She singles out H.H. Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the �Mother of the Nation’, as having spearheaded universal education for women in the UAE in the 1970s and for having pushed for the appointment, in 2004, of the UAE’s first female Cabinet Minister, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, who today is Minister of Development and International Cooperation.
Blair goes on to note that, thanks to leading examples such as Sheikha Fatima and the women she inspired, the U.A.E. has the best ranking out of 136 countries for the ratio of girls to boys in education, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.
She also notes that the UAE has implemented various reforms to encourage greater lending for both men and women, and banks and other lenders are now following the lead. Mariah Khan, head of private banking for women at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, is one of many lenders promoting loan packages and other incentives for women to start their own businesses.
Blair says that figures indicate that more than 20,000 companies in the U.A.E. are owned by Emirati women, and this number continues to grow by 5-10 percent each year.
“These emerging women entrepreneurs”, says Blair, need the right kind of support and network to launch and run their businesses. That is why in addition to assistance with start-up capital, mentoring and training are critical to female economic engagement.
In general, she says, there are signs of progress on multiple fronts for women, at all levels of society, throughout the Arab world, which must be encouraged to address the critical challenge of the need to expand economic opportunities for women.
A little-discussed factor driving these changes, she adds, is the fact that more women hold positions of authority in the greater Middle East than ever before. Besides H.H. Sheikha Fatima, Blair also cites the high-profile names of women such as Jordan’s Queen Rania and Queen Noor, and Qatar’s Sheikha Moza; women who have raised their societies’ expectations for girls and other women.
Blair explains that the gap in economic equality still remains wide, and the full potential of local, regional, and global economies remains unachievable when half the population increasingly educated and ambitious – is not engaged and contributing.
However, she says that women in the region have made some inroads, finding that the growth of small to mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Arab and Muslim world is particularly fertile ground for female entrepreneurs and overcoming barriers for them to access capital has been instrumental in realizing this potential.
She concludes that overall, the signs are positive for Arab and Muslim women, saying that comprehensive long-term research undertaken by the United Nations shows that Arab states with few exceptions have risen in the Gender Empowerment Measures, female participation in primary education is at its highest levels across the Arab world and continues to increase, and that if more women can be employed, the benefits to women and the world are innumerable.
Blair concludes by saying that the necessary changes will not come overnight, but must be viewed as a long arc that over the decades, she says, is surely bending in the right direction toward gender equality.