Thursday, 10th May 2018

Saudi Arabia: Cautious narrowing of gender gap responds to social shift

The 29 April announcement by Saudi Aramco of the appointment of its first female board member, former Sunoco chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) Lynn Laverty Elsenhans, has been widely reported as a landmark as the national oil company prepares for its planned initial public offering (IPO), which is seen as central to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s plans to overhaul the economy. Even though Elsenhans is American, her appointment was also seen to represent MBS’s promotion of women in work, which has come to symbolise his widely spun commitment to accelerated social change. In the MBS era, Saudi women are becoming increasingly visible in leadership and board level roles in both the public and private sectors.

The increased visibility of women in senior roles is as much the natural outcome of trends that began under previous administrations, as the product of revolutionary policy-making by MBS. A few women have held key positions for considerable periods. The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) hosts the Al-Sayeda Khadija Bint Khuwailid Businesswomen Centre. JCCI board member since 2005 and vice president since 2009, Dr Lama Al-Sulaiman is a powerful advocate for domestic business. Olayan Group CEO Lubna Olayan is long-established among Saudi women who are seen as a dominant voice in Arab business.

The difference now is scale: as tens of thousands of female graduates work through the system, many more potential leaders are emerging, notably in professions like engineering, as well as the traditional mainstays of banking, healthcare and education, all historically seen as more suitable for employment of female graduates. In edging Saudi Arabia towards a more equitable gender balance, MBS, his advisors and (mainly still male) allies are responding to social change.

Saudi Aramco has been an important player in this shift. Its chief engineer since February 2015 has been Nabilah Al-Tunisi. Elsewhere in the economy, Sarah Al-Suhaimi was elected CEO of the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul) in February 2017; she was voted in by a board including representatives from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Commerce and Investment and Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (Sama). In the same week, Samba Financial Group announced it was appointing Rania Mahmoud Nashar as its CEO, the first woman to head a Saudi-listed commercial bank. Medical engineer Dr Tamadur Bint Youssef Al-Ramah became deputy minister of labour and social development in February.

At a more junior level, changes are afoot in both the public and private sectors. Figures issued by the Ministry of Labour and Social Development in March showed that the number of Saudi women employed in the private sector had jumped 130% from 215,000 in 2012 to 496,000 in 2016. Public sector institutions are also actively starting to recruit women at entry level. The Ministry of Justice, Public Prosecution, General Directorate of Passports and General Directorate of Public Security have all announced rounds of recruitment since 2017 targeting female employees.

Saudi Arabia has made a commitment under MBS’s Vision 2030 programme to increase female participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%. This agenda has several aims: to promote economic growth and reduce households’ dependency on welfare; to entrench public support for the regime through broadly popular moves such as lifting the driving ban, while isolating religious conservatives; and to prove to the world (including to potential Saudi Aramco investors) that Saudi Arabia is to be taken seriously as a dynamic, modernising state.

Shifting social tectonics may have more to do with developments than MBS’s claims to Vision 2030 greatness. Prior to her appointment at the Tadawul, Al-Suhaimi had already become the first Saudi woman to head an investment bank, becoming CEO of NCB Capital in March 2014 in the last year of King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz’s reign. Still earlier, in the King Fahd era in 2004, Lubna Olayan was the first woman to be appointed to the board of a Saudi listed company, Saudi Hollandi Bank (now Alawwal Bank). She had already been voted ‘most powerful Arab businesswoman’ by Forbes Middle East in the previous three years.

Although there were no Saudi government-funded girls’ schools until 1960, Prince (later King) Faisal and his wife Iffat Al-Thunayan had initiated the process of making Saudi female education socially acceptable in the 1940s and 50s, opening private schools and sending their daughters to be educated. Under King Abdullah (2005-2015), the number of Saudi female graduates mushroomed, as the first co-ed university opened in Jeddah and Riyadh’s all-female university was expanded and relaunched as Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University, while the King Abdullah Sponsorship Programme allowed thousands of female students to study overseas. Although many women who gained university degrees were either unable to break into the job market or left due to family responsibilities, a significant number of those who managed to remain and develop their careers have now come into positions of seniority.

The main problem for King Salman and MBS regarding women in the workplace has been the non-alignment of the labour market with these earlier educational initiatives. Ministry of Education statistics from 2015 show that women constitute 52% of all Saudi graduates, despite severe cultural and religious restrictions on how and where they can be employed, not to mention logistical challenges related to workplace segregation requirements. In economic terms, the question is how to ensure that the kingdom maximizes returns on its investment in female education. Hence, the widening of the sectors in which women can be employed.

In political terms, the question is how to ensure that women whose expectations have been raised by their experience of study, in some cases overseas, buy into the national project – and don’t rock the boat. This is especially important in the social media age when YouTube videos by Saudi women’s rights activists, for example, are apt to be taken up and re-reported by the international press, with potential negative implications for Saudi Aramco’s IPO preparations and positive outreach to investors.

Social and cultural resistance

However, the greatest block to achieving higher female employment remains social and cultural resistance. To that end there have been a number of changes in the Al-Salman era aimed at changing the culture around women in public spaces, which are already having a real day-to-day impact on people’s lives. The lifting of the driving ban from June has the potential to remove one of the main impediments to women’s employment outside the home. (However, the hype may be greater than the reality, given that concerns have been raised over the high proposed cost of women’s driving lessons compared to those for men, and the apparent lack of a national strategy to create driving schools for women.) At the same time, female drivers should slash the cost for households of hiring drivers and taking taxis. Licensing of women’s gyms has allowed women (at least those urban dwellers with some disposable income) to take greater control of their own physical health outcomes; even in conservative Riyadh, dress codes have markedly relaxed.

The context for these social changes comes in light of attempts to isolate religious conservatives, who are viewed as a key challenge to Saudi Arabia’s security, stability, and economic prospects, as well as its image in the West. Following the removal of the religious police’s power of arrest in April 2016, Vision 2030 promises an overhaul of the educational curriculum and in October 2017 a royal decree from King Salman pledged to establish a new centre of global scholarship that would review and reauthenticate ahadith, the body of Islamic tradition passed down regarding the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed. But these changes have stopped short of removing the guardianship law for women; despite a royal decree easing its conditions in April 2017, male permission is still required for women to travel or study abroad, get married, or apply for a passport.

The male state

Progress in female political representation at state-level is much slower. MBS’s administration is yet to make any political appointments of women of a scale and impact comparable to King Abdullah’s 2009 decision to introduce a 20% female quota within the 150-member Shura Council. There have only been two female ministers in Saudi history, both deputy ministers rather than lead, and both in areas seen to directly impact on women specifically (girls’ education, and more recently, labour and social development) rather than broader policy briefs. At a national level, MBS and those around him are probably calculating that steps towards greater social freedom and economic empowerment of women will allow the government to put off thorny questions like the guardianship law.

While Saudi Arabia tries to steer the ship through the next few years and stave off economic crisis, it will want to avoid pushing its conservatives too far. Given entrenched social conservatism, as well as Saudi Arabia’s record in the last two years of forcibly repatriating outspoken dissidents, change that would suddenly grant the female population total freedom of overseas movement should not be expected soon. Change that is still mainly enacted from above can be contradicted by decree. But the trends that have led Riyadh towards transacting a new deal for the kingdom’s increasingly well-educated female population are also driven from below. The genie is out of the bottle, and she wears an abaya, at least while not at home. For now.

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