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.”


Merkel seeks united front with China amid Trump trade fears

Updated 22 May 2018
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Merkel seeks united front with China amid Trump trade fears

  • Merkel seeks common ground to ward off trade war
  • Plans complicated by US policy moves

Chancellor Angela Merkel visits China on Thursday, seeking to close ranks with the world’s biggest exporting nation as US President Donald Trump shakes up explosive issues from trade to Iran’s nuclear deal.

Finding a common strategy to ward off a trade war and keep markets open will be Merkel’s priority when she meets with President Xi Jinping, as Washington brandishes the threat of imposing punitive tariffs on aluminum and steel imports.

“Both countries are in agreement that open markets and rules-based world trade are necessary. That’s the main focus of this trip,” Merkel’s spokeswoman Martina Fietz said in Berlin on Friday.

But closing ranks with Beijing against Washington risks being complicated by Saturday’s deal between China and the US to hold off tit-for-tat trade measures.

China’s economic health can only benefit Germany as the Asian giant is a big buyer of Made in Germany. But a deal between the US and China effectively leaves Berlin as the main target of Trump’s campaign against foreign imports that he claims harm US national security.

The US leader had already singled Germany out for criticism, saying it had “taken advantage” of the US by spending less than Washington on NATO.

Underlining what is at stake, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire warned the US-China deal may come “at the expense of Europe if Europe is not capable of showing a firm hand.”

Nevertheless, Merkel can look to her carefully nurtured relationship with China over her 12 years as chancellor.

No Western leader has visited Beijing as often as Merkel, who will be undertaking her eleventh trip to the country.

In China, she is viewed not only as the main point of contact for Europe, but, crucially, also as a reliable interlocutor — an antithesis of the mercurial Trump.

Devoting her weekly podcast to her visit, Merkel stressed that Beijing and Berlin “are both committed to the rules of the WTO” (World Trade Organization) and want to “strengthen multilateralism.”

But she also underlined that she will press home Germany’s longstanding quest for reciprocity in market access as well as the respect of intellectual property.

Ahead of her visit, Beijing fired off a rare salvo of criticism.

China’s envoy to Germany, Shi Mingde, pointed to a “protectionist trend in Germany,” as he complained about toughened rules protecting German companies from foreign takeovers.

Only 0.3 percent of foreign investors in Germany stem from China while German firms have put in €80 billion in the Asian giant over the last three decades, he told Stuttgarter Nachrichten.

“Economic exchange cannot work as a one-way street,” he warned.

Meanwhile, looming over the battle on the trade front is another equally thorny issue — the historic Iran nuclear deal, which risks falling apart after Trump pulled the US out.

Tehran has demanded that Europe keeps the deal going by continuing economic cooperation, but the US has warned European firms of sanctions if they fail to pull out of Iran.

Merkel “hopes that China can help save the atomic deal that the US has unilaterally ditched,” said Die Welt daily.

“Because only the giant emerging economy can buy enough raw materials from Iran to give the Mullah regime an incentive to at least officially continue to not build a nuclear weapon.”