Progressivism in the UAE

Three years ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why he supported gender parity in his cabinet. His response? Because it’s 2015.

Most would not expect that in 2018, the United Arab Emirates would have more women in their cabinet than the White House, which has only 17% women, down from 44% at the end of Obama’s tenure. The misconceptions around Middle Eastern women are plentiful and in some ways merited; a 64% majority of older generation Middle Eastern women have had no formal schooling. However, an increasing push towards parity for men and women in the Middle East and North Africa asks us to consider redefining our perceptions of Middle Eastern women.

The UAE is pioneering the way for gender parity in the Middle East, with an executive’s cabinet with 30% women. A small but wealthy Arab gulf nation, the UAE is most famous for its city Dubai, which houses the tallest building on earth and the world’s largest shopping mall. The capital city, Abu Dhabi, has a population of just over a million people (about the same population as New Hampshire), and was in international spotlight this year thanks to the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Over winter break, while visiting my grandparents in Abu Dhabi, I had the pleasure of meeting one of UAE’s female ministers, Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi, the UAE’s Minister of Culture and Knowledge. I also met two women on her team, Ruba Al Hassan and Lubna Al Gergawi. In 2014, HE Al Kaabi was named as one of Forbes Middle East’s 30 Most Influential Women in Government. She is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader where she is part of a community of changemakers who are solving local and global societal issues. In her current role, HE Al Kaabi hopes to cultivate respect and admiration of the arts while encouraging youth to participate in cultural activities that preserve Arab and Muslim heritage. Her ambitious goals include building the first national orchestra, integrating a unique cultural VR experience.

Although accomplished, HE Noura is humble, friendly, and upbeat. On being an Arab women in a position of power, HE describes that if people have any doubts about her capabilities, those doubts are immediately forgotten once the conversation begins. Her advice to young girls in the Middle East: remember that everyone faces challenges, but the most important thing is to advocate for yourself and keep pushing.

Given her focus on culture, I asked HE what she thought of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. On both a global and national level, HE Al Kaabi sees the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017 as a major achievement for the city. It’s mission to “see humanity in a new light” provides a commentary on art as a global journey. That was certainly true of my experience when I visited the museum over winter break. I was left pondering how all the art at the Louvre Abu Dhabi highlights “the evolution, encounters and clashes of our society that stimulated artistic and philosophical fusion whose influences will be felt for years to come.” (A quote at the museum)

HE spoke about the camaraderie they had as women ministers in the cabinet. Not only are they especially supportive of each other, HE shared that they even have a whatsapp group they can use to discuss any challenges they may face in relation to their gender. The women on this high-profile whatsapp group include: HE Reem Al Hashimi, the Minister of State for International Cooperation played a vital role in winning the Expo 2020 bid for Dubai; HE Hessa Buhumaid, who as Minister of Community Development is responsible for promoting family cohesion and civic engagement; HE Jameela Al Muhairi is the Minister of State for Public Education Affairs; HE Dr. Maitha Al Shamsi is the Minister of State and is an advocate for female empowerment; HE Ohood Al Roumi, the Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing (the first minister with this title in the world) has launched a 100 day happiness plan and a five month CEO happiness training; HE Maryam Al Mehairi is the Minister of State for Food Security. Last but not least, HE Shamma Al Maruzi is the Minister of Youth and at 22, is the youngest minister ever.

I wish these women amazing success in the following year and can’t wait to see all that they accomplish. Hopefully, other Middle Eastern countries will be inspired and follow suit, paving the way for even more women in government.