Saudi women seize new business opportunities

Wafaa Al-Ashwali launched Serviis, an app that connects consumers with over 2,500 service providers across the Kingdom. (Supplied image)
Updated 01 November 2017
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Saudi women seize new business opportunities

LONDON: With a 130 percent increase in the number of women employed by the private sector in Saudi Arabia over the past four years, the Kingdom’s workforce is undergoing a transformation aimed at ushering in a new economic era.
When Wafaa Al-Ashwali launched a startup in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, she tapped into a burgeoning community of established female entrepreneurs.
Stepping into a sphere traditionally reserved for men, she has had to work harder and be more enterprising than male counterparts, but five months later her app Serviis, which connects consumers with more than 2,500 service providers across the Kingdom, has a steady client base of more than 700.
Her success speaks for the business opportunities unfolding for women in KSA, where there has been a 130 percent increase in their number in the private sector during the past four years.
“There has been a push from government to empower more female entrepreneurs,” Al-Ashwali said.
Almost 40 percent of the startups launched in 2016 were owned by women — an indication of the social and economic evolution that is underway as the Kingdom pursues ambitious aims outlined in its Vision 2030.
Speaking to Arab News earlier this month, the governor of the General Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises, Ghassan Al-Sulaiman pinpointed startups as a particular focus for development.
With plans to boost the proportion of women in the workforce to 30 percent by 2030, Saudi Arabia’s once-sidelined female population is being harnessed to facilitate this growth.
At a recent job fair attended by 43,000 women and hosted by Saudi women’s recruitment agency Glowork, more than 86 local and international organizations gathered seeking to source female talent for their KSA operations.
“They were there purely to hire Saudi women and it showed the appetite of the organizations to get women into their industries at all levels,” said Khalid Al-Khudair, founder of Glowork, itself a startup.
Previously, companies in Saudi Arabia hired women to fill compulsory quotas. Now, Al-Khudair said, “it has become something that makes business sense for organizations,” with women taking on a greater number of roles across different sectors.
“Saudi females represent a talented, well-educated pool of labor. Today, more Saudi women than men are attaining university degrees,” said David Hunt, founder of Dubai-based company Lynwood Consulting.
“The educational reforms have produced a new generation of women with a high degree of training, education and knowledge who are assuming their rightful place in society.”
Across the Middle East, women outnumber men in universities but countries are largely failing to utilize their female talent pools with women’s participation in the workforce across the region among the lowest in the world, according to Reuters.
The upshot is a failure to fully reap the so-called “demographic dividend” that would fuel economic growth, as well as a drag on programs aimed at empowering women in order to fulfil the economic agenda set by government.
Currently, just 1.9 million of the 13.1 million women in Saudi Arabia participate in the workforce, giving it the largest gender imbalance in labor force participation among G-20 countries, according to the “G-20 Saudi Arabia Labour Market Report 2016.”
New initiatives aim to redress this imbalance such as the launch of the first all-female business process services center in Riyadh by Saudi Aramco, General Electric and Tata Consultancy Services to provide employment for more than 1,000 women and the first all-women business and technology park, which aims to provide employment for 20,000 women over the next decade.
“Saudi Arabia has already invested heavily in education for women,” said Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London.
“Enabling more women to enter the workforce allows the economy to earn a return on that investment,” she added.
“Having women in business is good for diversity and there is significant research being done internationally on the positive impact of gender diversity on management and innovation.”
Doors are opening these days with more women entering the workforce, and the once male-dominated business environment is becoming a more equal place.
Hunt noticed the change during a recent trip to Riyadh. “I visited the operations of one of the leading insurance companies,” he said. “In the past women would have been working behind closed doors in separate sections with separate lifts. Now men and women work side by side in large open-plan spaces.
“It was also pleasing to see women taking on more senior roles,” he added, pointing to the appointment of several women to high-powered positions in KSA.
Rania Nashar became the first woman to head a commercial bank in the Kingdom earlier this year when she was named chief executive of Samba Financial Group. Latifa Al-Sabhan serves as the chief financial officer of Arab National Bank, while in February Sarah Al-Suhaimi, CEO of NCB Capital, became the first woman to chair the Saudi stock exchange.
Opportunities are also opening up lower down the ladder as Saudi women seize the moment in the wake of the latest round of reforms.
“The policy environment is becoming more favorable to women working — the recent decision (to lift the ban) on women driving is an important symbol of that,” Kinninmont said.
An earlier move that means women no longer need a guardian to access government services has helped to lift the number of women establishing SMEs, she added.
However, hurdles remain, particularly when it comes to networking. “Saudi Arabia is a conservative country and we still have segregation between men and women,” said Al-Ashwali.
“Business development, which relies on being there in person to access funds and engage with the business community, is a challenge.” Male entrepreneurs can attend the meetings and events necessary to build a business but for women, it is still a “closed community,” she said.
But the balance is shifting as economic demands compete with cultural practices that traditionally consigned women to the domestic sphere.
“I’ve been visiting Saudi Arabia for more than a decade, and throughout that period young middle-class Saudis have been telling me that their peers aspire to have families where both the man and the woman work, partly because of the rising cost of living,” Kinninmont said.
Nouf Al-Saleem, founder of Mathaqi, a meal delivery app launched last year, spoke of the social development that has taken place with women “more welcome in the market, especially when it come to supporting productive families.”
“We can see women-owned businesses rising in all areas, including the food and retail industries and many others,” she added.
Al-Ashwali is confident of further progress. “I think we’ll see more reforms. What’s needed next is to remove the barrier for capable women who have what it takes to do business but are held back by a male guardian.
“Many government organizations are working hard to support individuals in starting their own business,” she said, adding that seeing women empowered by recent reforms “will encourage and inspire more to pursue their business ambitions.”


Angola battles to revive oil exploration as output declines

Updated 16 November 2018
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Angola battles to revive oil exploration as output declines

  • Without another mega-project like Total’s Kaombo on the horizon and fields getting old, Africa’s second-largest crude producer is facing a steep decline
  • Sonangol, the state oil company, is negotiating contracts for new blocks with oil majors and Angola plans to hold an auction next year

LUANDA: On Saturday, nearly two decades after securing the initial rights, Total’s CEO, Patrick Pouyanne, was in Luanda to snip the ribbon on a $16 billion oil project. It is not clear when he, or his peers, will be celebrating in Angola again.

Without another mega-project like Total’s Kaombo on the horizon and fields getting old, Africa’s second-largest crude producer is facing a steep decline unless it can revive exploration in what was once one of the world’s most exciting offshore prospects.
Sonangol, the state oil company, is negotiating contracts for new blocks with oil majors and Angola plans to hold an auction next year, the first tender for exploration rights since 2011.
It is a race against time for a country where oil accounts for 95 percent of exports and around 70 percent of government revenues. Luck will also play a part, as it always does in exploration where finding oil can never be guaranteed.
But without new projects, output could fall to 1 million barrels per day by 2023, according to the oil ministry. That is down from 1.5 million today and nearly half of what Angola was producing a decade ago. The country risks having its OPEC quota cut and is struggling to ensure the long-term feed for its $10 billion liquid natural gas plant.
President Joao Lourenco won an August 2017 election promising an “economic miracle” in Angola, which despite its oil wealth struggles to provide basic services to a mostly impoverished population that is growing at 3 percent a year. But falling oil production means a third consecutive contraction is expected in 2018, even while annual inflation runs at 18 percent.
To turn things around, Angola has asked international oil companies to the table, offering better fiscal terms and more collaboration.
With the time from exploration to first oil on new areas anything from five to 10 years, Angola is also offering tax breaks to encourage companies to link existing marginal discoveries to operating production platforms.
There are signs the measures are working, though some oil experts wonder at what cost for the southwest African country.
“The level of exploration activity in Angola is beginning to change,” Sonangol’s chairman, Carlos Saturnino, said at Saturday’s inauguration.
He expects between five and 10 new concessions to be signed next year.
Exxon, he said, had shown interest in some blocks in southern Angola’s unexplored Namib basin, while advanced discussions are being held with BP, Equinor and ENI for the rights to the ultra-deep offshore blocks 46 and 47.
BP and ENI declined to comment. Equinor and Exxon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Total, which operates 40 percent of Angola’s production, plans to drill its first exploration well in four years. Beneath 3,630m of water on block 48, it will be one of the world’s deepest.
“We hope it will be a play-opener for the ultra-deep in Angola,” said Andre Goffart, senior vice president for development. “We are seeing a new wave of exploration in Angola.”
These signs of fresh exploration come after a period of near-paralysis due to a lack of drilling success, a slump in oil prices and a deteriorating relationship between Sonangol and the oil majors.
Angola’s offshore reserves are expensive to explore and develop, making it a hard sell for shareholders when oil is at $40. The number of rigs operating off Angola’s shores dropped from 18 in early 2014 to just two in 2017, according to oil services company Baker Hughes.
The steep drop in prices from 2014 came just as companies were smarting from the failure to discover Brazil-like oil
reservoirs beneath a layer of salt on the African side of the Atlantic. The search for the “Angolan pre-salt” resulted in some of the most expensive dry wells ever drilled and sapped exploration appetite.
Critics say the situation was exacerbated by Isabel dos Santos, the former president’s daughter and previous chair of Sonangol, under whose leadership new projects ground to a halt. Dos Santos denies allegations of mismanagement, saying she helped turn around an almost bankrupt company.
“There are few places in the world right now where the oil majors are in as good a negotiating position as here,” said one international oil executive in Luanda on condition of anonymity.
Some local experts fear the deals Angola is striking are too beneficial for the companies, although details remain private.
“If Angola gives away too much it could create problems further down the line,” said Jose Oliveira, an oil specialist at the Catholic University in Luanda.
But the country has little choice given its imminent production decline and a lack of money or expertise to lead the drilling campaigns itself.