One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The illusion of progress for gender equality in the United Arab Emirates.

Last December, the Women’s Economic Empowerment Global Summit 2019 was held in Sharjah, where Sheikh Sultan III, Ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah, pledged his support for economic programs supporting women’s education and increased participation in the economy. The Summit was a collaboration between UN Women and the United Arab Emirate’s NAMA Women Advancement Establishment with the mission to better integrate women into the Emirate’s economy and workforce. This showcase was an opportunity for the UAE to tout its progress on women’s rights, exemplified through initiatives intended to modernize and diversify their economies while reducing its dependence on oil. There may have been significant progress made towards empowering women through their participation in the economy, yet the Gulf State continues to fail in improving on a broader array of women’s rights. 

Although Dubai’s Expo 2020 has been rescheduled to 2021 due to the Covid-19 global pandemic, the face of the Expo is a woman: Reem Al Hashemi. Her responsibility as Director-General is to put on a grand stage for the world’s cultural, technological, and economic advancements. Media coverage surrounding Al Hashemi has highlighted her efforts as an Emirati woman leading a global event that promotes gender equality in its design, development, and programs. As a consequence of her work, sixty-five percent of the UAE National hires for the Expo are women. Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, has emphasized how the UAE has moved to improve the nation’s economy through the empowerment of women. Emirati women make up 58 percent of tertiary education in the UAE, and are steadily increasing their participation in the workforce. This progress is seen in the numbers — at Strata Manufacturing, a UAE-based aerospace company which builds frames for Boeing and Airbus, ninety percent of their Emirati employees are women.

The UAE has recognized and understood the role that women hold in creating a sustainable economy, especially with regards to reducing oil dependence; however, its efforts are merely lip service when it comes to legitimate gender equity. Jane Bristol-Rhys, a cultural anthropologist based in Abu Dhabi, covered her observations and experiences in her book Emirati Women. In her eight years of living in the UAE, she understood the cultural changes and foundations of Emirati society. The higher enrollment of women in university stems from the idea that women’s marriage prospects improved with a degree. Her accounts highlighted that while there have been improvements in women’s rights, Emirati women themselves along with surrounding societal expectations continue to emphasize marriage and motherhood as their primary role. 

Illustration by: Zia Reigh Calpito

It is not simply a lack of cultural legacy for gender inequality, but also a legal foundation which refuses to acknowledge rights for female Emiratis. Domestic violence and marital rape are not considered as crimes in UAE; in fact in 2010, the UAE Federal Supreme Court upheld Article 53 of the nation’s penal code which described “chastisement by a husband to his wife” as acceptable and legal. In addition to lacking legal rights, women in the UAE still suffer from inadequate economic reforms with the World Bank Group’s 2019 report listing the UAE at the bottom of their index. 

While there have been improvements for Gulf women, the UAE continues to have institutional and cultural barriers that pervade even to the highest level of social class. In 2000, Sheikha Shamsa Al-Maktoum attempted to escape to the United Kingdom from the UAE. She was forcibly returned to the UAE, and has not been heard of since. Following Shamsa’s footsteps, Emirati princess and member of the ruling family Sheikha Latifa pursued freedom in 2002 and 2018. Both times, her father, Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, orchestrated her coercive recovery to Dubai. Prior to her detainment in 2018, Latifa published an unedited video for the world to see in which she stated her intent to escape and explained that in Dubai, “If you’re a female, your life is so disposable.” Her silence today haunts the landscape for female equity in the United Arab Emirates. 

On February 28th, 2020, Britain’s High Court published a Fact Finding Judgement (FFJ) where the judge found that, “With respect to both Shamsa and Latifa it is asserted that following their return to the custody of the father’s family they have been deprived of their liberty.” The Court had convened on account of Princess Haya, the Sheikh’s sixth wife, fleeing to the UK with her two children. Fearing for her life, especially after hearing of the abuses faced by Shamsa and Latifa, Princess Haya sought refuge in the UK. It was determined by the court that Sheikh Mohammed allowed a “campaign of intimidation and humiliation continued after the mother (Princess Haya) had come to England.” This ruling is historic—it hits a severe blow to the close relationship that the UAE shares with the UK. Sheikha Latifa explains in the video that for her father, Sheikh Mohammed, there is nothing more important than his reputation, and he will pursue any means necessary to maintain it. The UAE’s approach to women’s rights and human rights reflects this same illusionary plan. Putting on a showcase of various achievements does not demonstrate legitimate change. 

The UAE’s facade on women’s empowerment is not a surprise: it will do anything to receive praise from Western media if that means it takes attention away from its countless human rights abuses. There is a long road ahead for the UAE to survive the modernizing age. With an oil-dependent and subsidy-based economy, the UAE is looking for programs that will secure its financial future. Women are a promising option; however, economic empowerment is not enough. Simply increasing education and sporadically highlighting a few female leaders’s achievements fails to create genuine systemic change. Emirati nationals have a close-knit relationship to their government due to the wages and subsidies they receive; however, women are ready for more change than their government is prepared to grant.