So many times during my lectures I have been confronted with the same question: “Isn’t oil the greatest gain the Gulf countries have secured in the past decades?”
And my answer is always the same: “Yes, maybe as a natural resource, but the greatest benefit is the development of its human resource - its people, both men and women.”
Their next questions are always “why?” and “how?”
To the first question I reply that people are the most valuable resource of development. Rather than putting all our dependency on oil reserves alone, which will vanish in a few years, we should enhance people’s skills, develop their capacities and provide them with more learning opportunities. And women, who constitute half of the population, are a huge and valuable resource with a potentially major part to play.
As for “how,” I respond that it is only through education that we can acquire real benefits, as it is a major keystone for social and economic development, as well as political stability. Many changes and positive developments have touched the lives of women in GCC countries because they now have knowledge and skills, and for women, education is a powerful measure for development in a global and modern society.
It is true that the economies of GCC countries have been heavily reliant on oil production and increased revenues from high oil prices have had many positive impacts in the region, paving the way for higher GNP and more infrastructural developments. However, more benefits are emerging from having a young educated and dynamic population.
For the past decades, education has been a top policy priority in all GCC countries. Public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP between 2006 and 2009 has been the highest in Saudi Arabia at 5 percent, with 4.5 percent in Bahrain, 3.3 percent in Kuwait, 3 percent in Oman, 2.8 percent in the UAE, and 2.5 percent in Qatar.
Investing in women’s education has been vital to the Gulf region for social and cultural development.
Educational opportunities have grown in the region especially for girls in their access to primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Today, girls’ enrollment in primary schools is almost 100 percent in all GCC countries, now very close to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015.
According to 2011 United Nations data, females' share of primary enrollment in 2010 reached 49 percent in all GCC countries while their share of secondary enrollment ranged from 50 percent in Bahrain and the UAE, to 49 percent in Kuwait and Qatar, 48 percent in Oman and 46 percent in Saudi Arabia. Women’s share of tertiary enrollment was 64 percent in Kuwait , 63 percent in Qatar, 60 percent in the UAE, 52 percent in Saudi Arabia , 50 percent in Oman and 46 percent in Bahrain.
Furthermore, literacy rates for females aged 15 to 24 reached in Bahrain 100 percent, in Kuwait 99 percent, Oman 98 percent, Qatar 98 percent, Saudi Arabia 98 percent and UAE 97 percent.
Education is linked to labour productivity. As result of increased enrollment in secondary and higher education, more women in the Gulf region have become employable and economically active by joining the labour force, although they are still more susceptible to unemployment and discrimination in the workplace than men.
Women over the age of 15 in 2010 made up 52 percent of the workforce in Qatar, 44 percent in the UAE, 43 percent in Kuwait, 39 percent in Bahrain, 28 percent in Oman and 17 percent in Saudi Arabia.
There are other benefits of women’s education; not only does it enhance the quality of lives and the lives of their families, but it also improves their social status and raises their standard of living. Educated mothers have more expectations for their children, encouraging their enrollment in school and university and their professional development. Empowering women with knowledge and skills enables them to reach their full potential and increase their participation in decision making.
As a result a number of women in the GCC countries have become as qualified as men and have reached senior positions in the social, educational, administrative, corporate, and even political fields.
Other important cultural and demographic changes have taken place linked to positive fundamental measures of human resource development such as reductions in population growth, fertility and mortality rates, and health improvement.
The percentage of population growth in the early 1960s was highest in Kuwait at 10.5 percent and the UAE at 9 percent. 50 years later, the percentage is projected to decrease to two percent in both countries and to around one percent in the next 20 years.
Today, the tendency for GCC women is to marry later and have fewer children. The latest annual national census data indicates that the mean age at first marriage among female nationals is in Qatar 24 years and 25 years in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In addition, over a period of 50 years, the total fertility rates (the number of children per woman) diminished in all GCC countries. Total fertility rates fell from around seven children per family in all GCC countries during the early 1960s to around three in Oman and Saudi Arabia, and two in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and UAE projected for 2010 to 2015.
In the next 20 years, the general trend will be toward only two children per family in all GCC countries.
One benefit of education is that young women have become more health conscious, learning about healthcare and how to take care of themselves and their children. As a result, infant mortality rates (per 1,000 live births) have decreased considerably. In Saudi Arabia, with some of the highest rates of infant mortality in the region, deaths have fallen from 160 in the early 1960s to 16 in 2010 to 2015, and will decline to ten in the next 20 years. In the UAE, also with high rates, they dropped from 130 in 1960 to 1965 to only nine in 2010 to15, and will reach seven in the next 20 years.
Maternal mortality ratio also declined in all GCC countries. According to the UNDP, the maternal mortality rate for Saudi Arabia was 48 per 100,000 live births in 1990, but dropped to 14 in 2010. In the UAE it dropped from 28 per 100,000 live births in 1990 to ten in 2008, and in Qatar it dropped to 8 in 2008.
Female life expectancy at birth has also increased, rising in Saudi Arabia from 47 years (1960 to 1965) to 76 years (2010 to 2015), and is projected to reach 79 years in the next 20 years. In the UAE, the rise is from 56 years (1960 to 1965) to 79 years (2010 to 2015), reaching 81 years in the next 20 years.
But GCC women are a precious source of development only when allowed to realise their full potential.
GCC governments should therefore continue to provide young women with more learning opportunities to achieve greater rewards for society and for the development of the country.
They should offer a modern education system that prepares young women to enter the labour market, including an updated curriculum focusing on sciences, mathematics, computer technology and foreign languages.
Schools should also offer new teaching methods that encourage analytical skills, creative thinking, and personality development and provide guidance relevant to the current needs of girls, which will make them flexible to change, and able to cope with global economic fluctuations, find universal solutions to local problems, and be tolerant and responsible toward other societies.
Higher education and life-long learning are also a must for GCC women to be able to contribute to a knowledge-based economy and achieve social, economic and political autonomy.
GCC countries should also develop vocational training and job-related programmes for young women, while creating business conditions to facilitate women’s entrepreneurship. They also need to develop and implement effective mechanisms to promote women’s advancement and the protection of their legal rights. We need to teach women how to develop skills that will help them to participate in high-level decision-making and motivate change in society, through mentoring and empowerment in the social, economic and political spheres.
They should be given the chance to use their creativity and innovation and we need to recognise their talents and skills. Investing in female education and opening up more opportunities for them will boost the region’s social and economic development even more, enhance gender equality and human capital and alleviate poverty.
And to those who are still asking me about oil, I will just say that it is only with knowledge and skills that we can build a strong and sustainable society in our region and manage to survive in the face of vanishing oil production. The real wealth of a country lies in its people.
Dr Mona AlMunajjed is a sociologist, author, and adviser on social and gender issues
Follow us on our social media channels: