Ahmed Alrefai, Dean of the College of Business and Management at Fahad bin Sultan University, spoke to a March 8 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the growing role of women in Saudi Arabia's labor market. This was the subject of his recent article for Middle East Quarterly, "Is the Saudi Gender Gap Narrowing?"
Alrefai began by noting that the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2020 ranks Saudi Arabia 146th out of 153 countries in overall gender equality, and 148th in gender economic participation and opportunity. But the economic participation of women in the Saudi economy has been gradually improving in recent years and is poised to continue improving in the years ahead.
Alrefai examined changes in the status of women in the kingdom over the past decade. In 2011, Saudi women were given the right to vote in local elections. Saudi women were also permitted to be elected to the Shura Council, the kingdom's national legislature, with a royal decree allocating 20 percent of its seats to females.
In 2016, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as MbS) launched Vision 2030, a strategic plan to strengthen and diversify the Saudi economy. An important pillar of this plan was the "Saudization" of the labor force, which has traditionally relied heavily on foreigners. This, in turn, required accessing the untapped economic potential of Saudi women. They pledged to raise female participation in the labor force from 17% to 25% by 2020.
King Salman has introduced reforms aimed at "revolutionizing the kingdom's socioeconomic life."
Toward this end, King Salman introduced a series of reforms aimed at "revolutionizing the kingdom's socioeconomic life." In 2017, he decreed that women no longer required a male guardian's consent to receive healthcare and pursue education, which caused female enrollment in universities to increase dramatically. In 2018, a royal decree granted women the right to drive and to use public transportation, which slashed transportation costs for women entering the workforce. Meanwhile, the government opened a range of civil service jobs to female applicants for the first time, reduced work hours for public sector jobs to suit working mothers, began subsidizing childcare and opened childcare centers.
There are now approximately 600,000 highly educated Saudi women who work in the private sector, and many more working in government – including the current Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Despite these promising numbers, female labor participation in Saudi Arabia is still substantially lower than in other Arab Gulf countries due to entrenched "ultra-traditional religious and socio-cultural values" that "impede women's participation ... [and] female workplace integration." For most Saudi women, "fear of overstepping society's normative boundaries and risking retribution acts as a powerful impediment to showing one's true color[s] in public."
These values are changing, particularly among younger Saudis. Alrefai cited a national survey showing that 82 percent of Saudi men between the ages of 18 and 35 believe that women should be allowed to "work outside the home." Another survey conducted by Alrefai himself found large majorities of Saudi men in the same age range hold positive views about the role of women in the workforce. Still, he noted a contradiction in that "only 43% of the respondents thought that women bring a significant added value to the work force," which he said may be attributable to men feeling personally threatened by the thought that a competent female could replace them in their job.
Significantly, noted Alrefai, the national survey showed that most Saudi men underestimated the degree of support for female employment among their peers and thus may fear the social stigma of having their wives work even if they personally support women joining the workforce.
That's why it's necessary for "somebody from the top to say 'That's ok'," such as the King and Crown Prince, breaking the taboo of female economic participation. King Salman's decree enabling women to drive not only made it legal for them to do so, but communicated to Saudi men that they should not stand in the way of it. Women who drive were "harassed at the beginning" but now "drive their own vehicles" without incurring animosity.
Alrefai expects that MbS's "ambitious project of empowering women" will proceed apace, and that there will be "a different Saudi Arabia in 2030."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.