I Vote to Give Myself a Raise, After I Vote to Drive, But Before I Vote to Open a Business Without Male Guardian’s Permission…

By: Mehrunisa Qayyum, Founder PITAPOLICY Consulting

Does economic reform follow political reform or vice versa?  Is it better to be an entrepreneur who demands the franchise, or to be the voter who articulates the need to expand more favorable business conditions for women?  Can voting on issues translate into agenda setting on political, social, and economic fronts?

In 2010, the Middle East Economic Intelligence Unit ranked the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) the least democratic nation in the Middle East.  Women in Saudi Arabia may not work for wages without written consent by their male guardian.  Currently, about 80 percent of Saudi women remain unemployed, according to Hatem Samman, lead economist of the Booz & Company Ideation Center. Granted, this number does not take into account the percentage of Saudi women who will not pursue employment, but Saudi Arabian women have the lowest employment rate in the GCC.

At the same time, the top 100 Arab women include 16 from Saudi Arabia, 15 of whom are either social or business entrepreneurs. Regardless, KSA female entrepreneurs do not depend on loans to start their initiatives since they usually inherit family businesses or wealth.  Thus, current female entrepreneurs might not set an agenda that reflects the middle to low income females aiming to launch a business who require access to financial capital.

Arabianbusiness.com listed the top 100 ‘Most Powerful Arab Women’ for 2011. The category of ‘Culture & Society’ encompasses those leading in non-profit work, activism, and philanthropy. For a variety of reasons, this category led out of all the categories and boasted about 31 of the most powerful Arab women. If we use the category of ‘Culture & Society’ as a proxy for social entrepreneurship, ironically, Saudi Arabia leads in this subcategory—ranking more Arab entrepreneurs than even Egypt, which has reflected its share of women’s activism and empowerment in the larger Arab Spring movement. Yet, these women emerged prior to winning the right to vote. Perhaps non-political factors play a stronger role in advancing social entrepreneurship.

Does the same trend play out for Saudi women engaging in private entrepreneurship? According to the ‘Ease of Doing Business Index’ in Saudi Arabia, which applies to both men and women in Saudi Arabia, in three of the factors that represent how easy it is for an entrepreneur to engage in business, Saudi leads all the other MENA countries by ranking in the top two. For example, a Saudi national has the most ease in ‘registering a property,’ compared to nationals of other countries. Furthermore, ‘getting credit’, or access financial capital to launch a private venture, is easier in Saudi Arabia than almost any other MENA country—with the exception of Israel.

Yet, despite KSA’s extremely high ranking in conducting private enterprise for either a Saudi male or female, a 2007 study in Arab News showed that Saudi women own about four percent of the total registered businesses in the Kingdom.

So what difference will female enfranchisement make?

Perhaps the KSA’s democracy ranking might improve with the new opportunity for Saudi women to both vote and run for office–in 2015.  But, in 2015, will women be able to drive themselves to the polls?  Our interview with Saudi activist and social network entrepreneur, Areej Khan, highlighted that the issue of driving and voting are intertwined.  Areej explained that, in June 2011, when Saudi officials arrested fellow activist Manal al-Sharif for driving in protest, the current king, King Abdullah, promised change in the future.  Yet, that optimism can easily be overturned by his likely successor, Prince Naif, who, according to Areej, is “not personally religious but uses religion as means to control…Looking forward to Naif is not encouraging because in a monarchy like this you really can move backward.”  What is the guarantee that the new law cannot be undone by unilateral government action? 

Similarly, according to Businessweek, a legal decree from King Abdullah last June required that women take over male employees’ positions as sales associates in lingerie stores.  If royal decrees determine how the political and business environments operate, then how much weight will a vote–albeit a female vote–carry when more controversial demands are made, such as a woman demanding equal pay irrespective of her marital status?

And how will the female vote determine the direction of other political and business environments?  The right to vote presupposes that one can exercise the right to express other freedoms, such as choosing how to live and what makes it to the agenda.  Politically, Saudi Arabia has symbolically adopted the ‘UN Covenant for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women’ (CEDAW) in September 2001.  Will the right to vote play a similarly symbolic, but largely ineffectual role?

Point, Counterpoint, I Beg Your Pardon?
On the one hand, we may argue that the right to vote will be granted as a symbolic gesture and largely ineffectual for two reasons. One, whenever there is controversy, such as the arrest and sentencing of one protesting woman driver on September 28th, “pardoning” or appeasing women emerges as an easy public relations—domestically and internationally—to rebuild political capital. As one observer noted at the joint conference by the Women’s Leadership Partnership and Woodrow Wilson’s Middle East Program, “separating the women’s issue from the larger human rights” and human development agenda “does not help the country or the cause.” Perhaps that is why the vote and opportunity to run for office will not take effect until 2015.

Second, the delayed timeline may serve as a pretext for ineffectual outcomes. When progress on the political front is not seen in 2016, skeptics may seize the opportunity to criticize the reform measure as a wasted effort. If the monarchy was serious about the granting the franchise on a delayed timeline, they would have recognized the intermediary steps and programs that they might be able to facilitate—such as implementing voter registration drives, offering candidate training programs, and perhaps decreeing the right for women to drive as Areej explained above as an intertwined issue.

On the other hand, we may argue more optimistically and learn from the Arab Spring experience that it does not matter what analysis outside of Saudi Arabia suggests. For years, Tunisia served as the “poster child” for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund programs in the MENA region. Tunisia demonstrated increased growth, but “suddenly’ experienced a mass movement from within calling it out Ben Ali on corruption charges.

Political and social reform in Saudi Arabia is among the slowest, in large part because it operates as a rentier economy that continues to crowd out innovation and private initiatives that do not complement the welfare state structure. 2015 or not, the right to vote will accrue value based on the confluence of mass interests within KSA—not the confluence of interests outside of Saudi Arabia.

The KSA has started to recognize the importance of investing in employment opportunities that extend beyond the public sector. Traditionally in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, public sector jobs comprise the bulk of employment for both men and women—but particularly for women. Once the KSA falls short of providing public sector opportunities, we will see the confluence of political and economic interests seized by not Saudi women, but by Saudi women voters.

Feel free to send a rebuttal or alternative thought to this piece at pitapolicy@gmail.com. Or, feel free to tweet your response @Pitapolicy :).

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Filed under Analysis, Interests, PIDE (Policy, International Development & Economics), Politics

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