Women empowerment in the United Arab Emirates

Edition 28 June 2019, by H.E. Dr. Hissa Abdullah Ahmad Alotaiba, United Arab Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Netherlands

For most nations, the sign of greatness is economic power, for others it’s military capabilities, political infl uence or culture and heritage. While the United Arab Emirates weighs heavily in all these spheres, it is one national characteristic that shaped our country: The Emirates’ people and to be more precise, its female population. Women of the UAE have consistently contributed to the development, dynamics and prosperity of their country.

Emirate women had a role to play, in fact, long before the British withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971, a period of major transformation which saw the Trucial State- Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Fujairah and two months later Ras al-Khaimah – become the country we recognize nowadays. From as far back as the early nineteenth century, women took an active role in safeguarding their land and the Bedouin tribes occupying it, especially with men having the tasks of providing for their family, which in many cases took them to further destination away from their homes, leaving the women to mind the home, protect it and raise and minding the children . One can even fi nd proof of women being an integral part of the broader society displayed at the women’s Museum in Dubai, which reveal that women joined their male counterparts in battle to defend Ras al- Khaimah in 1819.

The following centuries witnessed new set of challenges and with that came new responsibilities for women to fulfi l. However, that was accompanied by the emergence of modern education in the 1950s, followed by the creation of a number of associations promoting literacy, health and cultural activities in the 1960s, such as the Dubai Women’s Association, which opened in 1968.

In the same decade the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was named the ruler of Abu Dhabi, which would bring new impetus to the progressive journey of Emirati women, marking the beginning of a period of great progress in the Emirates in general and resulted in the formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971. From the beginning, Sheikh Zayed, who went to become the fi rst president of the UAE , charted a clear vision for the women of the Emirates, and half a century later the UAE continues to bear the hallmarks of his vision: a gender equal society that promotes inclusion of people from different backgrounds and walks of life. With Sheikh Zayed – God rest his soul- being the principle driving force behind the empowerment of women, his efforts were greatly supported by his spouse, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi. Born in Al Ain, Sheikha Fatima was the only daughter of a traditional Bedouin family, she later would become one of the most capable and celebrated woman of her generation and an inspiration for generations of young women who wants to achieve their goals and fulfil their potential. Exposed to her husband’s unrelenting efforts to modernize the state following the discovery of oil in the 1950s, Sheikha Fatima , a humanitarian and a philanthropist, started to dedicate her time and energy into transforming the country she calls home into a progressive haven for women. Sheikha Fatima moved to Abu Dhabi upon the appointment of Sheikh Zayed as president of the UAE, and rapidly set about fulfilling her duties as a mother, wife and force for change representing women of her young country. In 1973 she established one of the fi rst of many associations to support women in the Arab world,The Abu Dhabi Women Development Association. Two years later, in 1975, Her Highness formed the General Women’s Union (GWU), bringing together a number of women’s societies in the country under the same umbrella. The creation of the GWU proved very effective, from providing literacy programs and providing funding for entrepreneurs to represent UAE women in local government and on the world stage. The GWU formation paved the way for the most momentous initiatives that empowered women of the UAE. Sheikh Fatima also is the supreme chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation and the president of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood.

Today Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak is recognized as one of UAE’s most influential women, credited for pushing boundaries and advocating change. Her governmental and global achievements have been noted allover the world. The United nation has awarded Sheikha Fatima multiple times for her work in women’s rights, while UNESCO presented Her Highness with the Marie Curie Medal for her efforts in education, literacy and women’s rights. Closer to home a more honorable title has been bestowed upon her, “Mother of the Nation”, in recognition of her fi rm and continuous support for the empowerment of Emirati women. Through the persistence displayed by Sheikha Fatima and her peers, the women of the UAE continue to challenge preconceptions of what is expected of women living in the Gulf region and paved the way for many high achievers who became pillars of their society.

Nowadays Emirati women make up 70% of all university graduates in the UAE. 46% of UAE university graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are women. The literacy rate of Emirati woman is 95.8% and 50% of the employees at the UAE’s Space Program are women. Emirati women also make up 20% of the diplomatic corps including female ambassadors to the United Nations. The cabinet of the UAE government includes 32 ministers, including 9 women, with 27 percent of all ministers. The ministers deal with the new ministerial portfolios such as tolerance, happiness and youth. Shama bint Suhail bin Faris Al Mazrouei has been Minister of State for Youth Affairs since the announcement of the new ministerial reshuffl e in February 2016. At the age of 22 she becomes the youngest woman minister in the world. The participation of women in the Council of Ministers was the highest in the world, refl ecting the strong position of Emirati women through the empowerment and political involvement of women in government.

Regarding the distribution of positions in government institutions by gender, women represent 46.6% of the total labor force, and 66% of the public sector jobs, 30% in decisionmaking centers, and 15% in technical and academic roles. The UAE is the first country in the region that requires every government organization and every company to have female board members. Today, Emirati women are actively and effi ciently working in all sorts of roles. These include politics, research, renewable energy, nuclear energy for peaceful use, aviation technology another industries. The UAE ranked fi rst in the Arab world and among developed countries in women’s rights, according to the annual report of the Arab Women Studies Centre of the Arab Women Foundation 2017. The report commended the UAE’s leadership and its approach to women’s empowerment, noting that Emirati women have become key partners in leading sustainable development, and that they have a strong presence in Arab, regional and international feminist activities.

In my line of work, I was fortunate enough to be a contemporary of this period in time, my achievements as first lady ambassador of the UAE – to Spain in 2008 and now in the Kingdom of the Netherlands- came as a result of the distinguished step by UAE Foreign Ministry , which by 2019, had 234 women in the diplomatic and consular corps at the ministry of foreign affairs, as well as 42 women working in the diplomatic corps in the UAE’s foreign missions, seven of which are ambassadors. I have held various positions in the education sector, working in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Department of Planning and Economy in Abu Dhabi (ADP), and in New York on information technology at the World Women’s Forum and the United Nations Diplomatic Wives Association.

A large part of my role as a representative of my country is to highlight the true and positive image of Emirati women and one of my proudest moments was being the fi rst female representative to the State of the Vatican. It was an honor for me to be able to promote the two most important values we believe in – and practice – in the United Arab Emirates, tolerance and coexistence in the heart of the spiritual center of the western world. So many women have helped shape this nation, worked hard to celebrate UAE and its women and to give a glimpse of what they are capable of and to be an inspiration for young women who thrive on their legacy. I am honored to have had the opportunity to represent the UAE, those women and a leadership that works tirelessly for the prosperity of its people and the wellbeing of others. As the United Arab Emirates forges ahead with its bold plans and brilliant leadership, one thing is certain: The Emirates’ future is as bright as the women shaping it