want my daughter to be internationally successful. I want her to be whatever she wants. And I want people to respect her.” These words were spoken by Mohammad, a middle-aged Saudi-Arabian partner of a major global management consultancy, during a panel debate I recently attended in Riyadh.
I found his ambitions for his daughter easy to identify with. They parallel with my feelings about the freedoms and rights I expect for my own eight-year-old daughter.
Sadly, it would seem not everyone shares Mohammad’s sentiments. Saudi Arabia ranks 20th out of 22 for women’s rights in the Arab states, and 130th out of 142 countries measured in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report.
If Saudi Arabia is to pool its resources of female talent it needs women to be represented in the boardroom.
The western media has extensively covered women’s disenfranchisement in the country, and I don’t just mean the ban on driving; women cannot travel freely and are mostly excluded from the world outside the home. The biggest issue here is the male guardianship of women, meaning that they need their male guardians’ permission to marry, travel, leave the country and enrol in education.
Many have argued for women’s equality on purely moral terms, and those are valid arguments. But they aren’t the only ones. There is also corporate and national profitability to be considered and for many who reject western morality, a purely financial argument might prove more compelling.
The volatility of the oil markets means that the country can no longer rely on its primary industry as a reliable source of wealth. Soon, Saudi Arabia will have to play by the same rules as other industrialised countries: it will need to diversify and take its place in the economy of human capital. But women make up only 16% of the Saudi workforce, standing much in line with the14% of the UAE and 19% in Bahrain. How can a country deprived of 55% of its workforce compete with nations that are more than happy to pool all of their human resources?
The lowering of oil prices should serve as a resounding clarion call for a nation that needs to plan for a near-future in which oil wells are drying up. It is time to drill into a far richer well, that of talented, modern women. Women like Mohammad’s daughter. A well that need never run dry.
Change is inevitable, and it has already begun. During my time in Saudi, I witnessed the early blossoming of a female subculture. Women who might still be subject to harsh rules of “guardianship” are finding ways to communicate with each other via social networks. And, whether they are inspired by fine-art, sculpture or video game vlogging, things are changing faster than one might expect.
In just one generation the country has moved from 5% to almost 100% literacy. A staggering 70% of the population is under 30 years old, meaning a more youthful and less traditional perspective is possible. Women may still be barred from participation in most mainstream cultural establishments but they are no longer silent.
In 2015 women voted for the first time in the municipal councils. More than half (55%) of the graduates from Saudi universities are now women. And women employment is one of the top priorities of the governmental agenda.
Speaking at this year’s Munich Security Conference, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister assured delegates that women would soon be allowed to drive and that the prohibition was a societal rather than religious issue. While this proposal came with no specific schedule, one cannot help feeling that the kingdom’s government is increasingly aware of just how untenable women’s current situation of rights deprivation has become.
While Saudi women might largely be excluded from the workforce, I also witnessed a corporate Saudi Arabia which is very much a world apart. Here I encountered business “compounds” – privately owned towns built to house the employees of multinational companies.
The largest of these compounds are as big as small cities. Within the walls of the compound of Saudi Aramco, the oil giant that is estimated to be the world’s most valuable company, I saw women and men behaving freely, much as they do in other more liberal Arab nations. Women do not have to wear the abaya (black robe), which is obligatory on the streets of most major Saudi cities. There’s also an (unwritten) understanding that the muttawa (the religious police) do not attempt to enforce gender segregation or dress codes on private property.
But as I look over Mohammad’s shoulder and scan the room, there are no women. The panel of corporate pundits consists exclusively of men. Whilst I did see women on other panels, if Saudi Arabia is to pool its resources of female talent it needs women to be represented in the boardroom to get their voices heard. And, more than ever, it needs the private sector to lead this shift.
Saudi Arabia’s future is poised on a fine balance. There may have been no female pundits on Mohammad’s panel but the men I spoke to did at least admit their openness to address the issue of women’s rights and their importance to the future economy of the country – one that needs to compete with other Arab countries such as Bahrain and Dubai.
It is a pressing need and the value of women must be recognised.
You can find out more about Belinda’s experiences in Saudi Arabia via the hashtag #feministinsaudi and follow her on Twitter @belindaparmar