Role of Women in the Arabian Gulf

Subject: History
Pages: 15
Words: 4110
Reading time:
16 min
Study level: College


Today, the progress of the Middle East turns out to be an example for many nations. The region of the Arabian Gulf, including such basin countries as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and Iraq, represents the world’s biggest offshore oil and gas field.1 The gulf is a crucial economic point in the development of the countries because much oil is exported through its ports and shores.

Oil production and distribution also provoke social and political changes in the chosen region. For example, access to oil results in beneficial investments and wealth for many citizens of the Middle East. Being direct contributors to economic and social improvements, women perform an important role in the Arabian Gulf and its perception by other countries. This paper aims at investigating the changes in the status of Arabian women before and after the discovery of oil and discussing current economic, political, social, and cultural situations.

The Arabian Gulf is one of the biggest and the most influential water bodies in the Middle East. It is about 800 km long and 200 km wide with the connection to the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Hormuz.2 This territory is huge, and it is not a surprise that each country establishes its own rules and laws on how to treat women. However, the peculiar feature of this region is that the majority of Arabian women have to live under the same conditions regardless of the country.

The attitudes towards women’s roles have changed during the last century, and the discovery of oil may be defined as one of the possible reasons for the creation of new statuses and relationships. In this paper, the discussion will be divided into two main parts: the 19th century (as the pre-oil period) and the 20th and 21st century (as the post-oil period).

Historical Perspective Before Oil Discovery

The 19th century in the Arabian Gulf was characterized by the presence of their British and their domination in economic and political decisions. Britain’s interest in the Gulf was first observed in the 17th century as a possibility to establish independent, working trade and commercial relationships with India. Having such a great geographical location and yet undiscovered natural resources, the Gulf stayed under the protection of the British Empire for centuries.3

The events during the first and second world wars changed the situation in the region, and Britain decided to withdraw from the Gulf at the beginning of the 1970s, thus giving America a chance to become the only land’s protector. Regardless of their past and current rulers, the Arabs are the people who stay devoted to their traditions, religion, Islamic beliefs, and the power of Allah. Some nations find the relationships between Arab men and women complex and strict, underlying the worth of democracy and social equality.

In the Arabian Gulf, people lived according to the rules of Bedouin societies for a long period. Gulf women had to be “placed under the full custody of male relatives, their movements constrained, and their presence in the public sphere conceptualized as non-existent.”4 It was expected to observe female citizens in their homes, completing their family and household duties along with other women. If there was a need for a woman to go outside, a mahram (a woman’s relative who can arrange a marriage for her) had to accompany her.

Brothers and husbands had special responsibilities and obligations at home, and women did not interfere with their decisions, behaviors, and orders. Men worked and developed their activities to provide a family with enough financial support and physical protection. Women, in their turn, were responsible for all other family-related tasks like cleaning, family members’ care, cooking, or husband’s entertaining. In other words, a woman could be compared to a slave with no option to choose from and no hope for another but the future built by her male relatives.

There is fiqh, an Islamic understanding of the law, that is based on the interpretation of such important sources as the Qur’an and the Sunnah (Hadith is its type of oral communication). This term means “jurisprudence” with a wide scope of

“laws regulating ritual and religious observances, containing orders and prohibitions, it includes the whole field of family law, the law of inheritance, of property and contracts and obligations.”5 In terms of this law, a family remains the main social institution that can regulate the relationships between people. However, many pre-Islamic Arab practices were focused on the restriction of female rights, especially those which include the relationships before marriage, after divorce, and during a wedding feast. Many historians find it necessary to investigate those times with care and attention because one misunderstanding can lead to unpredictable results.

The situation began changing after Islam came to Arab traditions and provoked new social differences and styles of life. The main goal of Islam was to strengthen the bonds that existed between people and religion to promote social equality. According to the Prophet Mohammed, women were defined as “the sisters of men” in Islam who had to follow the same religious rules, including obedience to Allah, chastity guarding, patience keeping, and belief in Islamic Monotheism.6

Many Arab tribes did not want to accept all these new rules and changes because it was unusual to reduce the power of men and treat women as sisters. Still, the impact of Islamic justice was strong, and if Arabs wanted to be united under the same flag and traditions, it was necessary to take a step and support the idea of deterioration of women’s lives. Islam improved living conditions for women and underlined their dignity and humanity regarding Allah’s orders.

There are eight different countries in the Arabian Gulf, and each of them has its understanding of the quality of male-female relationships and the role of women in society. For example, in Saudi Arabia, before the discovery of oil, women should not work but spend all their time to perform domestic work. In comparison to ordinary work, domestic work for Saudi Arabian women was without the right to change an employee or increase wages (as it was unpaid work).

In addition to homework, Kuwait women were responsible for finances in their families (if there was such an opportunity in a family). The status of women in Bahrain was always defined as one of the most democratic and publicly active compared to other Gulf countries. Some women could obtain education and choose professions regarding their skills and interests even before the discovery of oil.

In Qatar, the situation varied because many men left their families to earn a living with pearl hunting, and women became the only guardians at home. Such independence provided them with several rights and opportunities. In the pre-oil period, Qatar girls had access to education that was synonymous with religious beliefs, meaning that their rudimentary instructions were given to a group of females in private homes only.7 Order, regulations, and explanations were respected in Qatar, thus giving women power only under certain conditions and with male permission.

In the UAE, women played an important economic role in addition to their domestic responsibilities even in the pre-oil era. For example, Sheikha Hussa Al-Murr, the wife of one of Dubai’s rulers, used her powers to rally armed forces and protect Dubai’s tower during attacks.8 Many women were involved in their businesses like shops, pearling rent, and shipping. Oman women could have little authority within their families and almost no privileges in public.

They could work as teachers in pre-schools, but their economic role remained minimal with no social or political powers. In Iraq, the rights of women were less restricted compared to the representatives of other countries. In some cases, women could participate in military affairs and apply for education. In general, women in the Arabian Gulf before oil discovery did not have the right to vote or demonstrate their political and economic ambitions openly. They had to listen to their husbands and behave by Islamic law and the Qur’an. Women play a crucial role in the progress of future generations, and Islam promotes equal and fair treatment to them as such.

Oil Discovery and Gulf Culture

The beginning of the 1930s was related to the discovery of one of the most profitable natural resources in the Gulf region. Several British-own and American-owned companies began their drilling activities in several Arabian countries. Their primary goals were to identify if there are any natural richness and opportunities for society. Within a short period, positive results were achieved in several regions.

After oil deposits were discovered in South West Persia (that is not the part of the Arabian Gulf), the decision to check the Gulf land was made. Iraq, at that period, it was known as Turkish Mesopotamia, was searched for oil for seven years with a positive discovery made in May 1908.9 However, Iraq was the country where oil reserves were not enough to solve current political and social concerns. Also, economic problems continued growing, provoking new challenges for citizens and their leaders.

Then, Bahrain was the region in the group to be researched for hidden natural resources at the beginning of 1932. Thereafter, huge attention of the globe was paid to the Arabian Gulf and its actual resources. Qatar is a peninsula between Saudi Arabia and the UAE where oil was first extracted in 1937. This region was characterized by complex discussions and frequent decisions because of its geographical location and close economic and political relationships with its neighbors.10

In Kuwait, the discovery of oil was dated 1938, although it was first extracted only in 1947 because of the current political events, governmental changes, and wars.11 The oil industry created new opportunities for Arab society that could not be ignored. It was high time to change something in the region, and people began to reevaluate their living conditions and the future.

In the same year, the investigation of the Gulf land continued in Saudi Arabia. The largest source of petroleum was discovered in one of its deserts on March 3, 1938.12 It helped the nationals to find new jobs and improve the country’s employment rates. The government of the UAE withdrew the relationships with the British Empire in 1968 and joined the struggle for independence with other nations of the Arabian Gulf, using a new source of oil that was discovered in 1958 as the main revenue. Finally, Oman, as one of the most isolated Gulf areas, demonstrated good results in oil production in 1967 and founded a new era of modernization.

It was interesting and beneficial to work on the Gulf land and make discoveries that brought money and wealth. The establishment of the oil industry made the Gulf region attractive to many migrant workers and business people who wanted to manage the process and set their own rules. Oil was an evident cause of how poor and isolated tribes located around the Arabian Gulf turned into one of the richest states around the whole globe.

Citizens got unpredictable opportunities to reduce the level of poverty and live in comfort and order. The oil industry contributed to the shifts in all spheres of life, including the status of women and their rights in society. Still, it is necessary to admit that the discovery of oil has its positive, as well as negative, outcomes on women and their role in the Arabian Gulf society.

Women in the Era of After-Oil Discovery

The post-oil era can be dated from the 1930s until today in the Arabian Gulf. Its distinctive features are wealth, comfort, order, and prosperity of different isolated tribes. The identification of oil reserves promoted the creation of new living conditions and the discovery of opportunities that changed millions of lives. According to Sonbol who investigated the past and current status of Gulf women, oil brought “a serious structural impact on the Gulf family, which is still experiencing its transformation from a clan-based institution to the type of nuclear family.”13

Individuals and families experience legal and social changes day by day along with economic transformations and improvements. It is not enough to accept one change and neglect its possible effects in different fields. Therefore, Arab society has to be prepared for new types of housing, business relationships, and services.

Globalization and industrialization are also factors that play an important role in understanding the place of women in the Arabian Gulf culture. Al-Malki and a group of researchers admitted such concepts as modernity and globalization are usually defined as “women-friendly progressive forces” whilst traditions always make people look back.14 Women got a chance to participate in political movements without being punished but being heard, strengthen their social rights, and claiming equality. However, all these changes and manipulations have their order and reason, and the goal of this paper is to identify the stages of female development in the Arabian world.

The 20th century became a real moving point for many Arab women. After the oil was discovered, society was able to change their lives and think about changes that were unreachable several years ago. The first evident contribution occurred between the 1950s and the 1960s when many Arab countries supported the idea of female voting and standing for parliamentary elections.15 Still, this decision was not fully supported by the Gulf region, and the question of female rights to vote remained open for several decades.

Certain attempts were made to legalize women’s responsibilities and political roles in modern society, and the oil industry was one of the main stimuli. To prove that Arab women are not second-class citizens, the fight for gender equality began in the middle of the 20th century after the discovery of oil. The results were as follows:16

  • Iraq (in 1980, women began to vote and stand for elections, proving the equality of rights for men and women);
  • Oman (in 1994, it was the first Gulf region where women got the right to vote and take government positions);
  • Qatar (in 1999, women could vote and participate in elections in the Central Municipal Council, but the constitution made this right officially legal in 2003 only);
  • Bahrain (in 2002, a new constitution granted women the right to vote, participate in elections, and further be present in the chamber);
  • Kuwait (in 2005, women became able to vote and offer their candidates for elections);
  • UAE (in 2006, about 6,500 people got their first opportunity to vote in the Federal National Council, and today, women take about 60% of government jobs);
  • Saudi Arabia (in 2015, women were able to vote for their first time and offer their candidates in elections).

At this moment, political changes touch the lives of Arab women in their respective countries in different ways. For example, Bahrain is a country with a constitutional democracy, and some women who work at the Ministerial level. The Supreme Council for Women was created to support female movements and provide them with meaningful roles in society. Abdalla stated that women as leaders were as competent as men in the majority of cases and more compassionate to people’s needs in comparison to men.17 Besides, women demonstrated their qualities in different fields and proved their readiness to deal with multiple tasks, control career ambitions, and manage finances.

In the UAE, the progress of women depends on education and their abilities to reveal interests and skills. The General Women’s Union was established in the 1970s and provoked the creation of similar organizations and societies to raise women’s spiritual, social, and cultural attitudes. It was discovered that as soon as girls’ education was over, no or little social encouragement was available to women in their attempts to display intelligence.18

Societies aim at analyzing women’s needs and offering the best career options and recommendations. The period of oil wealth helps to discover the potential of women and their role in business development. The only requirement that should not be ignored is family support and appreciation. Husbands and fathers must approve the intentions of their women to participate in social life and contribute to their professional and personal development.

Saudi Arabia is a country where the monarchy is the main form of the government. Despite evident progress in understanding women’s rights, empowerment causes several concerns. On the one hand, the government controls the behavior of people, the conditions under which decisions are made, and the opportunities that can be used. For example, Saudi Arabian women make only 19% of the workforce along with the UAE (14%) and Bahrain (19%).19

It proves that even the discovery of oil cannot help women find good jobs and earn a living without men’s participation. On the other hand, personal observations and experiences show that the population of Saudi Arabia continues to remove some restrictions. For example, in several cities of the country, women and men can behave freely without an obligation to wear the Abaya (a traditional black robe for all women who go outside) or the necessity to support gender segregation in public places.20 However, it is still hard to comprehend if such freedoms and changes are caused by the development of the oil industry in the country or the progress of the entire world with such achievements as globalization and modernization.

Kuwait is one of the countries where the role of women was dramatically increased after the discovery of oil in terms of education and employment. The population continues facing tangible (education and certification) and intangible (personal attitudes) barriers the solution of which depends on how well policymakers can develop new rules and regulations.21 In comparison to the ratings of other countries, in Kuwait, about 23% of women introduce the workforce with more than 70% of women having the right to tertiary education.22

Besides, Kuwait is the country where women gained political rights earlier then the citizens of other Gulf countries did. The question is if women want to use such freedoms and work instead of staying dependent on and being protected by their men. In other words, regardless of the opportunities given, little attention is paid to true women’s desires and goals.

Qatar is also the country with a high rating of female education and employment. The progress in this region is regularly observed by different researchers. For example, a decade ago, women were not allowed to engineering schools.23 Today, they have access to different forms of education and skills development. Still, there are no guarantees for them to get good positions without additional support and advocates.

The progress of the role of Arab women in the Gulf cannot be neglected, but several obstacles and concerns do exist. The government tries to develop effective solutions by promoting new laws. Many people find Qatar as the best place for women to live and build their careers as they can benefit from available favorable legislation.24 In 2001, the Civil Service Act promoted the creation of equal working conditions for both men and women; Law No. 24 (2002) introduced retirement benefits for working women; finally, Law No. 14 (2004) established equal training opportunities.25 Modern Qatar women can take care of children and use additional help, work and achieve various professional goals, and complete functions as mothers and wives in their families.

In the period between the 1970s and 1980s, women in Iraq benefited from the progress of military regimes. Certain civil and economic rights were given with an opportunity to possess leadership positions.26 However, in this country, the production of oil should not be defined as the only reason for women’s empowerment. Wars and political dictatorships changed the living conditions of Arab women and controlled the interference of international agencies with regional laws and legislation.

During the last several decades, Iraq women got an opportunity to change the legal code and use Gulf women as effective sources for understanding human needs and political improvements.27 Women have many strong ideas to share, and the government of Iraq was one of the first legal bodies that were ready to listen to them and make the necessary adjustments.

Oil-Driven Changes and Gulf Women

In the 1990s, the world experienced considerable changes in the common understanding of human rights, violations, and democracy. People want to live freely and use their skills to achieve goals and improve their living. The discovery of oil provided the countries of the Middle East to take the same steps and be developed in different fields. For example, economic progress was observed in oil-rich countries because of the presence of a constant source of revenue. Kuwait, the UAE (Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in particular), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia transformed from solely agricultural countries where pearl hunting was the main activity available to men to the regions where people earn from their property. The Gross Domestic Product has considerably increased, making public investments possible in different fields.

Both men and women could obtain high-level healthcare services, education, and social support. More people could find work close to their homes and avoid the necessity to leave families for a long period. Oil production strengthened family relationships and provided the Middle East with a safe future and prosperity. High rates of employment, the need for new specialties, and international relationships contributed to the economic development and direct participation of women in this success.

It was important to create strong business relationships with the countries where women have already been recognized as valuable workers and leaders. Therefore, Arab women were invited to modern oil business and had to demonstrate a high level of professionalism. As a result, education, political rights, and social freedoms should be offered as well.

Many fathers and husbands want to support the development of their women. A general attitude towards Arab women was changed, and many men try to offer the best options and follow female desires and demands. In many Arabian countries, women can choose any profession, if it is a doctor, an artist, or an engineer.28 At the same time, even though many modern Arab families want to follow the examples of their Western partners, certain regions continue keeping the already established order, following traditions, and controlling women’s behavior in public.

The Middle East and the representatives of the Arabian Gulf should also remember that their oil production requires constant improvements and analysis at the international level. There are many threats to the existed oil-rich kingdom, and it is important to “look beyond oil.”29 The nation that does not treat women equally may be poorly understood by the nations where equal opportunities are promoted. Therefore, it is not enough to reduce restrictions for women, but offer better working conditions, social respect, and public rights. Compared to the pre-oil period, the post-oil period is characterized by the presence of female leaders and managers.

However, the ratings are still low. It is expected to continue improving treatment, open private academic facilities, and create new working places. Women in the Arabian Gulf should not suffer from domestic violence and limitations. Oil-related changes have already helped achieve certain shifts, and women must continue their fight against inequality. The 21st century offers several technologies, social media sources, and communication in terms of which concerns may be discussed, and personal experiences can be shared.

Along with new ideas, men should also remember their primary goal to be protectors for their women. Allah gave them physical strength and centuries-long experience to understand the demands in the world of business, international relationships, and political affairs. It is high time to share their knowledge with women and improve social and economic structures in countries. Fathers’ authority and husbands’ support can become strong stimuli for women to discover their abilities and participate in multiple activities. Laws in Arab countries should not discriminate against women but protect their rights. Recent constitutional changes, vote conditions, and business success have already identified possible scopes that can be expended with time.


In general, the role of women in the Arabian Gulf before and after the discovery of oil has undergone some positive changes. First, the rights of women were considerably reevaluated and improved, including the possibility to vote and participate in elections. Second, education for women was expanded because of the necessity to hire professional female and male employees. Finally, women’s roles as a house-keeper and child carer have been expanded.

Although oil discovery does not influence women directly, multiple indirect factors and improvements cannot be ignored. It is possible to say that oil help women discover the doors to the world of modern business, and such factors as globalization, modernization, and industrialization keep these doors open during the last several decades. Men and women have to live under the same rules with similar obligations, and equal rights and the Arabian Gulf is close to achieving the best outcomes in its development.


Abdalla, Ikhlas A. “Being and Becoming a Leader: Arabian Gulf Women Managers’ Perspective.” International Journal of Business and Management 10, no. 1 (2015): 25-39.

AlMutawa, Rana. “Awareness of Emirati Women’s Economic Roles Before the Oil Boom: Changing Perceptions of Gender Roles?Inquiries Journal 8, no. 10 (2016). Web.

Al-Qaradawi, Sh. Yusuf. “The Status of Women in Islam.” Islamic Articles. Web.

Emon, Anver M. “On Reading Fiqh.” In The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, edited by Anver M. Emon and Rumee Ahmed, 45-74. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Golkowska, Krystyna Urbisz. “Arab Women in the Gulf and the Narrative of Change: The Case of Qatar.” Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal 16, no. 1 (2014): 51-64.

Hobbs, Mark. “Oil Maps of the Middle East.British Library, 2017. Web.

How Oil Transformed the Gulf.The Economist. 2018. Web.

Khalife, Leyal. “The Year Arab Women Became Eligible to Vote in Their Respective Countries.Step Feed. 2018. Web.

Mufson, Steven. “Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom Built on Oil, Plans a Future Beyond It.The Washington Post. 2017. Web.

Parmar, Belinda. “Oil Crisis Lifts the Veil on Women’s Role in Saudi Arabia.World Economic Forum. 2016. Web.

Sonbol, Amira El-Azhary, ed. Gulf Women. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.

Walker, James, Enda Murphy, Francesco Ciardulli, and Luc Hamm. “On the Reliance on Modelled Wave Data in the Arabian Gulf for Coastal and Port Engineering Design.” In 34th International Conference on Coastal Engineering, 298-304. Los Angeles: Current Associates, 2014.


  1. James Walker et al., “On the Reliance on Modelled Wave Data in the Arabian Gulf for Coastal and Port Engineering Design,” in 34th International Conference on Coastal Engineering (Los Angeles: Current Associates, 2014), 298.
  2. Ibid., 299.
  3. “How Oil Transformed the Gulf,” The Economist. 2018. Web.
  4. Amira El-Azhary Sonbol, Gulf Women (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), 7.
  5. Anver M. Emon, “On Reading Fiqh,” in The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, ed. Anver M. Emon and Rumee Ahmed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 45.
  6. Sh. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, “The Status of Women in Islam,” Islamic Articles. Web.
  7. Krystyna Urbisz Golkowska, “Arab Women in the Gulf and the Narrative of Change: The Case of Qatar,” Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal 16, no. 1 (2014): 54.
  8. Rana AlMutawa, “Awareness of Emirati Women’s Economic Roles Before the Oil Boom: Changing Perceptions of Gender Roles?” Inquiries Journal 8, no. 10 (2016). Web.
  9. Mark Hobbs, “Oil Maps of the Middle East,” British Library, 2017. Web.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Steven Mufson, “Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom Built on Oil, Plans a Future Beyond It,” The Washington Post. 2017. Web.
  13. Sonbol, Gulf Women, 21.
  14. Amal Al-Malki, David Kaufer, Suguru Ishizaki, and Kira Dreher. Arab Women in Arab News. Old Stereotypes and New Media (Doha: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012), quoted in Golkowska, “Arab Women in the Gulf and the Narrative of Change”, 63.
  15. Ikhlas A. Abdalla, “Being and Becoming a Leader: Arabian Gulf Women Managers’ Perspective,” International Journal of Business and Management 10, no. 1 (2015): 29.
  16. Leyal Khalife, “The Year Arab Women Became Eligible to Vote in Their Respective Countries,” Step Feed. 2018. Web.
  17. Abdalla, “Being and Becoming a Leader”, 33.
  18. Ibid., 36.
  19. Belinda Parmar, “Oil Crisis Lifts the Veil on Women’s Role in Saudi Arabia,” World Economic Forum. 2016. Web.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Abdalla, “Being and Becoming a Leader”, 33.
  22. Ibid., 25.
  23. Abdalla, “Being and Becoming a Leader”, 31.
  24. Golkowska, “Arab Women in the Gulf and the Narrative of Change”, 55.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Abdalla, “Being and Becoming a Leader”, 29.
  27. Sonbol, Gulf Women, 22.
  28. Parmar, “Oil Crisis Lifts the Veil.”
  29. Mufson, “Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom Built on Oil”.