Photos of a female Saudi soldier cradling an infant who fell asleep in her arms while she disembarked from a ship carrying evacuees from war-torn Sudan have gone viral, highlighting the growing role of women in Gulf security institutions.
Over the past two decades, the number of women assuming important positions in areas that men have monopolized for many decades has steadily increased in the Gulf Arab states largely due to top-down policies and social shifts. As Gulf Arab states pursue their ambitious economic diversification, or “Vision,” plans, they are increasingly boosting the presence and level of activity of women in traditionally male-dominated sectors, such as diplomacy and the military. Women’s inclusion in these fields signals a significant change in the gendered politics of diplomacy and security.
Gulf Women in Security
In February 2018, as part of a series of measures aimed at empowering women and increasing women’s labor participation, Saudi Arabia announced it would permit women to apply for a limited number of military positions in select provinces. However, the kingdom maintained a legal glass ceiling limiting women to subaltern, noncombat roles. One year later, Saudi Arabia expanded the roles available to women, allowing them to serve in combat beginning in February 2021. Since 2017, Saudi Arabia has also allowed women to join the traffic police and air traffic control and take on positions as investigators in the public prosecutor’s office.
In 2021, after completing a 14-week training course, Saudi Arabia’s first female military recruits graduated from the Saudi armed forces women’s training center and for the first time were permitted to serve in front-line roles. In January, more than 250 Saudi women graduated from the institute with specializations in diplomatic as well as hajj and umrah security. Saudi women have also taken leading roles in civilian positions in the Ministry of Defense.
The Khawla bint Al Azwar Military School, which the United Arab Emirates established in 1990 as the region’s first women’s military college, trains cadets for military service, humanitarian assistance, and peacekeeping operations. Every year, female soldiers graduate and begin their national service duties, assuming high ranks in combat units. The UAE captured international attention in 2014 when Major Mariam al-Mansouri, the country’s first female fighter pilot, flew a combat mission in Syria against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Another milestone for the UAE was reached by Captain Reem Al Buainain, who in 2018 became the first female officer from a Gulf Cooperation Council state to attend NATO’s premier training and education facility, NATO School Oberammergau.
Along with the UAE, Bahrain was one of the first Gulf states to allow women to serve as police officers. However, in the military, Bahraini women are largely limited to medical and administrative roles. Nevertheless, Aisha bint Rashid Al Khalifa, a graduate of Britain’s prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, became the Bahraini air force’s first female fighter pilot in 2018.
Qatar joined the regional trend of allowing women to volunteer for national service in 2018, although Qatari women had already been allowed to hold certain administrative roles in the military. A year later, Qatari air force 1st Lt. Mariam Yousef became the first female liaison officer between Qatar and the United States.
Oman has been a pioneer among the Gulf states, integrating women into the military in 2011 and commissioning female graduates of the Sultan Qaboos Military Academy to high-ranking positions in the armed forces. Moreover, women began training alongside male police officers in 1974, and Oman appointed its first female head of a police station in 2017.
Kuwait was the last GCC state to integrate its military, opening up combat and officer positions to women in 2021. However, Kuwaiti women are only allowed to serve as noncommissioned officers and are generally limited to medical positions and support units. Likewise, Kuwait’s first class of female police recruits only began training in 2008.
The large number of women at the 2022 World Defense Show in Riyadh, an event typically dominated by men, reflected the growing presence of women in the region’s defense industry as well as the broader social transformation taking place across the Gulf.
Gulf Women in Diplomacy
Gulf women have also broken a long-standing glass ceiling in the field of diplomacy. Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain appointed their first female ambassadors around the turn of the 21st century, however, the other Gulf states only recently began embracing women in their diplomatic ranks. For instance, Saudi Arabia only began allowing women to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2008. Women in the ministry were largely limited to administrative duties until 2019, when Riyadh named its first female ambassador with the appointment of Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud as the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Saudi Arabia currently has five female ambassadors representing the kingdom.
The UAE has been appointing a growing number of female ambassadors to key posts around the world, including Paris, Washington, and even the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The UAE currently has 10 female ambassadors, and women make up over 40% of the Emirati diplomatic corps. Additionally, female diplomats comprise more than half the team leading the UAE’s term at the U.N. Security Council from 2022-23. In addition, women make up about 60% of graduates from the diplomatic academy.
Qatar has women serving as ambassadors in Indonesia and Sweden and as permanent representatives to the U.N. in New York and Geneva. Kuwait also has female ambassadors in the key capitals of Washington and Ottawa. In Bahrain, women comprise one-third of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ personnel and have served as ambassadors in important posts. More than 45% of Oman’s diplomats are women, according to Zainab al Qasmi, the head of the Diplomatic Institute at Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A Long Awaited, but Sweeping, Transformation
The GCC states are in the midst of a sweeping transformation regarding women’s labor participation. This transformation reflects three interrelated phenomena. First is the generational change in the leadership of the Gulf states, which has played an important role in facilitating women’s empowerment. Younger leaders have prioritized women’s representation in diplomacy and security in alignment with their ambitious national “Vision” plans and efforts to develop positive international images. Second is the growing presence of women in traditionally male-dominated areas in parallel with an increase in women’s labor force participation in the Gulf more broadly. Third, and largely as a result of top-down shifts, is a gradual change in cultural mindsets that has made the public more accepting of women holding top diplomatic and security positions.
Although the state-driven empowerment of women in security and diplomacy shows progress for women’s inclusion, there is still a long road ahead to achieve gender equality in the Gulf. The next steps for Gulf Arab states include lifting the remaining restrictions on women’s duties in the military and police and working to change patriarchal norms that limit the progress of women in security and diplomacy.