This is a week of small victories for women in the Gulf.

Market Watch Blog AGSIW | Karen E. Young | Dec 17, 2015

This is a week of small victories for women in the Gulf. Women participated in municipal council elections in Saudi Arabia for the first time and won at least 17 of the 2,000 odd contested seats. More small victories are needed at a time where women’s participation in economic and political spheres could have an enormous impact in a region in conflict and facing economic downturn.

There is a paradox in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, in that there is an abundance of wealth in human capital that is not utilized to its full potential. Women are generally better educated than men across the GCC, yet they are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. Women in Saudi Arabia account for nearly 60 percent of university graduates, but less than 20 percent of Saudi women enter the workforce after graduation, according to Booz & Company. Of those women who are job seekers of all ages, almost 80 percent of them have university degrees.

Unfortunately, the trend holds across the Middle East and North Africa, according to a new report by the International Labor Organization. Those young women (and men) with better educations or more advanced degrees are more likely to be unemployed.

Source: International Labor Organization—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_412015.pdf

The World Bank is also studying this trend, as it relates to inequality and conflict. The sense that one cannot get ahead, not because of educational attainment, income disparity (or “monetary inequality” as the World Bank calls it), but because of “perceptions of falling standards of living” which include a lack of formal sector jobs, but more importantly, dissatisfaction with the quality of public services, the ability to voice concerns and demand accountability. The incidence of corruption and cronyism or “wasta” are also part of the subjective indicators researchers like Elena Ianchovichina and her colleagues at the World Bank are finding as causal factors in the rise of regional discontent. Moreover, across the region, surveys describe the private sector as dominated by elites that hamper the entry of new firms and new job opportunities for outsiders.

There is a development paradox in which education access is not the problem; major indicators of poverty have been improving across the Arab world in the last decade. Yet, young people are not finding the jobs, careers, and well-being that they seek. This discontent, or what scholars have called “unhappy development,” may contribute to uprisings and conflict in the Arab world. The full engagement of women’s economic and political participation would seem integral to solving this development puzzle.

According to data collected by the Gulf Labor Markets and Migration project, Saudi women are a small minority of the working population. In 2013, 679,862 Saudi women were part of a 10,634,733 member workforce. That is just over six percent of the workforce.

In Qatar, women are more likely to earn a university degree; according to the Qatar National Development Strategy, 54 percent of university age women enrolled compared to only 28 percent of their male counterparts. Men have other, perhaps better paid, opportunities, including military service. As a counter measure that has perhaps had a knock-off effect on stimulating private sector employment of Gulf nationals (and creating new opportunities for women), Gulf states boosted salariesin the public sector since the 2011 Arab Spring; for example, Qatari military personnel received 120 percent pay raises in 2011.

In the UAE, according to a report by UNICEF, the proportion of women over age 15 in the working-age population who actively engage in the labor market (either by working or looking for work) is less than half that of men (42 percent compared to 92 percent). The global average is not much better, at 52 percent, but the global average of literacy rates is not nearly as high as we see in the GCC. According to data from 2005, 97 per cent of female youth are literate in the UAE. Women are also more likely to be enrolled in higher education in the UAE than young men (41 per cent compared to 22 per cent).

The Global Gender Gap 2014 report from the World Economic Forum demonstrates this paradox within the Gulf. Women tend to be well-educated by international standards, yet they lag behind in economic participation and opportunity.