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Why WE Lead: Women, Not Oil Prices, Key to Middle East’s Future

As world oil prices rise, Middle East leaders must stay the course with economic reforms intended to transform their oil dependence into market-oriented diversity. This includes continued, measurable progress in advancing the economic participation and leadership of women.

Article by Amanda Schnetzer September 13, 2018 //   5 minute read

Why WE Lead is the George W. Bush Institute’s policy and research that investigates economic advancement and the role of women’s leadership in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan. This body of work runs parallel to WE Lead, our women’s economic and leadership training program.

As world oil prices rise, Middle East leaders must stay the course with economic reforms intended to transform their oil dependence into market-oriented diversity. This includes continued, measurable progress in advancing the economic participation and leadership of women.

Four years ago, oil prices took a nose dive of nearly 60 percent — falling from $107.95 a barrel in June 2014 to a mere $44.08 a barrel in January 2015. The falloff took world leaders aback, especially in the oil-rich countries of the Gulf. A burst of high-profile activity followed to begin positioning economies for a post-petrol era. Solution sets have put a high priority, among other things, on boosting the economic contributions of women.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia captured headlines in 2016 when, as deputy crown prince, he introduced Vision 2030, a roadmap “to reinforce and diversify the capabilities of our economy.” Notably, the plan identifies Saudi women as a “great asset” and commits to enhance their role in business and society. 

The recent spike in detaining Saudi women’s rights advocates confirms that hard work remains to turn vision into reality. Yet the high-profile acknowledgement that women are key to a prosperous future still breaks important ground.

Others in the region, notably the United Arab Emirates, have arrived at the same conclusion and taken action to boost women’s economic participation even further since the 2014 slide. What happens now in countries like UAE and Saudi to maintain these commitments, even as oil prices rise, will send signals throughout the Gulf countries and across the broader Middle East.

So what do we make of the partial recovery in oil prices, which have fluctuated in the $60 and $70 per barrel ranges this year? One recent survey of accounting and finance professionals indicates that business confidence has “rebounded” in the Middle East as oil prices have gone up. At the same time, “companies are not confident that oil prices will remain high.”

Their uncertainty is well founded. Will the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran on November 4 drive oil prices up? Or will increased supplies from OPEC and the United States help keep prices steady? Ambiguity abounds.

What’s clear, though, is that sustained efforts to remove barriers to women’s economic participation and leadership can get results.

What’s clear, though, is that sustained efforts to remove barriers to women’s economic participation and leadership can get results.

 A new World Bank study  tracks the impact that 10 key legal reforms can make, not only in the life of a single woman trying to get a job or start a business but also in the economic vitality of her entire country. The report is optimistic about recent legal reforms in Iraq, Algeria, Bahrain, Tunisia, and other countries, while sober about the “widespread barriers against women [that still] persist” across the Middle East and North Africa.

My own bet is on legal reforms like these — and not oil prices — to position these economies for the future. My bet is also on women, their contributions to advancing prosperity for everyone, and the men who champion them. Efforts like the Bush Institute’s WE Lead program – which launches next month to develop the leadership of women who are driving economic impact in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan – can make a difference.

My own bet is on legal reforms like these to position these economies for the future. My bet is also on women, their contributions to advancing prosperity for everyone, and the men who champion them.

 Sustained reforms in these countries are also vital. Will national leaders stay the course? Let’s hope so. There’s a lot to lose – and even more to gain.