The country has made progress in tackling wage inequality, while political participation by women has also improved. It has moved up seven places in the latest survey of 128 countries, taking it to 105th overall.

Other countries to show improvements include Iran and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia has improved by three places, although only to 124th position. According to the report, the kingdom has made minor improvements on the rate of women’s participation in the workforce. Revised data for tertiary education enrolment also showed some progress over 2006.

However, overall the Middle East is the worst-performing region in the world for gender equality. Yemen comes bottom in a survey of 128 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report. Kuwait has the highest ranking among Middle East countries and is the only one to break into the top 100, albeit in 96th position.

In many cases the region has slipped back, with several countries, including Tunisia and Morocco, falling from last year’s rankings. In Morocco, the earnings gap between men and women has widened, while in Egypt small gains in economic participation have been offset by poorer performance in health and education.

“Most Arab world countries not only continue to perform far below the global average, but also do not show much improvement over the past year or have deteriorated,” says the report.

While the region performs relatively badly in most areas, it is in economic and political participation that it lags the most. Saudi Arabia is the lowest ranking country in terms of political empowerment, with Yemen and Kuwait filling the two places above it.

Sweden is the country ranked highest, followed by three other Nordic countries: Norway, Finland and Iceland.

Globally, progress has been made on narrowing the gap in education and economic and political participation. However, in health it has widened.

The divide has significance beyond simple discrimination, with a strong correlation with a country’s overall competitiveness, according to Laura Tyson, one of the authors of the report and a professor of business administration and economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Countries that do not fully capitalise effectively on one-half of their human resources run the risk of undermining their competitive potential,” she says. “We hope to highlight the economic incentive behind empowering women.”

Table: The Middle East gender gap

2007 rank (change on 2006) Economic participation Education Health Political empowerment
Sweden 1 6 27 73 1
Kuwait 96 (-1) 80 63 110 126
Tunisia 102 (-2) 111 88 94 60
Syria 103 104 99 63 100
Jordan 104 110 79 88 112
UAE 105 (+7) 119 68 110 65
Algeria 108 113 96 85 111
Qatar 109 115 45 123 124
Bahrain 115 (-1) 124 59 110 121
Iran 118 (+2) 123 90 58 122
Oman 119 125 83 89 119
Egypt 120 (+2) 120 101 83 123
Morocco 122 (-2) 121 113 84 103
Saudi Arabia 124 (+3) 127 87 60 128
Yemen 128 128 127 1 127

Source: World Economic Forum