Is Feminist Foreign Policy Heading to the Gulf?

Is Feminist Foreign Policy Heading to the Gulf?

Anticipating the post-oil future, the United Arab Emirates has revolutionized its diplomatic strategy in recent years, including by taking up the cause of women’s empowerment—both domestically and in the international arena.

The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) is not known for being exemplary regarding women’s rights. While there is, of course, intra-regional variation, the latest edition of the Global Gender Gap Report indicates that the MENA region exhibits the second-largest gender gap of any region, with only South Asia trailing behind.

Yet, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) relatively strong positioning on several women’s empowerment rankings has become a point of pride for the country—a normative lynchpin in its evolving diplomatic strategy. Concurrently, the UAE has also become a key supporter of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda in international diplomatic forums, taking its place among a set of reliable champions of the framework, including the Nordic states and Canada.

These more traditional promoters of WPS have long been on the cutting edge of women-centered policies. Most notably, in 2014, Margot Wallström, then the Swedish foreign minister, announced that her country would embrace a “feminist foreign policy,” which aimed to apply a gender equality perspective to the issues of rights, resources, and representation. However, the political appetite for these commitments appears to have since waned, as the new Swedish foreign minister distanced the Swedish government from its hallmark policy this October, maintaining that “labels on things have a tendency to cover up the content.”

In the context of this shifting landscape and just a month before Sweden’s announcement, Abu Dhabi hosted an event co-sponsored by UN Women titled the “International Conference on Women, Peace, and Security,” which the UAE touted as being the first such high-level conference on the topic in the MENA region. Hosting the conference was merely the latest in a series of steps taken by the UAE to cement its status in the global WPS arena. In 2017, for instance, when the UAE released a new global aid strategy highlighting three priorities for Emirati foreign aid, women’s empowerment and protection were notably listed first in the accompanying press release. This prioritization bears a striking—even if superficial—resemblance to feminist foreign policy.

Feminist Foreign Policy and the WPS Agenda

In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, which called for the enhanced participation of women in peace and security efforts. In the intervening two decades, nine additional Security Council resolutions on WPS have been adopted. In line with the spirit of this agenda, seven other countries, including Canada, France, Mexico, Spain, Luxembourg, Germany, and Chile, have also adopted feminist foreign policies, following in the footsteps of Sweden’s pioneering efforts.

Such policies, however, have not been without their critics. In 2015, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Stockholm over Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s criticism of the kingdom’s rights record (which she considered to be the operationalization of her recently adopted policy), claiming that her remarks represented an attack on the Sharia-based Saudi legal system. The UAE, along with the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), later joined in the condemnation of Wallström.

A New Yorker article from the time titled “Who’s Afraid of a Feminist Foreign Policy?” hypothesized that Saudi Arabia’s reaction “may indicate that it would prefer for Wallström’s ideas not to spread beyond Stockholm.” While discussing some of the backlash she received, Wallström herself recently acknowledged knowing at the time that the policy would be “somewhat controversial, and that it could have a negative connotation in some countries.” At the same time, she lamented Sweden’s own recent abandonment of a feminist foreign policy, contending that the evidence is clear: “We know that more women means more peace.” Interestingly, the UAE, which sided against Wallström seven years ago, today uses identical language to support its newfound interest in promoting the WPS agenda. It appears that Wallström’s ideas have spread beyond Stockholm—to Saudi Arabia’s immediate neighborhood.

The UAE’s Prized Accomplishments

In an October message commemorating the anniversary of the passage of Resolution 1325, the UAE’s permanent mission to the UN claimed that the country “is playing a unique role in realizing the aspirations of the resolution,” highlighting that it was the first GCC state to adopt a national action plan on WPS. In the broader region, only Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Yemen, and Sudan have adopted such plans (and some only as a result of international pressure stemming from a reliance on development aid).

Other commonly cited achievements include the UAE’s support for a training program for female peacekeepers, the WPS-centric work plan adopted during the UAE’s tenure as president of the UN Security Council in March 2022, the well-endowed women’s pavilion at the Expo 2020 event held in Dubai, the location of UN Women’s Liaison Office for the GCC in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s status as the leading regional contributor to UN Women, and the UAE’s collaboration with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS), which culminated in a report and a series of events on women’s role in post-conflict recovery.

However, it is not only this international women-centered agenda that the UAE trumpets. Government statements also make regular reference to the country’s domestic progress toward gender equality, with these two streams of accomplishments presented to reinforce the UAE’s commitment to women’s empowerment at all levels.

On the 2021 WPS Index produced by GIWPS, which ranks countries according to women’s inclusion, security, and access to justice, the UAE tied with Australia for the twenty-fourth spot out of 170 countries. This was just three places below the United States and two spots above Israel. In an exercise that highlights just how far the UAE has allegedly outpaced its Arab counterparts, finding the next Arab state on the list requires significant scrolling—Qatar and Bahrain tie for 97th, and Saudi Arabia takes the 102nd spot, with the rest of the Arab states ranking somewhere from 110 to 169. The UAE’s positive performance is a point explicitly emphasized in the report as an example of one of the “widest regional variations” and an example of a country whose score has increased by at least 10 percent since 2017.

Turning to another leading indicator, while the UAE ranks sixty-eighth on the World Economic Forum’s most recent Gender Gap Report, it is still the highest-ranked MENA country on the list, with the exception of Israel. The rest of the GCC countries fall somewhere from 127 to 139, and the largest gap in the Gulf relates to political empowerment. When the data on political empowerment is disaggregated, the UAE is ranked thirtieth, while its closest GCC neighbor on the list, Saudi Arabia, does not appear until spot 132. This is due primarily to the fact that the UAE reached parity in its parliament thanks to a quota established in 2019. Notably, the UAE fares much worse on the report’s other sub-indices. For example, on the measure of economic participation and opportunity, the UAE is ranked 132nd out of 146 countries, with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all scoring slightly better.

To a skeptic, the UAE’s positive performance on the political participation metric highlights just how easy it is for a government to engineer its positioning on such lists by taking seemingly progressive—but essentially toothless—steps, such as increasing women’s representation in a rubber-stamp political body with no real authority. Additionally, these rankings do not seem to capture the particularly marginalized position of female migrant workers laboring under the Kafala system. However, if it is possible to raise one’s international status with such cosmetic—and, in turn, highly lauded—steps, it is striking that the UAE’s emphasis on the WPS agenda is unique among the Gulf states. Moreover, its effort to position itself as a key international defender of the women’s rights agenda is unprecedented for an Arab state.

Government Co-optation of an Activist Agenda

The issues of women’s empowerment and rights offer a useful and relatively low-cost veneer for a state to fortify its image in the international arena. Additionally, the cynical use and abuse of the WPS agenda by government actors to justify a variety of militaristic policies has been well-documented and critiqued.

However, embracing the international women’s rights and empowerment discourse has always been a complex proposition for Arab governments—albeit one that is more nuanced than dominant media coverage would indicate. The stances of Arab governments on the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) offer a representative example. All Arab states except Sudan and Somalia have since ratified the treaty. (The UAE, for its part, did so relatively late in 2004, only beating out Oman and Qatar, which followed suit in 2006 and 2009, respectively). Yet, despite near-universal regional accession, the Arab states are infamous for the long lists of “reservations” that accompanied their signing of the treaty, which often expressed the states’ intention to eschew elements that contradicted their interpretations of Sharia. Concerns about provoking the ire of domestic conservative forces intersect with the need to appease international audiences.

In the case of the UAE, the assumption that embracing the WPS agenda will play well with an international—specifically American—audience is further underscored by a statement issued in the aftermath of recent Arab normalization deals with Israel. In September 2021, the signatories of the Abraham Accords—the UAE, Israel, Morocco, and Bahrain—issued a joint statement on “Women, Peace and Diplomacy” at the UN Human Rights Council.