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Meeting the Middle East I: The Good News

I was invited by Ernst & Young to appear on a panel at their Growing Beyond Summit 2012 in Doha this past week.  It was an important “first” for me in that I have never before appeared before a group made up primarily of Arab men to speak about women’s issues. I was somewhat anxious about it, as I imagine many would be.

It was clear, though, that Ernst & Young intended to be focusing in a clear-eyed way on the big issues.  My panel followed a session on the importance of building affordable housing in the burgeoning cities of the Middle East.  Since most of that population growth is coming from immigration, this is not an uncontroversial topic.  And, that morning, David A. Smith, of the Affordable Housing Institute, was impressing upon the audience the need to act, in a tone that no one could mistake.  It’s an urgent situation.

Muna AbuSulayman is one of the most influential Muslims in the world. Though she currently focuses increasingly on philanthropy, she was formerly cohost of a popular social television show called Kalam Nawaem, which, appropriately enough, means “Softly Speaking.”

Uschi Schreiber, Global Sector Leader for Global Government and Public Sector for Ernst & Young, was the moderator for the panel on women.  She is a person who immediately strikes you as very intelligent and confident–and is also fabulously fashionable. Schreiber was straightforward, rather than glibly smoothing things over as moderators often do.  The people who were on the panel with me were impressive–and not inclined to sugar-coat their message, either.  On my left was Muna AbuSalayman, a media celebrity and humanitarian activist from Saudia Arabia, who was beautiful and soft-spoken, but let her rancor show when one of the “instant polls” showed most in the room claimed their organization was actively recruiting and promoting women.

On my right was Professor Saif S. Alsowaidi, Vice President for Institutional Planning and Development of Qatar University, who quickly named and counted the number of women at a high level in his institution.  (In a toe-to-toe contest with Oxford, his university would apparently win handily on this dimension, a reminder that Western expectations of life in the Middle East are probably often out of date.)  Professor Alsowaidi’s casual manner and frequent examples of how much things had changed were just the right mix with Muna’s quiet passion and my numbers.

And, yes, I ended up with the numbers, as I seemed to be the one who had them.  In fact, I had spent several days updating my knowledge of the situation and making charts on my iPad that could be used as a quick reference.  These numbers show a mixed, somewhat paradoxical, picture and I had been digging around, looking for explanations.  I think I found some, but the view is complex, so I am going to break this report into “the good news” (today) and “the bad news” (tomorrow).

The “good news” is that the big families still seen, even locally, to be the ideal of the region are already a thing of the past.  Though the fertility rate, as measured by UNDP, in Yemen and Iraq are still stuck between 4 and 5 per births per woman, while Jordan, Syria, and Kuwait hover around 3, most of the region is at the replacement rate (2). Iran, UAE, and Oman, indeed, have fallen below replacement rate.  Oman, at 1.6, is at a rate that typifies the “aging population” countries of Europe and those low fertilities are causing some hand-wringing among economists and futurists.

Nations at the replacement rate are usually viewed positively by the international community, though, because of the contrast with the instability associated with high fertility rates one finds in recent war zones like Sierra Leone, Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and so on.

The other bit of good news is the progress being made on education.  Most countries are reporting fairly high rates of enrollment in primary education, as reported by the WEF, in addition to reasonable literacy rates among females.  However, there is a marked propensity for fall-off in the critical transition to secondary school.

As we shall see in the “bad news” section tomorrow, this falling off of enrollments among females is probably related to issues that come into play at puberty.

Many Middle Eastern countries, though, are still reporting secondary enrollment rates above 65%, which is better than you see in much of the developing world.  Of particular concern is the report from Iran, though, which shows female enrollment dropping from 100% of all girls in primary school to 40% in secondary school.  Though Morocco and Yemen also have very low numbers, this long-term evidence of the fading of the pre-Revolution emphasis on education, even for women, in Iran is saddening.

As we shall see tomorrow, the positive signs in education are not playing out in employment.  Though this is the pattern throughout the world–and it likely to command our attention in the future the way education has in the past–the failure to realize investments in education through increased female labor participation is much larger in the Middle East than it is elsewhere.  For the explanation, we will look into the usual culprits:  reproductive practice and the legal environment.  More on that in the “bad news” for tomorrow.

All in all, however, the reception for this topic among the 200 or so people, mostly men, gathered at the Ernst & Young conference was open-minded, forward-looking, and upbeat.  It just goes to show you that change is everywhere and all around us.  It’s important to stay hopeful.

And the view of Doha from the hotel was gorgeous.  (Just had to share the photo. Loving the camera my mother gave me for my birthday.)

The view from the Ritz Carlton "Club Level" breakfast in Doha, where I was graciously hosted for the Ernst & Young conference.


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