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  • Segmented Feminization and the Decline of Neopatriarchy in GCC Countries of the Persian Gulf
  • John Willoughby (bio)

The labor markets of oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the smaller Persian Gulf states are unique in two important respects.1 First, a system of rent seeking has emerged to strengthen and intensify Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries' heavy reliance on the labor services of expatriate workers. Second, a patriarchal system of exclusion and segregation has restricted female labor force participation so that the workforces are disproportionately male.

These well-known characteristics of GCC countries support Hisham Sharabi's argument that the boom of oil exports created a new postcolonial political system of neopatriarchy. By this term, Sharabi means a system of political control through tribal-based patronage networks that preserve hierarchal relations of loyalty within an expanding market economy. Key to this hierarchy is a system of male domination that "assign[s] privilege and power to the male at the expense of the female, keeping the latter under crippling legal and social constraints."2 The presence of large numbers of expatriate workers facilitates this system by providing revenue to household sponsors of foreign workers and by inhibiting the movement of women into the paid labor force.

Given recent trends in oil prices that will strengthen rent-seeking activity, it is tempting to conclude that GCC labor markets will not experience significant changes in the near future. I argue in this essay, however, that the increased educational attainment of women will instead lead to noticeable increases in female labor force participation. As a result of this development, the emergence of new labor market structures characterized by "segmented feminization" will be witnessed in which richer households contain women working in the paid labor force in professional jobs while poorer households contain mothers, wives, and adult daughters with lower amounts of formal education who do not work outside the home. This emerging division will have profound implications for the evolution of gender, class, and generational and national relations within GCC countries. This essay explores these issues. [End Page 184]

Neopatriarchal Polities and Patriarchal Households

Sharabi's analysis of neopatriarchy focuses less on gender relations within the household and more on tributary relations among patriarchs within the society. Sharabi's polity-wide emphasis pays little attention to the precise mechanisms that link the dispensing of oil revenue to families within a kin or tribal group and the circumscribing of women's autonomy. Thus more explicit feminist analyses need to be examined if the connections between power relations within the household and power relations within the society are to be understood.

This approach also requires recognizing that the sharp rise of oil revenues did not take place in a cultural and political vacuum. Rising oil revenues flowed to tribal leaders recognized and protected by formal and informal understandings with the United States and United Kingdom. A preexisting system of "classic patriarchy" that emphasized tight control over the movement of women was strengthened by this ascendant tribal state, which distributed part of these revenues to support national households.3 Such developments at first reduced female participation in the non-household-based workforce.4 Moreover, emerging legal systems that determined and enforced the appropriate female use of public space further limited the economic options of women.

One might expect that the result of these constricted opportunities would be low labor force participation, low educational attainment, and high fertility rates, and, as shall be seen, the demographic evidence partially supports this argument. However, the GCC countries also introduced modernization programs that emphasized infrastructure construction, education, and public health.5 As a result of these social investments, and despite severe limitations placed on female participation in the labor force, women's educational attainment has been impressive. Indeed, it is within the GCC countries that the sharpest rise of educational achievement has been witnessed for women in the whole Arab world. The paradoxical experiences of the national women of GCC countries center on these discordant complexities, but any study of the evolution of labor markets in the Arab Gulf must first confront the overwhelming importance of expatriate labor.

Expatriate Labor in the Arabian Peninsula

The large presence of foreigners in the Gulf...


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pp. 184-199
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