A Saudi woman leaves a polling station after casting her vote during municipal elections, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in December 2015. Image: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
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"I want my daughter to be internationally successful, I want her to be whatever she wants, if she chooses to be a doctor or an artist. 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 at a panel debate I recently attended in Riyadh.
I found his ambitions for his daughter easy to identify with. They parallel my feelings about the freedoms and rights I expect for my own 8-year-daughter. Rights and freedoms that will give her the power and confidence to be whatever she wants to be.
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. 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 guardian’s permission to marry, travel, leave the country and enrol in education.
Corporate Saudi Arabia, a world apart
This is a country where women only make up 16% of the Saudi workforce, standing much in line with the 14% of the UAE and 19% in Bahrain, and yet 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 (religious police) do not attempt to enforce gender segregation or dress codes on private property.
The blossoming of a female subculture
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. 55% of the graduates from Saudi universities are now women. Female 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 that women would soon be able 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. In other words - change is inevitable and it has already begun.
The moral argument - and the economic one
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 may prove more compelling.
At this year’s Davos, Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, argued that we are entering an era in which competition for “human capital” will become more significant than competition for financial capital. Ironically, only 18% of participation was female at Davos this year, despite the Forum’s own efforts to boost this number. But the question remains, 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?
International corporations are a vector for international values. 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 industrialized countries: it will need to diversify and take its place in the economy of human capital. This New York Times article states that “low oil prices have knocked a chunk out of the government budget and now pose a threat to the unwritten social contract that has long underpinned life in the kingdom”.
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 then 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. And this is a pressing need. 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.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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