Saudi women lobby for change in the kingdom

Published: October 15, 2008

 All over the Gulf, women are rising to positions of economic and political power. The first ladies of several Gulf countries, such as Princess Haya of Dubai, have taken increasingly prominent roles as public advocates of philanthropy and social reform. Female business leaders are also rising to prominence in the Gulf, such as Maha Ghunaim, the Kuwaiti founder and managing director of Global Finance House.
But one country still lags behind the rest of the region: Saudi Arabia. Here, women are not allowed to vote in municipal elections, or to run for election. They are only allowed to give evidence in all-female civil law cases, as Saudi law rules they are “too emotional, and forgetful”. They are not allowed to drive. They are not allowed to play sport, hence there wasn’t a single female competitor in Saudi Arabia’s Olympics team.
The restrictions have a deep economic impact. Women account for 56% of university graduates in the kingdom, but only 14% of the workforce. They have an estimated US$4bn in bank savings. But these are effectively frozen assets, as they can only invest through a male guardian unless it is a female-only business. In hospitals women and men work together, however in retail shops in the mall women can only sell in all-female shops. Women will often work on a different floor to men in companies. Women cannot be CEOs, or even on the board of companies.

The restrictions on 50% of the workforce obviously has an impact on the kingdom’s competitiveness. Saudi Arabia hopes to become one of the top 10 most competitive countries in the world by 2010. But, as Bill Gates said at the World Economic Forum last year: “If you’re not fully utilising half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get close to the top”.
The restrictions keep talented graduates out of the workplace and out of the marketplace, or it drives them to set up businesses abroad. One example is Nahed Taher, who for many years was senior economist at Saudi Arabia’s National Commercial Bank, where she was the only woman among 4,000 men. However, she found her job “boring”, and left the kingdom to set up her own investment bank, Gulf One, in Bahrain.

However, a new generation of female business leaders and reformers are rising to the challenge in Saudi Arabia. They were showcased at a recent lively panel on women in Saudi Arabia at the Middle East Association’s Saudi Arabia conference in London.
There, the audience heard from Lama al-Sulaiman, who in 2005 became one of the first-ever women to be elected to public office in Saudi Arabia, when she was elected to a seat on the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce.
She says: “Women’s advancement is directly correlated to economic development. It’s vital that society believes women have a role to play. We need to appreciate the need for gender diversity in top-level decision-making.”
Al-Sulaiman is also chairwoman of the Sayeda Khadijah Bint Khouwailid Businesswomen Centre in Jeddah, whose executive director is the feisty Basmah Omair.
Omair is the daughter of a former Saudi diplomat to the US, and grew up in the west, which has given her a unique ability to understand both cultures. She’s turned the Businesswomen Centre into a dynamic NGO lobbying for change in gender issues in the kingdom.
She says: “We are lobbying for the removal of obstacles facing women in order to truly empower them both economically and socially. Our aim is to provide women with many work opportunities and choices, for example: becoming board members and CEOs of private companies, and entering new fields of business that were considered non-traditional for women, such as real estate and construction.”

The centre recently conducted a poll of attitudes among men and women in Jeddah regarding women’s participation in the economy. The results were mixed – 60% of men and women thought they could work well together, though only 49% of men and women thought men should buy items from women. Both men and women showed approval of women taking a greater role in national decision-making, though younger men were less supportive “which either shows they are more strict or less mature”, says Omair.
May Al-Dabbagh, director of the gender and public policy programme at the Dubai School of Government, praised the leadership of King Abdullah on gender issues.

May notes that the king often takes women leaders with him on delegations meeting with foreign governments, and has helped increase the profile of women in the media.
King Abdullah also spearheaded the National Dialogue conventions, which have discussed various reforms over the last five years, including reforms in legislation relating to gender.
However, May says the concrete reforms coming out of the National Dialogue have “so far been disappointing. This raises the question of whether women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are undergoing a fundamental shift, or if it’s just symbolic, or even the personal agenda of the king”.