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Saudi women: Moving on up

Recent decrees favoring Saudi women meant that the latter are enjoying more freedoms than they ever did, and are gaining market share on previously male-dominated job markets

Female participation in the workforce increased from 19% in 2016 to 33% last year Saudi women earn 57 riyals for every 100 riyals earned by Saudi men Saudi has made significant reforms to incentivize women to find employment

Recent decrees favoring Saudi women meant that the latter are enjoying more freedoms than they ever did, and are gaining market share on previously male-dominated job markets.

Men and women can dine openly at restaurants now. Many offices are mixed as well, as are business and professional conferences.

Economic conditions favoring Saudi women

Keeping women at home is a luxury the world’s largest exporter of crude can no longer afford

As the Saudi government cuts gasoline and electricity subsidies and introduces new fees and taxes, including a 15% ­VAT, the country’s households increasingly depend on women working.

Female participation in the workforce increased from 19% in 2016 to 33% last year, according to the statistics authority’s Labor Force Survey.  

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Bloomberg in 2016: “Women are half of this society, and we want it to be a productive half.” 

Saudi sports minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, who is also the head of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee (SAOC), said recently that Saudi women make up 30% of the board members of sports federations.

Earlier, the Saudi Ministry of Defense had announced that both men and women could apply for various military positions.  

Disparity in jobs and salaries

Getting the kingdom’s educated women into the workforce is seen as essential to the success of the Vision 2030 plan.

Yet, in the fourth quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate was 12.6% for Saudis overall and almost double that for women.

That’s despite the fact that more than two-thirds of unemployed Saudi women hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with just a third of male job seekers. 

Also, in career development and compensation, Saudi women earn 57 riyals for every 100 riyals earned by Saudi men.  

The gap is starkest at the top. There are few women on company boards and none in the Saudi cabinet. 

But as mixed as the picture is for Saudi women in the workplace, it’s a world away from what it was. When Noha Kattan became one of the first women to work at what’s now the Ministry of Sports in 2016, there weren’t even any women facilities in the building. Now she’s a deputy minister for national partnerships and development at the Ministry of Culture, where 49% of the 667 employees are female.

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Commercial registrations for women

The Kingdom issued 30,000 commercial registrations to women during the first four months of 2021, according to Al-Arabiya, citing information from the Saudi Commerce Ministry.

The registrations were across a number of fields including wholesale trade, retail, motor vehicle, and motorcycle repair, along with accommodation, catering, and construction.

In order to receive a commercial registration, applicants must be at least 18 years old, not be a government employee, and have a capital of at least $1,333. 

Fees are $53 per year, plus additional fees from the Chamber of Commerce depending on the type of activity.

This year’s early surge follows a trend from 2020 when more than 100,000 registrations were issued for the entire year.

Under the Vision 2030 goals, Saudi Arabia aims for female participation in the labor force to be at 30% by 2030, a target it has already exceeded.

Reforms

Saudi has made significant reforms to incentivize women to find employment and to protect them better while on the job. These reforms also increased Saudi Arabia’s score in the World Bank Women, Business, and Law (WBL) database by almost 50 points between 2016 and 2020.  

Areas of reforms include: allowing greater freedom of movement (travel abroad, having a passport, driving, and moving residences; forbidding gender-based discrimination in employment, and abolishing the requirement for segregation in the workplace.

Reforms also made it easier for women to have their own businesses, forbid the dismissal of women from jobs for maternity-related reasons,  equalized retirement age between men and women and criminalized sexual harassment in public and private sector workplaces.

An explicit “Saudization” policy that incentivizes hiring of Saudi over expatriate workers has surely contributed to this development. As a result, in 2020, 26% of Saudi women worked in the wholesale and retail sectors.

Affording more freedoms and removing guardianship restrictions

Saudi Arabia women may now be able to live on their own without legally needing consent from the male head of the family or guardian.

Arab media outlets reported the restrictive kingdom has amended part of a law, essentially allowing single women, unmarried, divorced, or widowed, to live separately from their families without needing guardian consent.

Under the 2019 reforms, a Saudi passport should be issued to any citizen who applies for it, and that any person above the age of 21 does not need permission to travel.

The amendments also granted women the right to register childbirth, marriage, or divorce and to be issued official family documents. Saudi women are also eligible to be guardians of children who are minors.

Saudi has also recently announced that women can now register for the annual Haj pilgrimage without a male guardian (mahram), Al Arabiya News reported.

“Those wishing to perform Haj will have to register individually. Women can register without a mahram (male guardian) along with other women,” the ministry said in a tweet.