Source: Council on Foreign Relations

As families work tirelessly to increase their income, and nations drive ever harder to spur economic growth, it can be easy to overlook the fact that the secret to growth may be hidden in plain sight. Saudi Arabia realized it when trying to end its “addiction to oil.”

It can’t transform its economy without a bigger labor force, and it can’t reach its workforce targets without including women. And so, amid broader political and economic upheaval — from multi-billion dollar mega projects to an anti-corruption purge that detained many of the country’s most prominent officials — Saudi Arabia’s bid to modernize its economy included the unexpected step of permitting women to drive. This is likely not the last groundbreaking announcement from the kingdom.

Because until Saudi women can work, travel, file legal claims, and otherwise engage in public life without permission from their male guardians — their father or husband, sometimes even their son —the country won’t realize the economic potential of half its population.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg for the region. Widespread legal and cultural barriers restrict how women participate in society, according to a new report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), costing the Middle East and North Africa billions of dollars a year in lost income.

With only 21 percent of women employed (compared to 75 percent of men), the region has the lowest rate of women’s participation in the labor force. While women are more educated and skilled than they have ever been, few work in the private sector, fewer hold senior positions in any institution, and women-owned businesses tend to be informal, home-based enterprises with little opportunity to grow.  READ MORE…

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