Kingdom’s new dress code a boost for businesswomen
The new rule that ends the abaya requirement for foreign women in Saudi Arabia may have come amid changes established to create a local tourism industry, but it will most immediately benefit the international business climate. Previously, foreign businesswomen were compelled to wear abayas, no matter the behavior or dress of their male counterparts. While the need to respect local custom is understood, this was a major impediment to international business interaction within the Kingdom.
I’ll start with personal anecdotes. Last year, at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, I followed the event guidelines and wore a conservative dress to the conference at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. I was in the middle of a conversation with men who were also dressed in Western clothing, when a female attendant from the event told me to put on an abaya. I happened to have one in my bag, so I was able to comply. But I do not know what I would have done if I had left it in my hotel room. In the end, I was embarrassed and I felt diminished in my standing among the men around me. I had believed that I was OK by following the event guidelines, but I was not.
Other times in Saudi Arabia I have had to wear an abaya into the offices of powerful men or when I met them for coffee. I have been required to wear an abaya on my way to the house of an influential business leader as I went to dinner with half a dozen important men. Once I arrived at the house, it was clear the abaya was not necessary for the dinner. However, I then had to take it off in front of all of those men. For a foreign woman, this is an awkward and uncomfortable situation. The men did not have to take anything off. They just started socializing. For many Saudi women who are accustomed to wearing an abaya, these experiences may not seem noteworthy. But for a foreign woman who wears Western clothes, this is hard to get used to. It can be a serious impediment to interaction, especially in a business setting.
Women are now able to walk around Riyadh in conservative Western clothing as they would in New York or London
Ellen R. Wald
Moreover, it clearly has an impact for foreign businessmen. Saudi businessmen are accustomed to seeing women in abayas, but foreign men are not. When I have been in Riyadh for business meetings with non-Saudis, the garb has immediately lowered my position in relation to the men. As a relatively young woman, it is already sometimes difficult to establish myself as an equal to some men. But when I am required to wear an unfamiliar outer layer of clothing, I am at a disadvantage. Thankfully, this problem appears to be gone now.
There was also a practical problem with requiring abayas for foreign women. Where would we get one? When would we first don it upon arrival in Saudi Arabia? What style would we choose? Where in Saudi Arabia was it required? Did we need to wear it in the hotel lobby or the home of a cosmopolitan friend? The first time I traveled to Saudi Arabia, I was in Abu Dhabi several months earlier so I picked up a very basic abaya at the mall. I have spoken to several young businesswomen who were nervous about the requirement ahead of their travels to the Kingdom. Typically, American women had to take a trip to New York and find a store that sold abayas in Brooklyn or Queens before their departure. Every American businesswoman on her first trip to Saudi Arabia was nervous about whether she needed to put it on during the flight, upon arrival at the airport, or before she left the airport. It was a constant concern for most foreign women I know on their first few trips to Saudi Arabia.
Now this concern is hopefully no longer necessary. The new rule for foreign women’s dress seems to be focused on the tourism industry, but it is already benefiting foreign businesswomen. I have spoken to non-Saudi friends and contacts who are now able to walk around Riyadh in conservative Western clothing as they would in New York or London. This makes them feel comfortable and confident, and it makes them feel equal to their male counterparts. Foreign businesswomen can now walk into meetings with more poise.
It is crucial that women in business exhibit assertiveness and that will now be easier. This is important for Saudi business as well. The abaya law was one of the elements keeping foreign businesses from entering the Saudi market. Global businessmen and women are accustomed to traveling among different cultures, but they are not accustomed to facing significant restrictions or mandates on their own behavior. In the past, I have spoken with several foreign women who were hesitant or fearful of traveling to Saudi Arabia for work because of the dress requirements. And several foreign women I know who do travel to Saudi Arabia regularly are relieved that the restrictions have now been relaxed.
• Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy