Empowerment of Saudi Businesswomen
LONDON — Princess Adelah bint Abdullah, the daughter of Custodian of
the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, should perhaps take a leaf from the
copybook of Marina Mohamed and Nori Abdullah. Marina is the daughter of
former Malaysian Premier Dr. Mahathir Mohamed and Nori is the daughter
of the current Premier Abdullah Badawi. They are known for giving their
fathers “an earful” regarding the rights and empowerment of Muslim
Perhaps the reforms which Saudi Arabia has instituted in the last year
or so regarding the greater role of women in Saudi society and economy
may indeed have had some influence from Princess Adelah.
But, women such as Lubna Al-Olayan, CEO of Olayan Financial Services;
Samra Al-Kuwaiz, managing director of Osool Brokerage Company (Women’s
Division); Nabila Tunisi, acting manager, projects department at Saudi
Aramco, and Soha Aboul Farag, a banker with 17 years of experience who
last year was chosen for the “International Women Leaders Mentoring
Partnership” in the US, are the pioneers for the new and future
generations of Saudi women especially in an era of socio-economic
reforms in the Kingdom where the contribution of women to economic
development is being increasingly acknowledged.
As professional women in high-powered jobs, they have successfully
managed to carve out careers as working mothers while at the same time
managing their families and dispelling the oft-quoted stereotype of
Saudi women — of a meek, compliant and oppressed section of society.
The good news is that the government is actually engaging with women in
the Kingdom as part of a speeding up of the reform process.
Women, for instance, have stood for — and won — elections to chambers
of commerce in the Kingdom’s major cities; and they have been promised
participation in municipal elections next time round. The bad news is
that there is still a long way to go in terms of social and legal
reforms for Saudi women to attain their rightful and equal status in
However, even in Saudi Arabia the socio-political anomalies are
apparent especially where the private sector is concerned. Lubna
Olayan, the Saudi businesswoman ranked 97th in the Forbes list, is the
CEO of Olayan Financing albeit the company is a wholly-owned subsidiary
of her father’s Olayan Group, one of the Kingdom’s most prominent
private family business groups.
“We live in a male-only society,” emphasizes Samra Al-Kuwaiz. “This
male-only society,” she maintains, “is now viewing women as a possible
economic force. Saudi Arabia is a special case. We are very different
from other GCC countries. We have complete segregation. We have, let’s
say Islamic challenges, which are more evident in the Kingdom. Of
course, we abide by Shariah one hundred percent.”
Saudi women are now starting to challenge the norms, albeit cautiously.
They are, for instance, keen for King Abdullah to introduce a new
Cabinet portfolio — a minister for women’s affairs — thus paving the
way for the first female Cabinet minister to be appointed in the
Kingdom. This they stress is essential so that Saudi women have the
right channels to exercise influence. They look perhaps enviously to
their cousins in the rest of the GCC countries, all of which have
appointed female ministers in various portfolios. They also want
women’s participation in the Shoura and other councils of state; this
seems to be on the cards.
The problem is that the progress of gender equality and equal rights is
at best piecemeal and not enshrined in law. The irony of course is that
many of these rights are enshrined in the Shariah. There are still a
large number of barriers to entry for Saudi women in the workplace.
Never mind the underlying conservatism of Saudi (male) society. In the
field of business, industry and investment, very often Saudi women
entrepreneurs are at a huge disadvantage compared with their cousins in
Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE.
In the latter countries it takes an hour to register a company, whether
male or female. In the Kingdom it could easily take several months.
Businesswomen such as Hana Al-Zuhair, manager of the Businesswomen’s
Center at the Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce and Industry
(EPCCI), lament the fact that there are no statistics on the number of
industries owned and managed by women. Very often a factory can be
owned by a woman as a silent partner, but it is actually managed by a
The EPCCI is setting the pace by working through a women’s industry
committee to collect data and conduct studies on the opportunities
available for women. The aim is to educate and encourage Saudi women to
invest in industry, and to leverage recent reforms in government
regulations such as easier industrial registration procedures,
financing and free plots of land to establish a factory in the
industrial cities. At the same time, government officials and
bureaucrats are very often themselves ignorant about the new
regulations. Women entrepreneurs are often told that there are no
relevant forms for women or that it is not permitted for women to
invest in a particular industry.
Saudi businesswomen stress that in spite of the regulations, the
government reforms, and Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority’s
endeavors to encourage women into business, it remains difficult for
them to overcome the barriers. Despite promises of change from the
Ministry of Commerce, nothing substantial has materialized.
The registration process for companies is the same for both men and
women investors. The only additional regulation imposed on women
managers in industrial cities is to have all-women staff in a
designated women’s section with separate entry and exit doors; and a
male supervisor for the male staff in the men’s section. Naturally,
this is a problem for businesswomen.
Nevertheless, the economic power of women in the Kingdom cannot be
understated. Women own 10 percent of real estate, especially in major
cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh, and 30 percent of brokerage accounts
in the Kingdom. They own some 40 percent of the family-run companies,
very often as silent partners. Saudi women as a whole own estimated
cash funds of SR45 billion, of which 75 percent is sitting idle in bank
According to a recent study by the Khadija bint Khuwailid
Businesswomen’s Center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry
(JCCI), investment by Saudi businesswomen has reached some SR8 billion,
which is around 21 percent of the total investment. Women “own” some
1,500 companies — about 4 percent of the total registered businesses in
the Kingdom. There are 5,500 commercial registrations of women’s
projects, representing 20 percent of businesses in the retail,
contracting, wholesale and transferable industries sectors.
The business case for the greater and equal involvement of women in the
Saudi economy is proven. Saudi women tend to outperform Saudi men in
education; the arts; science; and if they are given the chance in
business and industry they might do so here as well.
Women are contributing to GDP in several ways — their liquidity and
deposits in banks; their investment in industry; and generating
employment. But they could do much more if only the playing field was
Their financial clout and the reforms that have seen a greater role for
women in the Saudi economy in the last few years have hitherto failed
to reconcile the incidence of massive hidden female unemployment in the
That means there is a large untapped financial resource in the Kingdom
that could, with the right incentives, regulations and facilities,
contribute to the country’s economic development in a range of sectors
and also reduce unemployment. According to official statistics, only
5.5 percent of an estimated 4.7 million Saudi women of working age are
To leverage this, stress many Saudi entrepreneurs, there has to be a
change of mindset especially regarding de-segregation of Saudi society,
including the workplace. The employment of women in the Kingdom is
further skewed by the fact that there is high adult male unemployment
in the economy. As such women are seen by some Saudi men as rivals in
the job market.
Saudi businesswomen are sanguine about this. “Equal opportunities and
the empowerment of women is and will happen. There is no way out of it.
We are just like any other society; like any other women that have to
struggle for change. This change will inevitably be driven by economic
necessity,” stresses one businesswoman.
The consensus among Saudi businesswomen is that change will be gradual,
although economic and demographic necessity could speed up reforms.
Rapid economic development in the last two decades has had an impact.
The Kingdom is witnessing a boom which is even bigger than in the 1970s
after the first oil price rise.
The empowerment of Saudi businesswomen is getting support from various
quarters. Recently, Britain for instance, through its Global
Opportunities Fund, allocated SR700,000 to finance the training of
Saudi women in business development and management through a series of
workshops in Madinah, Jeddah, Abha and Hail.
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