Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

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From professional assimilation of women to recycling of carbon emissions: To address future challenges the Arab Middle East needs to make full use of all it has.

What do women, water and carbon have in common? One answer: all three are global issues whose potential isn’t always fully taken advantage of. The January edition of the Middle East Monitor of the Strategic Foresight Group shows three examples of how things could be done better.

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What we can see is that over the past ten years or so the participation of women in the work force of many countries in the Arab Middle East has increased. This is true for, among others, Jordan, Tunisia, Syria, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

In the Saudi Kingdom, women’s share in the national labor force has indeed tripled within the last two decades, from 5.4 percent in 1995 to 14.4. percent in 2009. This becomes particularly apparent in banking and education. In fact, the number of female teachers has almost doubled between1996 and 2006, reaching 200.000.

In Syria, where 11 percent of diplomats are women, we can see a similar trend in traditionally male-dominated disciplines such as the natural sciences. Here the number of women has reached 45 percent. Finally, Jordan comes top of the class: Here the number of working women has risen from 18 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2009.

But how was this positive change possible?  As so often with structural changes, education seems to play a fundamental role. We can observe a clear correlation between the number of girls graduating from high school and college, on the one hand, and the increase in women’s employment, on the other hand. In Syria, 64 percent of female employees have degrees from a university or vocational institute, while in Saudi Arabia this number even reaches 90 percent. In other words, education seems to do the trick (once again)!

The last years have also seen the passing of formal gender equality laws and policies in many Arab countries. In fact, the public sector plays a pivotal role as a “female employer” in the region. In Jordan the government today employs 45 percent of the female labor force, in Saudi Arabia it’s 30 percent. In addition, local and international NGOs contributed to this positive development. A good example here is the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa, Israel.

Needless to say, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. For instance, the positive trend in the economic empowerment of Arab women is still largely confined to urban areas. In the future this might not necessarily lead to greater participation of women in rural regions, and thus the female population at large.

There is hope, however, that economic empowerment can reinforce good governance and civic participation. Because having an income and earning one’s living also means gaining more control of one’s life. Enabling women more financial control might in turn lead to greater social empowerment and inclusion with all its wide ranging effects on state and society. This also means greater contribution to the knowledge base of these countries as well as their capacity for innovations which are vital for progress and development.

Economic empowerment – for both men and women – is also subject of another article in this issue which looks at micro-credits in Syria. It’s estimated that in the Arab region as a whole about 4.5 million poor require micro-finance to fund their businesses.

In Syria, most private and commercial banks, however, still mainly prefer high-income clients. The system of micro-banking functions like that: villagers themselves create local micro-finance institutions to address their personal needs. In those places where micro-finance has been introduced the results are very encouraging in terms of new enterprises and businesses.

In addition to fighting poverty micro-finance could also provide a way to overcome other major global challenges: water scarcity and drought. For example, A project run by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme issued loans ranging between $100 US and $300 US to farmers in the village of Fraytan in the central heartland of the country. The money was invested in new systems for drop irrigation that reduces water usage by up to 30 percent, while increasing crop yields by up to 60 percent. This, of course, will also enhance Syria’s food security.

Another interesting story in this edition of SFG deals with the combination of natural resources and innovative technology in addressing global challenges such as climate change and globalization. Here we’re looking at a gas that despite its abundance gets often overlooked as a resource – that is carbon dioxide.

In 2006 the Gulf region (excluding Yemen) emitted 26 tons of carbon dioxide per capita. compared with China’s (4.6 tons per capita), we can see that the Gulf is among the top per capita emitters in the world, due to electricity generation, desalination and industrialization.

Recently, Bahrain has launched a very ambitious initiative to establish the world’s largest carbon recovering plant. With an initial investment of $55 billion US the aim is to cut 90 percent of the emissions by capturing CO2 and using it as raw material for urea and methanol processing. Sounds like a great way of tackling climate change while opening up a new business opportunity.

It’s estimated that the region with its large CO2 emissions could potentially be worth $5 billion US per year. However, one of the downsides of such storage facilities (apart from the enormous investment) is that they reduce the plant’s efficiency by 30 to 40 percent. Then again, efficient carbon capture and storage could also place the Gulf in a powerful position on the global carbon trading market.

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