According to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs 2021, less than 1 in 5 working-age females in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are in the workforce, compared to 7 out of every 10 males. Further, women’s entrepreneurship is at a meager 4 percent, one of the lowest worldwide. Structural challenges, such as limited access to finance and cultural stigma, are major barriers for women entrepreneurs, in addition to a lack of policies to encourage and increase women’s ability to work. This roundtable explored the latest findings on women's economic participation in MENA with a focus on the cases of Bahrain, Lebanon, and Tunisia. The experts examined the impact of three main challenges to women's economic participation and entrepreneurship: inheritance laws, financial inclusion, and digital inclusion.
Leaders across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) recognize the importance of diversifying the economy and encouraging the population to become more active in the workforce, including women. As a result, the Gulf countries are witnessing an improvement in women’s economic participation. According to Hala Al Dosari, a major barrier to women’s entrepreneurship in the GCC is laws that curb the freedom of association. This limits their ability to network, access mentorship opportunities, and find sources of funding. Dosari identified several additional problems including a lack of women’s rights, “the political systems, which are very much closed in those countries, [have] no representation of the feedback loop that is needed to inform policymaking, especially in the economic sector, and the access to information.”
Alya Alaali contended that Bahrain has made enormous strides in increasing the participation of women in society and the economy, in part due to collaborative efforts of the Supreme Council for Women and Bahrain Development Bank. They implemented multiple women-targeted programs that aimed to increase women entrepreneurs’ access to finance, one of the most common challenges they face. “We’ve noticed this program was a steppingstone for a lot of females that needed access to finance. It’s helped them build credit histories that helped them later on... We also believe that betting on women was the right choice because the default rate was low and all these enterprises are still in existence today, despite the pandemic.”
Salwa Sahloul detailed a similar program led by the Ministry of Women in Tunisia. She argued that despite high graduation rates among women, including master’s and other specialized license programs, they struggle to find formal employment. The ministry leveraged banks and other financial institutions in the country to provide loans to women-led businesses. While the programs were successful, unfortunately, gains were largely reversed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Lebanon, Lynn Mounzer noted that while the country “has an enabling environment for entrepreneurship, more than the rest of the MENA region, female entrepreneurship is still low. And the majority of women-owned businesses in the country operate in the informal sector.” Women in Lebanon are afforded opportunities to network and gain essential skills, but struggle to access finance. This is due in part to the legal framework in Lebanon governing personal finance. “Households and assets are in the man’s name, which creates a big problem for women accessing funds [because] they don’t have collateral.”
Data is a critical resource for identifying the persistent barriers to women’s entrepreneurship in MENA as well as needed reform to enhance their success. It “provides an opening for us to go back and say, ‘let’s look into what is going on here,’” Alaali commented, adding, “If we are dealing with policymakers, most of the time, I’ve seen the data work in terms of conveying these challenges and getting solutions for them.”
Working with ‘male allies’ is necessary to accelerate women’s empowerment. Mounzer contended that we must engage men on three levels: the household, the community, and the policy level, “as men influence men on their perceptions of women.” She advocated that on the policy level, “we need more men to advocate to change policies and laws to be more inclusive, equal, and supportive.”
Finally, the digital revolution sweeping MENA vastly expands the opportunities available to women. Technology enables women to expand their businesses through social media and other online platforms and take on roles as online freelancers. This drastically reduces the administrative, financial, and sometimes physical costs of doing business in more traditional ways. Another important development is in the area of financial technologies, or fintech, which grants women direct access to sources of finance, including rural women.
Women entrepreneurs must be empowered with control over their finances, gain access to professional networks and information, and increase their representation in leadership positions to reduce barriers to their success.
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
Middle East Women's Initiative
The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research. Read more