x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A man's world but nothing without a woman or a girl

If the Chinese are right when they say that women hold up half the sky, we may be in for trouble in the UAE.

If the Chinese are right when they say that women hold up half the sky, we may be in for trouble in the UAE. It is well known that there is a serious gender imbalance in this country, thanks largely to the armies of imported construction workers needed to help build the nation's skylines. Construction and real estate are the UAE's largest employers and, while there is no shortage of females in real estate, it would be a head-turner indeed to see a woman in one of those Ashok Leyland buses hurtling between the dusty building sites of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Solid numbers are hard to come by, but according to most population estimates there are roughly three men in the UAE for every woman, a statistic that doesn't begin to capture the imbalance that persists in business, politics and the wider workforce. That men dominate the corridors of power remains a reality in many modern nations, but in few do they do so to the extent that they do here. This is thankfully starting to change. Women were allowed to vote and run in the country's first parliamentary elections in 2006.

And the Federal National Council this month published a report with the Dubai School of Government recommending greater female participation in the council and more rights for female citizens in general. But since a sizeable majority of UAE residents are not citizens, changes to the participatory power of Emirati women in local politics are likely to do little to redress the more immediate consequences of the gender gap on the nation's economy and society.

The global economic crisis stands to worsen that imbalance and exacerbate the downturn here. How to alleviate the gender imbalance should therefore be part of the Government's economic stimulus planning. In many ways, the demographics of the UAE's economy resemble those of frontier America, which was also dominated by a transient population of largely male newcomers. "As an immigrant society America experienced a more or less continuous influx of youthful male workers, resulting in a population with more men than women for every year prior to 1946," wrote historian David Courtwright in his 1996 book, Violent Land. "Insofar as young, single men are any society's most troublesome and unruly citizens, American had a built-in tendency toward violence and disorder."

Fast-forward to modern-day China, where a surplus of males - the result of China's one-child policy applied in a nation with an unhealthy preference for male offspring - is being linked to a rising crime rate among migrant workers moving from rural areas to the cities in search of work and now, amid a slowing economy, back again. Economists routinely warn that growing numbers of jobless young men in the Arab world are a simmering source of discontent.

The UAE still enjoys a perceptibly low crime rate, testimony to the stability of its economy and government, as well as careful visa screening, an effective if largely invisible security apparatus, and the fact that foreigners cannot stay if they lose their jobs. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the economic slowdown will affect the nation's safety. It does appear statistically certain, however, that growing numbers of lay-offs will convince at least some that desperate times call for desperate measures.

But the biggest concern may not be how the global crisis aggravates the surfeit of men; rather how it irritates our shortage of women. Regardless of whether men start fist fights in shawarma stalls or stage riots over parking, no city can be considered civilised without a feminine touch. As Mr Courtwright suggests, men behave much better when there are women about. They are more likely to use footpaths for cafes instead of overflow parking, for example, or yield to pedestrians at zebra crossings instead of cutting them in half with their sports cars.

There is some biological evidence to support this: long-term studies of men have found that single men have higher levels of testosterone, the hormone responsible for male attributes and correlated to aggression, than men who are married. This would seem a mere symptom of age - men tend to marry the older they get - except for findings that testosterone levels also rise among men who get divorced.

The danger is that, in trying to offset the impact of the global crisis, we worsen the gender gap. Mari Pangestu, Indonesia's trade minister and one of three female Cabinet members in the government of the world's most populous Muslim nation, noted recently that fiscal stimulus packages tend to be male-centric. "When designing our stimulus programs we have to think about this," Ms Pangestu said. "Building bridges and roads gives jobs to men."

If the Government carries through with big infrastructure projects but offers no support for the service sector and small and medium-sized enterprises, where will women find work? Conversely, as businesses outside of construction cut costs, job losses are likely to fall disproportionately on the already smaller population of women working in the UAE. Economists note that population loss may be one of the biggest risks to the UAE's economy. It could be argued further that losing one woman has more economic impact than losing one man. Many of the women leaving the UAE, after all, are married to men who have lost their jobs.

When they leave, they take with them not only their power over the purse strings, but the spending needs of their children. Single men also tend to spend much less than married men. How many single men have you seen lately buying three-bedroom villas, duvet covers at Zara Home, or birthday packages at Wild Wadi? In 1864, Seattle's Asa Mercer decided to help solve his rowdy city's male surplus by travelling to Massachusetts and bringing back young, eligible bachelorettes. The UAE doesn't need an airlift, but policy makers writing the script for the nation's successful survival of the crisis would do well to make sure that women get a starring role.

warnold@thenational.ae