From fighting alongside men against invaders in the 19th century to taking the UAE to Mars last year, there is very little that Emirati women haven’t achieved. The UAE’s women leaders hold positions in the highest echelons of political society.
As mothers, they have played a pivotal role in raising better, more conscious generations capable of overcoming future challenges. As scientists, UAE women have conducted ground-breaking research into treatments for Covid-19 to accelerate global recovery from the pandemic.
The UAE has also been a leading GCC country in integrating women into the defence sector. Through the Khawla Bint Al Azwar Military School in Abu Dhabi, the UAE leadership has given great attention to empowering women, allowing them to be on an equal footing with their male partners in service to the nation.
Since its very foundation as a country, the UAE, under the leadership of its founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, has realised education is key to women’s economic empowerment.
Fundamentally, preparation is everything if one wants a superlative outcome. The UAE leadership established right at the beginning that there would be no development without activating 50 per cent of the country’s population, says Hussain Al Mahmoudi, the CEO of the American University of Sharjah Enterprises (AUSE) and the Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park (SRTIP).
Following the examples set by Baba Zayed, the first President of the UAE, his son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, second president of the UAE, elevated the status of Emirati women.
The UAE’s third and current President, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has reinforced his commitment to continue empowering women while providing them with equal opportunities. “As a country, the people of the UAE share a close bond with its leadership. I believe a country’s leadership is a true reflection of society. One of the beautiful things about this relationship is that the people embraced the direction given by its leaders,” says Al Mahmoudi.
Even in the pre-oil discovery era, women were not restricted to being caretakers of the family like in all developing societies. “They were involved in several traditional businesses and professions. They played the role of teachers, they were basic artisans, and some even ran small businesses,” says Al Mahmoudi.
Following the discovery of oil, women were groomed to take up professions in the health, business, education, science, military, and technology sectors.
Al Mahmoudi remembers a famous gathering of Sheikh Zayed with the first batch of female university students at UAE University. “He spoke to them like their father after they graduated. There is a video of him speaking to these young graduates. He tells them — women who come into the house with an income are valuable to the household. The involvement of women in our work and life and society is deeply embedded in our culture,” he says.
“We have never felt it to be any other way. It was developed in a very natural way. The women worked hand-in-hand with the men to build this country. I am 50 years old now, and I have seen it happen at every stage of my school, university and professional life. It wasn’t something the government forced upon us; it happened naturally and wilfully,” he says.
According to Shaima Rashed Al Suwaidi, the marketing and corporate communication department director at the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, gender balance has always been integral to the UAE’s social fabric and it continues to be a key priority for the future. “Since its establishment in 2015, the UAE Gender Balance Council has been actively reducing the gender gap across all government sectors. It has enhanced the UAE’s ranking in global competitiveness reports on gender equality, achieving gender balance in decision-making positions, and promoted the UAE’s position as a benchmark for gender balance legislation,” she explains.
The Council has also launched pioneering initiatives and projects to enhance gender balance throughout the country and contribute to achieving the Council’s vision of positioning the UAE as a world model for gender balance. “The Council’s efforts have resulted in the UAE becoming the first country in the Arab region to introduce a mandatory female presence in boardrooms, with 23,000 registered businesswomen running high-value investments. The Council also published the world’s first gender balance guide, Gender Balance Guide: Actions for UAE Organisations,” explains Al Suwaidi.
In the UAE, women enjoy the same constitutional rights as men. They have equal and unrestricted access to all levels of education and vocational training, jobs, social and health benefits, and holding government offices. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report for 2020, the UAE was one of the region’s best-performing countries, having closed 65.5 per cent of its overall gender gap. “The people of the UAE are a valuable part of its Soft Power Strategy, and open communication with them is as much a priority as communicating with government entities,” says Al Suwaidi. “To best reflect the importance of women on the UAE’s soft power, the Presidential decree allocated 50 per cent of the Federal National Council seats to women towards cementing women’s legislative and parliamentary role in the nation’s development.” Legislations that increased the role of Emirati women in diplomacy and leadership. Under the guidance of the late Sheikh Khalifa, Emirati women were continually empowered and promoted to high-ranking positions internationally and locally. The UAE has nine female ministers, making up 29 per cent of ministerial roles.
“This openness and equality will be carried and progressed upon by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Additionally, women business owners account for 10 per cent of the total private sector in the UAE. There are a total of 23,000 Emirati women-run projects worth more than Dh 50 billion and they constitute 15 per cent of the members of the boards of directors of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry nationwide,” adds Al Suwaidi.
Under the leadership of the late Sheikh Khalifa, Noura Al Kaabi, a visible supporter of cultural initiatives and a strong advocate of the arts, was appointed Minister of Culture and Knowledge in 2017, a role she still holds, says Al Suwaidi.
“This progressive appointment was celebrated and shed a positive light on the UAE’s cultural scene. Additionally, the pioneering developments and institutions that the late Sheikh Khalifa initiated during his 18-year term include the Manarat Al Saadiyat cultural district, Louvre Abu Dhabi, NYUAD Arts Centre and the upcoming Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. I strongly believe that His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan will proceed with this legacy and continue to empower women nationwide,” she adds.
The UAE is one of the safest countries globally, evident by the number of annual expatriates who have made it their home. “Everyone is treated fairly and respectfully, encouraging foreign investments and organising cultural and artistic events throughout the year,” says Al Suwaidi.
Additionally, the Ministry of Education launched a ‘Child Protection Unit’ initiative to benefit government and private school students across the UAE. The initiative aims to protect children from harm, negligence, and abuse they may experience at school or home and maintain their safety in their physical, psychological, and educational aspects. “This is of great importance for mothers who want to pursue their careers and ensure their children’s safety,” she says. Moreover, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was ahead of his time on women’s rights and empowerment, insisting on equal opportunities for women to be an integral element of his vision. This legacy was continued by the late Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and will be subsequently pushed ahead by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
According to Al Mahmoudi, one of the reasons for the UAE’s successful rates of women’s empowerment is the clear governance strategies and plans drawn out years in advance. “With leaders like Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, we have best practices and a strategy for 2030, plan 2050, plan 2071, for example,” he says. “The first 50 years are foundational. In the next 50 years, we are moving towards a knowledge-based economy. We will have more women in entrepreneurship, more women leaders, more women scientists, more in space, and CEOs,” says Al Mahmoudi. “At our teams within SRTIP, we have women technologists working in advanced industries, women involved in cryptocurrencies, virtual realities and mixed realities, material science, and cyber securities; every single one of them is involved in male-centric industries.”
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