Women empowerment has been identified in the first Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) in 2002 as a key deficit in the Arab region. According to the AHDR of 2005, women in the Arab world represent 2/3 of illiterates and have a higher unemployment rate than do men. Arab women's participation in the decision making process is also very limited and therefore they face many reservations on the CEDAW convention ratification. Women, however, do represent half of the population and are therefore an untapped human resource. Only through women empowerment and full participation at all social, economic, and political levels can human development be sustained and the eight MDGs achieved. The UNDP has adopted a gender mainstreaming approach into programming and considered women empowerment a crosscutting issue in all of its practice areas.
In the Kingdom, women development has emerged in the last few years as a priority which can be seen through the high emphasis placed in national policies and strategies on increasing women’s participation in the economic and social development processes without contradicting Islamic laws and cultural values. Women empowerment and capacity building were highlighted as major goals of the Eighth National Development Plan (2005-2009). Consequently, there was an increase in female employment from 5% in 1990 to 19% in 2010. Previously in 2004, Saudi women had effectively participated in the Third National Dialogue Forum which focused on women issues, rights, and responsibilities and yielded several related recommendations. The gradual progress of Saudi Arabian women is attributed to the general increase in female educational levels. The average rate of yearly growth for female enrollment in all education levels has reached 8% between years 1975 and 2002.
There is still however a lag between the education rate of Saudi women and their employment rate as only 15% of Saudi females are employed (2009). UNDP Riyadh Country Office, has taken the lead in initiating several women empowerment and capacity building projects. Among these successful projects was the first “Women and MDGs Forum and Workshops”, which aimed at creating a platform of dialogue among prominent Saudi ladies to exchange knowledge and best practices. Other examples of UNDP cooperation with government entities and CSOs cover an array of opportunities from effective education to meet the job market needs, to policy making and economic empowerment, as well as increasing participation in decision making at the Shoura level and Municipal elections. Currently, UNDP is assisting in the economic empowerment of women via the Prince Sultan Fund, a micro-credit fund, a business incubator for female entrepreneurs.