected and surprising ways. It also describes the major contribution that women could make to the economic and political development of these countries and the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in the future.
While there are many legal, ethical and moral reasons for doing more to emancipate and empower women in this part of the world, there is now a well-established and very robust economic case for doing this. Indeed, in an academic career spanning twenty-five years, I cannot recall any other issue over which there is such a degree of unanimity among scholars from a variety of cultural and disciplinary backgrounds and many other non-academic commentators with different ideological and economic viewpoints. The strong economic rationale for increasing the participation of women in regional labour markets is explained in the book and the business case for encouraging greater gender diversity in public and private-sector organisations in the UAE, Oman, the KSA and the broader MENA region is also described in detail. I, and many other commentators, now believe that it is these reasons – more than anything else – that will eventually compel all governments in this region to initiate the national legal reforms that will allow many more women to participate as equals with men in their societies, economies and workplaces.
While there is understandable trepidation among conservative Muslim men about the emancipation and empowerment of women, the countries of the MENA region must embrace the legal, regulatory and labour-market reforms that are necessary prerequisites for creating gender-diverse and inclusive labour-markets and workforces in the near future. While it is widely acknowledged that it will be very difficult for countries in the MENA region to modernise and diversify their national economies (and their moribund autocratic and rentier political systems), if they are to have sustainable and secure economic futures it is essential that they do so and women must be allowed to play a bigger role in this transition during the 2020s and 2030s.