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Special Report
Last Updated: 02/01/2011
Saudi Women’s Empowerment: Deep pockets, Not Political Activism, is Leading to Independence
Rob L. Wagner

Journalist Rob L. Wagner examines the growing wealth of Saudi Arabian women, who under Sharia have complete control of their finances. Changes in commercial and real estate laws have given women more flexibility in investing their money in business opportunities. However, Saudi society is slow to embrace such changes, creating roadblocks for women seeking to develop profitable businesses. Yet changes in Saudi society are coming from young Saudi women who came of age in the post-9/11 era. They are returning from Western universities armed with degrees and expectations that jobs and investment opportunities are available.

The image of Saudi Arabia’s women as powerless and victimized in a patriarchal society is slowly evolving into portrait of women who have the tools to chart the course of their future. Studies performed in Saudi Arabia and by foreign think tanks show in the past two years that Saudi women are emerging with influence, not through a political base or waging activist campaigns, but through massive financial clout.

Demographic shifts in the past three decades indicate a slight change from a male-dominated society that controls Saudi finances to an economy that is more egalitarian, although in 2011 parity in the workplace and the pursuit of employment and business opportunities remain elusive for women. While middle-class Saudi women are becoming wealthier, they are either unwilling or unable to use their money to increase their wealth or participate on the same playing field as Saudi businessmen. Major obstacles facing Saudi women are male guardianship rules applied inconsistently throughout the government and private sectors. Most Saudi women are still required to register their businesses through a male sponsor or agent, although the Saudi commercial laws have been changed.

Financial Influence

However, changes in the population, greater access to information, and deep pockets are giving Saudi women growing economic influence that just a decade ago was unthinkable. According to Saudi Arabia’s statistics department, the country’s population grew by about 18 million to 25 million people between 1975 and 2009. Population estimates include 7 million expatriates. An estimated 13.3 million Saudis are under the age of 34 in which half are women. About 70 percent total Saudi population of 18 million. [1]

In 2010, the Cayman Islands-based asset management company Al-Masah Capital reported that Saudi women controlled an estimated $11 to $12 billion in assets in Saudi banks. Fahd Al-Sultan, secretary-general of the Saudi Council of Chambers, in October provided a brighter picture of Saudi women’s economic power. He noted that he expects women’s investments to reach $18 billion by 2018. Further, the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce estimates that women invested about $1.9 billion in real estate. [4] [7]

Yet, by January 2011, the pace of Saudi female investments remained slow. Al-Masah Capital’s chief executive officer, Shailesh Dash, acknowledged that while Saudi women’s money “currently yield negligible returns into enterprises or investment activities, (it) can earn profitable returns as well as boost money supply.” [3]

The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce’s own study and a 2007 Gallup poll confirm that Saudi women are not taking advantage of their funds although they have a strong foothold in the Saudi business community. Sixty-one percent of the private firms in the Kingdom have are female-owned. About 72 percent of those female businesses are outside the home and 92 percent have employees on the payroll in companies. These businesses include jewelry and fashion shops, beauty salons, marketing/public relations, event management, and consulting. [1][2][8][14]

Better Educated

Saudi women born before 1975 operate or own most of these businesses. Waiting in the wings is a new generation of Saudi women who came of age in a post-9/11 Saudi Arabia. In 2010, Saudi female undergraduate and postgraduate university students made up 25 percent of an estimated 15,600 Saudis studying in the United Kingdom with an emphasis in such fields as chemistry and microbiology. During the 2007-2008 academic year, the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education awarded 5,000 Saudi students scholarships to study in the west, particularly in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2010, an estimated 58 percent of Saudi businesswomen possess university degrees, with one-third of those women earning their degrees outside the Kingdom.

Nearly 40 private and public academic facilities provide post-secondary school education for women. Among them are the private colleges Effat and Dar Hekma, which offer liberal curricula with an emphasis in preparing women for employment. The number of young women obtaining Bachelor of Arts degrees tripled between 1995 and 2006 to 340,000 students.

These women are a breed apart from the previous generation. Returning graduates have lived in a Western environment for as long as five years. They have grown up with access to satellite television and to the Internet. They are also the primary beneficiaries of a gradual lessening of restrictions of women’s activities under King Fahd and the accelerated education programs pushed by King Abdullah after he assumed the throne in 2005. [5]

However, these same women armed with university degrees are coming home to a 24 to 28 percent female unemployment rate. Saudi women lag behind their Gulf neighbors. The United Arab Emirates employs 59 percent of its female population; Kuwait employs 42 percent, with Qatar and Bahrain at 36 and 34 percent respectively.

Although young women under King Abdullah’s programs now comprise of more than half the university graduates, following through with job programs for graduates have been inadequate.

  1. Siham Al-Issa, the scholarship director for Princess Noura University in Riyadh, argues that government regulations prevent women from contributing to the Kingdom’s economy. "We should adapt to the new changes … unemployment is high among Saudi women and I think it is time that we act to activate the woman's work in the private sector ... this is a fundamental demand and we should work to remove all obstacles facing it by gradually educating the society about such realities." [6]

Significant Roadblocks

Obstacles preventing Saudi women from achieving economic parity include [8]:

· No reliable government infrastructure to grant female-oriented businesses business licenses

· No reliable public transportation, an urban driving ban on women, and the high cost of taxis and private drivers

· International travel restrictions that include no traveling without a male guardian and inconsistent enforcement of those restrictions

· Government-issued business visa and work permit restrictions for foreign women and foreign wives of expatriate workers

· Inconsistent enforcement real estate laws and access to public services

· Little or no decision-making powers in government women’s sections

· Lack of access to commercial bank loans and other funding mechanisms

These obstacles force women to circumvent government red tape. Supportive male guardians help female family members by signing a notarized document to allow the woman alone outside the Kingdom. Female-owned businesses, such as jewelry or clothing stores, may open under a different licensing category because there is no licensing category for a female-owned jewelry store or because female applicants face more scrutiny.

These methods, however, only skirt the law and provide no solution to prompting the Saudi government to recognize the needs of Saudi businesswomen.

It took Samia Al-Edrisi, CEO and chairman of the board of the Eastern Forum Company for Development and Advancement, two years to establish her real estate company in the Eastern Province. The primary roadblock was the names of 24 women listed as investors.

Local government officials were reluctant to grant a license, but never specified their concerns. The government sought a closer look at the company, yet never provided information on the laws and regulations Al-Edrisi was expected to follow. [9]

Yet Saudi Arabia has taken some incremental steps to ease restrictions, although initial attempts to open employment doors for women failed. Perhaps the most significant step was an effort in 2005 by then-Minister of Labor Ghazi Al-Ghosaibi to permit women to work in lingerie shops. Al-Ghosaibi, known for his liberal attitudes toward women’s rights, spearheaded the effort. However, shop owners refused to hire women fearing interference from religious conservatives, particularly the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The ministry’s efforts failed, revealing that the theory of female empowerment, even when given at the highest levels, are not compatible with the reality of dealing with conservatives who continue to hold virtual veto power over many government decisions. [10]

The lingerie shop issue, however, served as a lightning rod for equally bold moves by the Saudi government that were successful. In 2008, Makkah’s governor, Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, abolished the law banning men and women from interacting while conducting business. During the same year, the Labor Ministry under Al-Ghosaibi made it legal to allow women to not only choose where to work but no longer seek a mahram’s permission to seek work or change jobs. In addition, travel restrictions were eased slightly in which a ban was lifted preventing women from staying alone in hotels. [11]

Ministry decisions are not made in a vacuum, but are a response to the shifting social attitudes of the Kingdom. Although Al-Ghosaibi, who died in August 2010, and King Abdullah have long established their credentials as supporters of the right of women to work and engage in commerce, the impetus comes largely from women born after 1975. They came of age when the Internet was in its infancy and offered a daily window into Western culture. As young women graduate from Saudi and foreign universities, they are less likely to wear the niqab (face veil) and more likely to socialize in a mixed environment. Working alongside men in private universities and businesses is not uncommon.

Conclusion

The question looms, however, that if King Abdullah and some high-ranking Saudi government officials support the right of women to work and access business opportunities, why is progress slow? The snail’s pace in part lies to the unique and often misunderstood fashion in which the Saudis govern themselves. The government often announces proposed laws to test the reaction of Saudi conservatives. An outcry from the conservatives will put the law on hold and it may die a silent death. No reaction gives the government the green light. Another—and much more nebulous—obstacle to progress in women’s rights is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Saudi society. Tribal customs and tradition play a pivotal role in fundamental changes in society and often supersede codified laws and even Sharia. Simply, if Saudi society is not ready for women in the workplace or running their own businesses, then it won’t happen whether or not there is a law giving women these rights. [12]

However, John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, posits that Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, are ready to empower women. He points to a 2007 Gallup poll that 61 percent of Saudis believe that women should have equal rights and 69 percent of Saudis say women have the right to work outside the home. The same poll shows that 61 percent of Saudi women say they are entitled to drive a car, while 76 percent said they should choose their own job. [13] [14] [15]

Saudi Arabia’s increasing participation in the United Nations’ efforts to get countries on board to eliminate discrimination against women and its recent appointment to the UN’s newest agency, UN Women, appear to acknowledge that Saudi society is ready for change. [16]

Saudi economist Abdullah Alami, who is petitioning the Shoura Council to end the Kingdom’s driving ban against women said, “Saudi Arabia has signed the international conventions of non-discrimination against women, (and) it is crucial that women are not discriminated against.”


[1] Saudi Arabia Sees 333% Population Boom Over 34 Years, Rianovosti http://en.rian.ru/world/20100328/158338529.html (Retrieved 06-1-10)

[2] Saudi Looks into Possible Ministry for Women's Affairs, by Iman Al-Khattaf, Asharq Alawsat, 27 September 2010 (Retrieved 27-09-10) http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=6&id=22474

[3] Saudi Women Crowned Billionaires in the Middle East, by Sumayyah Meehan, Elan Magazine, 10 August 2010 (Retrieved 25-08-10) http://www.elanthemag.com/index.php/site/blog_detail/saudi_women_crowned_billionaires_of_the_middle_east-nid240778607/

[4] Forum Calls for Body to Enlighten Women on Social, Economic Roles, by Walaa Hawari, Arab News, 6 October 2010 (Retrieved 11-11-10) http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article154855.ece

[5] Saudi Women Simultaneously Navigating the Classroom and British Culture, by Rob L. Wagner, The Media Line, 13 July 2010 (Retrieved 13-07-10) https://sites.google.com/site/roblwagnerarchives/s-1

[6] Saudi Aims for Bigger Female Role in Economy, Emirates 24/7, 19 August 2010 (Retrieved 21-08-10) http://www.zawya.com/Story.cfm/sidZAWYA20100819050416/Saudi%20aims%20for%20bigger%20female%20role%20in%20economy

[7] Kingdom to Provide Investment Opportunities for Saudi Women, iStockAnalyst.com, 19 August 2010 (Retrieved 01-09-10) http://www.istockanalyst.com/article/viewiStockNews/articleid/4424841

[8] Businesswomen in Saudi Arabia: Characteristics, Challenges, and Aspirations in a Regional Context, by Noura Alturki and Rebekah Braswell, July 2010 (Retrieved 01-08-10) http://www.jeg.org.sa/data/modules/contents/uploads/infopdf/businesswomen.pdf

[9] Changing Role in Women in Society, by Molouk Y. Ba-Isa, Arab News, 15 June 2010 (Retrieved 29-06-10) http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/top_20_supplement/article66265.ece

[10] Author interviews with Saudi female journalists and professionals, 2004-2005 and 25 April 2010.

[11] Women’s Rights Gain Focus in the Kingdom, by Jafar Al-Shayeb, Arab News, 15 June 2010 (Retrieved 29-06-10) http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/top_20_supplement/article66269.ece

[12] Author interview with former Shoura Council member, 19 January 2006

[13] Why Don’t Women Have More Rights in Muslim Countries? by John Esposito, Washington Post, August 2010 (Retrieved 11-11-10) http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/john_esposito/2010/08/why_dont_women_have_more_rights_in_muslim_countries.html

[14] Word on the Street: What Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush Get Wrong About Muslims, by Fawaz Gerges, Democracy Journal.org, Summer 2009 (Retrieved 11-11-10) http://www.democracyjournal.org/pdf/9/Gerges.pdf

[15] Muslim Women Reclaiming their Rights, by John Esposito, Washington Post, July 2009 http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/john_esposito/2009/07/muslim_women_reclaiming_their_rights.html (Retrieved 02-12-10)

[16] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations report, 29 November 2007 (Retrieved 14-01-11) http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/CEDAW.C.2008.I.3.Add.4.pdf

[17] Author interview with Abdullah Alami, 13 January 2011.


Rob L. Wagner is a California-based journalist and author. He served as served as managing editor of the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia-based Saudi Gazette from 2004 to 2007. He writes frequently on Arab/Muslim issues.
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