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OPINIONJuly 11, 2023

Reforms in GCC Countries Showing Big Impact: Reflecting on my Five Years as the World Bank Director for the GCC

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I moved to Riyadh in August 2018. In that period a major socio-economic transformation had already started under Vision 2030 of the Kingdom. Today, Riyadh is a different city than the one I moved in. The vision in Saudi Arabia, as well as the rest of the GCC countries, aims mainly at improving the standard of living of the people in the countries and at diversifying the economy while moving the majority of it from the public to the private sector. I can write a book on this which I will probably do in the future. However, in this piece I will talk only about few things.

Last month, Rayyanah Barnawi made a remarkable step as the first Saudi female ventured into space. I was not surprised hearing this news. Since the time I was appointed as the World Bank Country Director of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Countries in 2018, I have met energetic youth and ambitious women in this region. In the past five years, I have seen GCC countries make milestone changes in many different areas like health, education, women empowerment, and tourism.

One area which saw immense progress among the many reforms made in this region is women’s economic inclusion. First, supporting women’s economic participation was vital to reaching the goals set in the different visions of the GCC countries. Thus lifting legal barriers was an important reform undertaken. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been at the forefront of this movement, introducing groundbreaking legal changes that eliminated many barriers to more women getting jobs and joining the economic activities.

Saudi Arabia introduced a historic set of legal reforms in 2019-2020 such as the civil status law, labor law, enforcement law, and laws on access to finance. And the results are showing women’s labor force participation (WLFP) increased from 22% in 2019 to almost 37% today, exceeding the target of 30% set by the Saudi Vision 2030.

The UAE, guided by their Gender Balance Council, has also been a pioneer in its efforts to eliminate legal barriers for women and moving towards gender neutral ecosystem. The UAE opened up many new social, educational, and economic opportunities for women and unsurprisingly has one of the highest WLFP rates in the MENA region – at 55%. The average WLFP for MENA is 19%.

The UAE has also undertaken a role as a regional leader. We recently launched a World Bank-UAE Gender Center for Excellence. The Center will serve as a platform for knowledge exchange on gender issues in the MENA region and beyond through research, innovation, and knowledge exchange.

Bahrain has also moved on several fronts to make it easier for women to be part of the economic activities on the country. Kuwait passed a law combating domestic violence as well as prohibiting gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment at the workplace in 2020 and 2021.

In other areas, the GCC has been focused not only on women but on empowering its people, its human capital. The GCC’s engagement in Human Development (HD) has substantially strengthened health, education, social protection and jobs systems.

Regarding social protection and jobs, some key achievements made across the GCC include effective support on the broad range of labor, skills, and social protection transformational reforms. This includes the design and implementation of a National Labor Market Strategy in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia which has already led to key labor market reforms adopted, including labor mobility (March 14, 2021) and adjustment to levies for expatriates and their dependents in Saudi Arabia.

One of the results of transformational labor market reforms in Saudi Arabia led to WLFP reaching over 37% When it comes to health, many things have improved. In Saudi Arabia, support to various health sector agencies has contributed to shaping and driving overall reform of the health system, from health financing reform to service delivery, including employment and workforce reforms in pharmaceutical and other provider sectors.

World Bank technical assistance contributed towards the increased Saudization of the health workforce, the scaling up of nursing competencies, strengthening the pharmaceutical supply chain, and developing and implementing strategic purchasing in the health sector. A notable achievement included putting non-communicable diseases (NCDs) high on the development agenda in Saudi Arabia and the broader GCC, as they are a major health challenge and a leading cause of death that needs to be addressed. NCDs were the focus in our latest Gulf Economic Update.

Saudi Arabia has also in the last 5 years, made other reforms that have a big impact: introducing physical education for schoolgirls, plain packaging of tobacco products, regulating the amount of salt in bread, and implementing the highest sugarsweetened beverage (SSB) tax rate in the world, among other reforms. In Bahrain, the Bank team is providing critical support to the government in the design of an effective nutrition warning label, to nudge consumers away from unhealthy to healthier food alternatives.

In my opinion, GCC countries have also proved to the world that they are a leading region in exploiting technology and handling crises. The GCC region during COVID-19 made tremendous efforts to fight the pandemic. Although COVID-19 represented a “twin-shock” for the region, as the drop in oil prices weighed heavily on fiscal revenues and then pandemic-related disruptions brought general economic activity to a virtual standstill, GCC countries worked hard and took the necessary actions to recover well.

I experienced first hand how technology helped all the GCC countries in controlling COVID-19 by counting how many people had the disease through phone apps and participation, and some of these apps are still being used today for other health and service purposes.

The Seha Virtual Hospital in Saudi Arabia is another first of its kind in the region, taking the advancement of technology and merging it with the health sector. It underscores how modern digital platforms can significantly expand health services. And to continue the growth and changes made to develop human capital, GCC countries focused on reforming and improving their education sector.

One of the most important decisions was to prioritize student-teacher connections through a virtual school experience using a custom-built “Madrasati” (“My School”) platform containing a suite of tools for instructional planning and videoconferencing, along with books, educational games, virtual laboratories, test items, and more.

The major work that GCC countries had done and their accumulated experience in education technologies were the reason they had the capacity to adapt to online learning during the pandemic and necessary to make these changes and tools happen.

And lastly, let’s not forget tourism, which is a vital part of economic growth and diversification in which GCC governments made a lot of efforts to flourish. I should mention that the World Bank worked directly with some Saudi Arabia’s leading cultural heritage and tourism sites and corresponding agencies such as the Royal Commission for AlUla and Diriyah Gate Development Authority to help drive this development forward. The World Bank has supported these entities to ensure the spatial, social, environmental, and economic sustainability of the development of AlUla and Diriyah tourism areas.

After these five years that I spent in the GCC, I am so proud of all these successful reforms and this special journey.


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