Gendering US Foreign Policy in the Gulf

By Liza Kane-Hartnett


Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, recently completed a two week trip in the U.S., touting his reforms, enticing investors, and heralding the close relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. While his reforms are welcome, they do not change the fundamental gender dynamics in the kingdom – a development the U.S. would be smart to encourage.


Gender equality is good for security, good for the economy, and ultimately, good for nations. In fact, women’s empowerment is the best predictor of state stability. Indeed, experts in the region assert that the Shiekh of Dubai and  other influential Gulf leaders view women’s economic empowerment as a way to measure the country’s overall progress and display a positive image for the West. Yet, gender is often absent from foreign policy deliberations.


Take Saudi Arabia for instance. The U.S. could be using its clout with the kingdom to help empower women in support of the economic and social reforms outlined in its 2030 Vision. But, instead of encouraging women’s rights, the U.S. administration, notably Jared Kushner and President Trump himself, use their close relationship with MBS to legitimize some of his worst instincts – the ongoing war in Yemen, blockade of Qatar, and purge of Saudi officials disloyal to him. Though the crown prince has demonstrated a willingness to undertake reforms, and has been applauded for ending restrictions on women driving and allowing women to view sporting matches, these reforms do not go far enough. Strengthening domestic violence legislation – and implementing current laws – expanding citizenship laws to allow women to pass nationality to their children, improving access to contraception – including emergency contraception – for unmarried and married women alike, and legalizing homosexuality can help reduce barriers. Ultimately, an end to the guardianship system is needed if women – across the societal spectrum, not just the privileged – are to become equal members of society and contribute to the nation’s newly envisioned economy.


It is true that the U.S. must be conscious not to push its policies on other nations – a lesson that has not yet been learned – and that change begins locally; however, the U.S. can use its substantial influence to incentivize policies that increase gender equality in support of the 2030 Vision. For instance, in 2014 Barack Obama presented the founder of Saudi Arabia’s National Family Safety Program, Dr. Maha al-Muneef, with the International Women of Courage Award for her work on domestic violence. The award symbolized the U.S. support for the kingdom’s ongoing reforms and, according to Dr. al-Muneef, provided legitimacy to her work.


And it’s not just Saudi Arabia. All of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Saudi Arabia – have developed visions that help transition the nations from resource-based to knowledge-based economies. Throughout the Gulf, women are highly educated. In fact, women are more educated than men, accounting for 60 percent of university graduates in Saudi Arabia and 63 percent of the university population in Qatar. But, to achieve their respective 2030 visions, the knowledge and skills of women in GCC countries must be unleashed in the workforce, particularly the private sector, which lags behind governments in women’s representation. The GCC governments acknowledge the need to incorporate women into the workforce at high levels if they are to achieve their economic goals, but have yet to provide the necessary resources to recognize this vision.


The transition will require not only legislative changes, but also shifts in societal perceptions and the role of women, such as expectations of motherhood and domestic responsibilities. These competing priorities are not unique to GCC countries as women in the U.S. and around the world face the same challenges. However, these are crucial discussions as this is the first generation in which women are joining the workforce in significant numbers, altering the culture at both work and home and providing opportunity to address fundamental inequalities.


The United States can be a supportive partner in these transitions. By appealing to the national goals of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, the U.S. can employ a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage gender equality. U.S. investment – both in the private sector and defense – is important to the region and can be used as leverage. MBS has appealed to investors throughout his trip in the U.S. for support for the 2030 Vision and defense deals. Action against Iran, support for regional politics, and security cooperation can also be leveraged in the U.S.-GCC relationship. Though the U.S. must be careful not to overplay their hand as the GCC nations possess vast wealth and could turn to other partners.


This is not to say that women’s rights should be the key priority in U.S. foreign policy, that would be both naïve and imprudent. However, a forward looking U.S. foreign policy should incorporate gender equality – including LGBTQ+ rights –  women’s rights, women’s health, and women’s economic and political empowerment as a means to improve human rights and further its interests around the globe. President Trump, breaking with recent trends, has shown little appetite for value-based diplomacy or using U.S. power to encourage gender equality. The Trump administration has a strong relationship with the GCC countries – particularly the Saudi Arabia, which was the first country he visited as president – and seemingly little interest in pressing them on controversial issues; however, these relationships provide opportunity for action.


At a time when countries around the world are acknowledging the role of gender in security and development, the U.S. appears to be backtracking not only internationally, but also at home. It is difficult for the U.S. to promote human rights and gender equality abroad while supporting destructive policies domestically, as the U.S. should strive to reach the same equality as it preaches to other nations. This hypocrisy has long been a tenet of American foreign policy. Nevertheless, by ignoring the role of women’s rights in foreign policy, the United States makes it easier for its Gulf allies to maintain the status quo.


Liza Kane-Hartnett is the Editor-in-Chief at Emerging Voices. She holds a Master’s in Global Affairs from New York University and a background in U.S. foreign policy, international governance, and women’s rights. She can be found on Twitter @L_KaneHartnett.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.