The Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018.

Arab youth support puts women in the driving seat

Mina Al-Oraibi

Mina Al-Oraibi

Mina Al-Oraibi is the Editor-in-Chief of The National, a daily English-language newspaper based in Abu Dhabi. An Iraqi-British journalist, Mina has more than 15 years of experience covering Middle Eastern, European and American current affairs. Prior to joining The National, she was a Senior Fellow at the Institute for State Effectiveness. At ISE, Mina worked on developing policy recommendations for improved governance in the Arab world, with a focus on Iraq and Syria. She was previously the Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Alawsat. In 2015, Mina was a Yale World Fellow and she is a trustee of the American University in Iraq – Sulaimani. Mina was named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2009.

No society can meet its aspirations for growth and advancement with half of its population hindered. That theory is generally accepted in the Arab world when it comes to the place of women in society and the workforce. However, putting that theory into practice remains a challenge. Legislation in areas of civic rights, as well as workforce participation and cultural barriers all require improvement in the Arab world, albeit at varying levels according to the countries, cities and towns involved.

The title of this year’s Arab Youth Survey, ‘A Decade of Hopes & Fears’, is fitting for women of the region. There has been significant progress in certain countries allowing for hopes of continued improvements. However, for those countries suffering from conflict and war, it has been a decade of fears. In countries like Iraq and Syria, hard won rights are being threatened by militants. While Tunisia and the UAE topped advancement in women’s rights last year, according to the WEF’s Gender Gap Report, Yemen and Syria witnessed a regression as wars continue to rage there. In other countries with weakened economies, women’s fears for their futures and those of their children are high.

And yet, there has been one particular country with marked changes: Saudi Arabia.

Last September witnessed a landmark moment with the decision in Riyadh to allow women to drive, as part of necessary reforms to ensure economic transformation – and the success of the new Crown Prince’s signature Vision 2030.

Removing the decades-old ban comes as part of a wider series of social reforms that impact women, including allowing them to serve in the army and the return of physical education to girls’ schools. All of these decisions allow for an expanded place for women in the public sphere.

It is no surprise that 88 per cent of those surveyed in the Arab Youth Survey support the Saudi government’s decision to allow women to drive cars. However, it is also telling that 17 per cent of Saudi women participating in the survey opposed the move. The idea that over a sixth of young Saudi women would oppose the decision reflects an ultraconservative minority that cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, close to a fifth of Saudi young men also oppose it. And yet there is wideranging buy-in for the move that has been discussed and postponed for years.

The ban on Saudi women driving has been the most evident challenge to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia for those observing the Kingdom from abroad. That is understandable as it is an issue that is visible and can easily be identified and associated with – so it has become a good barometer for the wider discussion on women’s rights in the region. However, some in Saudi circles will say that the driving ban itself is over-emphasised as an obstacle, and that there needs to be greater advancements of rights related to work and travel which will require further steps.

The need for greater efforts to improve women’s rights is a theme across the Arab world. The overwhelming majority of young Arabs surveyed say more needs to be done to advance ‘the personal freedoms and human rights of women’. The highest number of those demanding these changes was among young Saudi men, 92 per cent of whom said more needs to be done. So, while Saudi Arabia has lagged behind previously on women’s issues, it is their youth who are most vocal in calling for the advancement of women’s rights. It is a call that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has heard and is clearly heeding in the reforms he has championed.

Surprisingly, only 76 per cent of young people from North Africa agreed with the Survey’s position on the need to do more to advance ‘the personal freedoms and human rights of women’. In Tunisia, women’s rights are the most advanced in the region, while Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco remain more conservative. Close to a quarter of North Africa’s youth need to be encouraged to advance women’s rights, an issue usually tied in with greater civic rights and more stable societies.

The issue of education and literacy is closely tied to personal freedoms and the economic advancement of women. One of the more remarkable traits of the region is the interest of young women in STEM subjects. In the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, more than 60 per cent of graduates in the sciences are women.

And yet according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in the US, the Arab world has the lowest number of women in the workforce – estimated to be just 22.5 per cent. Workforce participation and economic independence will continue to present a challenge to greater women’s rights in the region.

Another crucial factor is tied to legislation. Until governments make decisions that secure the role of women in society and the public sphere, this will remain a challenge for the Arab world. The World Bank’s Survey on Women, Business and the Law in 2016 found at least 10 legal biases on women’s work in Arab economies.

While the region remains behind other parts of the world in advancing women’s rights, the #MeToo movement has shown the extent to which all countries and industries must work on enshrining protection for women – in both laws and societal practices.

One bright spot in the region has been the elevated position of female role models. From the late Zaha Hadid reigning over the architecture industry, to the role of Princess Reema bint Bandar of Saudi Arabia in championing women in work and sports, more successful and visible women play a vital enabling role. With more women rising in the public and private sectors of the Arab world, more girls can be supported in finding their rightful place in society. However, this is a mission that is equally the responsibility of men and women.

Watch Findings Debated

Watch our panel of experts discuss the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018. The wide-ranging conversation takes on hot-button issues facing youth today, including how they view their future, the digital revolution and shifting attitudes to the region’s friends and enemies.