Where the real wealth is

Education is a powerful measure for development in a global and modern society

So many times during my lectures I have been confronted with the same question:“Isn’t oil the greatest gain the Gulf countries have secured in the past decades?” And my answer is always the same: “Yes, maybe as a natural resource, but the greatest benefit is the development of its human resource, its people, both men and women.”

Their next questions are always “why?” and “how?” To the first question I reply that people are the most valuable resource of development. Rather than putting all our dependency on oil reserves alone, which will vanish in a few years, we should enhance people’s skills, develop their capacities and provide them with more learning opportunities. And women, who constitute half of the population, are a huge and valuable resource with a potentially major part to play.

As for “how,” I respond that it is only through education that we can acquire real benefits, as it is a major keystone for social and economic development, as well as political stability. Many changes and positive developments have touched the lives of women in GCC countries because they now have knowledge and skills, and for women, education is a powerful measure for development in a global and modern society.

It is true that the economies of GCC countries have been heavily reliant on oil production and increased revenues from high oil prices have had many positive impacts in the region, paving the way for higher GNP and more infrastructural developments. However, more benefits are emerging from having a young educated and dynamic population.

For the past decades, education has been a top policy priority in all GCC countries. Public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP between 2006 and 2009 has been the highest in Saudi Arabia at five percent, with 4.5 percent in Bahrain, 3.3 percent in Kuwait, three percent in Oman, 2.8 percent in the UAE, and 2.5 percent in Qatar. Investing in women’s education has been vital to the Gulf region for social and cultural development. Educational opportunities have grown in the region especially for girls in their access to primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Today, girls’ enrollment in primary schools is almost 100 percent in all GCC countries, now very close to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015.

According to recent United Nations data (2011), girl’s share of primary enrollment in 2010 reached 49 percent in all GCC countries while their share of secondary enrollment ranged from 50 percent in Bahrain and the UAE, to 49 percent in Kuwait and Qatar, 48 percent in Oman and 46 percent in Saudi Arabia. Women’s share of tertiary enrollment was 64 percent in Kuwait (2004), 63 percent in Qatar (2010), 60 percent in the UAE (2009), 52 percent in Saudi Arabia (2010), 50 percent in Oman (2010) and 46 percent in Bahrain (2010). Furthermore, literacy rates for young women (aged 15–24) reached in Bahrain 100 percent (2009), in Kuwait 99 percent (2008), Oman 98 percent (2008), Qatar 98 percent (2009), Saudi Arabia 98 percent (2010), and UAE 97 percent (2005).

Education is linked to labour productivity. As result of increased enrollment in secondary and higher education, more women in the Gulf region have become employable and economically active by joining the labour force, although they are still more susceptible to unemployment and discrimination in the workplace than men. Women over the age of fifteen in 2010 make up 52 percent of the workforce in Qatar, 44 percent in the UAE, 43 percent in Kuwait, 39 percent in Bahrain, 28 percent in Oman and seventeen percent in Saudi Arabia.

There are other benefits of women’s education; not only does it enhance the quality of their lives and the lives of their families, but it also improves their social status and raises their standard of living. Educated mothers have more expectations for their children, encouraging their enrollment in school and university and their professional development. Empowering women with knowledge and skills enables them to reach their full potential and increase their participation in decision making. As a result a number of women in the GCC countries have become as qualified as men and have reached senior positions in the social, educational, administrative, corporate, and even political fields.

Other important cultural and demographic changes have taken place linked to positive fundamental measures of human resource development such as reductions in population growth, fertility and mortality rates, and health improvement. The percentage of population growth in the early 1960s was highest in Kuwait at 10.5 percent and the UAE at nine percent. Fifty years later (2010–2015), the percentage is projected to decrease to two percent in both countries and to around one percent in the next 20 years.

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