Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, vice president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, gave out the awards, which were accepted by an all-male cast.
Lt. Gen. Sheikh Saif bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, was awarded the first prize, while male representatives of the Ministry of Finance, the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority and the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization also received awards.
In a news release, Maktoum said that gender equality was in the spirit of the founding father of the Emirates: “The achievements of Emirati women today reaffirm the wise vision of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who believed in the importance of the role of women, and their right to work and become key partners in society.”
But the fact that there were zero women among the winners announced Sunday drew widespread criticism and mockery. “Best Gender Balance Awards Ever,” deadpanned Nicholas McGeehan, a human rights researcher who tracks the handling of migrant workers' rights in Persian Gulf sheikhdoms.
According to the news release put out by the Dubai media office, Maktoum “recognized the efforts” of one woman — Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum — but she did not win an award. She is the head of the UAE’s Gender Balance Council and wife of a deputy prime minister.
“During the Index’s second edition, recipients of the Index’s awards happened to be entities led by men,” the UAE Gender Balance Council said in a statement after the award’s received media attention. “This is indicative of the great and extraordinary progress we have made as a nation, where men in the UAE are proactively working alongside women to champion gender balance as a national priority.”
In previous years, the UAE’s Gender Balance Index has honored women. In 2017, the same year that the index was launched, the UAE launched a program to try to become one of the top 25 countries in the world for gender equality by 2021.
Despite the poor optics, the UAE is the highest-ranked Persian Gulf state for gender equality and second only to Israel in the wider Middle East, according to the United Nations. The country was listed as 34th among nations in a 2017 ranking, just behind Poland.
However, activist groups argue that the country has not fully implemented laws that would stop discrimination against women. In its 2018 country report, Human Rights Watch noted that discrimination on the basis of sex and gender was not included in a 2015 anti-discrimination law and that current law permits domestic violence by a husband against his wife.
This post has been updated to include a response from the UAE Gender Balance Council.