Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, made a plea for women's rights Sunday at an economic forum in Saudi Arabia, telling the kingdom's leaders that the dearth of women in the work force was "undermining economic potential" of the kingdom.
And Irish President Mary McAleese urged Saudi Arabia to learn from Ireland's economic transformation, which hinged on opening the country to the outside world and ushering women into the workplace.
"The prophet's first wife Aisha was herself a very successful businesswoman," McAleese noted, winning a standing ovation from the female half of the audience in which men and women were separated. McAleese also stirred rousing applause by opening her address with a prayer in Irish-accented Arabic: "Peace be upon you and the mercy and blessings of Allah."
McAleese may have been referring to Khadeeja, the Prophet Muhammad's first wife and a businesswoman for whom the prophet worked. Aisha was a later wife.
Blair said Saudi Arabia and other countries that discourage women from pursuing careers, higher education and political office were squandering vital human assets, whose loss was triggering further deficiencies in health, income and technological advances.
"It leads to a huge loss of human potential that has a massive cost for society, male and female," Blair said to polite applause during the second day of the three-day Jeddah Economic Forum. "Human rights and development go hand in hand. Educating girls is one of the most important investments a country can make in its future."
Electoral politics in Saudi Arabia only began last year, with local council elections restricted to male candidates and voters. Among the kingdom's neighbors, Qatari women won the right to vote in 1999, with Bahrain and Oman following in 2000 and Kuwait in 2005.
"I believe women will soon be allowed to vote in elections here," Blair said, calling the expansion of women's rights an "irreversible trend."
McAleese said Ireland transformed itself in a single generation from an impoverished farm economy where women were expected to give up their jobs after marrying, to the world's third-most unregulated economy after Hong Kong and Singapore.