Saudi Arabia on a fast track to gender equality, study suggests

Easier access to passports and traveling abroad is among measures offering women in Saudi Arabia greater mobility along with new freedoms in the workplace, marriage, parenthood, education and entrepreneurship. (AFP)
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Updated 12 February 2020

Saudi Arabia on a fast track to gender equality, study suggests

  • A World Bank report places Kingdom first in gender equality in GCC bloc and second in the Arab region
  • The WBL report measures gender inequality in the law and identifies barriers to women's economic participation

DUBAI: Rapid reform in Saudi Arabia is opening the door for female “role models and leaders of the future” — and the Kingdom’s women are seizing the opportunity, according to major employers.

Saudi women are bringing “passion, energy and enthusiasm” to the workplace in greater numbers than ever, Danielle Atkins, chief marketing and communications officer at Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) in Riyadh, told Arab News.

 Atkins said that she has seen a sharp rise in the number of women working in the Kingdom.

“I look for passion, an entrepreneurial spirit and commitment —  and all of this I see from the Saudi women in my team,” she said.

“This is an incredible time for Saudi women.”

FASTFACT

38.8

Jump in Saudi Arabia’s score in World Bank’s ‘Women, Business and the Law’ report.

Atkins’ comments follow a World Bank report that highlighted Saudi Arabia’s rapid progress towards gender quality since 2017 by ranking it the top reformer and the top improver among 190 countries.

 The bank’s “Women, Business and the Law” (WBL) 2020 report gave the Kingdom an overall score of 70.6 out of 100 — a 38.8 jump since its last ranking  — placing it first among GCC countries and second in the Arab world.

WBL measures gender inequality in the law, identifies barriers to women’s economic participation and encourages reform of discriminatory laws.

The report highlights improvements in Saudi Arabia’s score in six of the eight indicators, notably in women’s mobility, following the removal of restrictions on obtaining a passport and traveling abroad.

Besides mobility (100), the most improvements were recorded in the workplace (100), marriage (60), parenthood (40), entrepreneurship (100) and pension (100).

New legal amendments also equalized women’s right to choose where to live and to leave the marital home, the report says.

Atkins told Arab News that the “remarkable change” in opportunities for women  can be attributed to the implementation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s blueprint for transformation — the Saudi 2030 Vision

“Today, women are being appointed to senior governmental roles and are leading in fields such as science and medicine, which were traditionally male oriented,” she said.

“They will become role models for the future.”




Reforms including the right to drive offer Saudi women a stake in the Kingdom’s economic future, according to a World Bank report. (AFP)

With regard to the workplace, Saudi Arabia has enacted legislation and criminal penalties for sexual harassment and prohibited gender discrimination.

In the area of marriage, the Kingdom has begun allowing women to be head of the household and removed the legal obligation to obey their husbands. With regards to parenthood, Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, prohibited the dismissal of pregnant workers.

“One of the goals of Vision 2030 is to increase the proportion of women in employment from the current level of 22 percent to 30 percent,” Atkins said.

“The DGDA team is comprised of 83 percent Saudis, of which 34 percent are women. The marketing team has an even higher percentage with 57 percent of women.

“My first three new hires are all Saudi women, and my impression as someone who is new to the Kingdom is that this change is being led by the government and individual CEOs. It would be great to see this cascade into all industries within Saudi Arabia,” she said.

In a boost for entrepreneurship, the Kingdom has made access to credit easier for women by prohibiting gender-based discrimination in financial services, a legal provision that has been proven to increase women’s access to finance and is still not in place in 115 economies.

In the pension section, the Kingdom equalized the age (60) at which men and women can retire with full pension benefits. It also mandated a retirement age of 60 for both women and men.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the changes underway in the Kingdom is the trend for women to study what have traditionally been regarded as exclusively male domains: Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines.

For instance, of the 5,200 who graduated from the Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) in Riyadh last year, 1,400 came from STEM faculties.

“I predict a huge contribution from women in that sector in the near future,” Einas Al-Eisa, rector of the PNU, told Arab News at the recent annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“One good story that comes from Saudi Arabia is the increased number of women engaging in the technology sectors, for example, versus the drop we see worldwide. Elsewhere women are moving away from these fields, whereas in the Kingdom, the number is going up constantly.”

Cyril Widdershoven, director of VEROCY, a Dutch consultancy advising on investments, energy and infrastructure in the region, said improvements in the position of women in Saudi Arabia are visible in offices, workplaces and on the streets.

“The role of women in the Saudi economy is clear. It is an available workforce that should be accessed,” he said.

“At the same time, diversity in the workforce is increasing overall productivity, profitability and sustainability.

“What needs to be done is to educate and strategize sectors for women.”




Women university students in the Kingdom are entering traditional male domains such as science, engineering and mathematics in growing numbers. (AFP)

According to the World Bank report, economies in the Middle East and North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa make up nine of the top 10 reforming economies.

Some of the Kingdom’s groundbreaking reforms include criminalizing sexual harassment in public and private sector employment in 2018, as well as allowing women greater economic opportunity last year.

Legal amendments now protect women from discrimination in employment, including job advertisements and hiring, and prohibit employers from dismissing a woman during her pregnancy and maternity leave.

“These reforms build on other historic changes in Saudi Arabia, which in 2015 for the first time allowed women to vote and run as candidates in municipal elections and, in 2017, gave women the right to drive,” the report said. “The reforms are spurred by an understanding that women play an important role in moving Saudi Arabia closer to its Vision 2030.

“This ambitious plan to modernize the Saudi Arabian economy by diversifying it beyond oil and gas, promoting private sector growth, and supporting entrepreneurship also includes the goal of increasing women’s labor force participation.”

The report mentioned  remaining legal constraints on women’s participation in the economy, which, if addressed, could increase their economic contribution.

As for what young Saudi women will do after graduation, the Vision 2030 strategy envisages a big increase in the female workforce, rising to as much as 30 percent over the next decade.

Recent statistics show that the Kingdom is well on the way to reaching that target, with 23.5 percent of the private sector workforce being female.

“Just as it should be everywhere else in the world, it is the competency of the graduates that dictates where they go,” Al-Eisa said.

For Saudi Arabia to diversify and advance, Widdershoven said, the Kingdom’s women need to be financially independent, but also able to fill in gaps in the workforce.

“From health care to finance, energy, agriculture and industry, the strength of these mainly young women is remarkable,” he said.


Kingdom’s embassies offer crucial lifeline for Saudis stranded abroad due to pandemic

Saudi Ambassador to Indonesia Essam bin Abed Al-Thaqafi reassuring Saudis about their safe return to the Kingdom. Saudi missions around the world continue to provide advice and accommodation for stranded citizens. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 31 March 2020

Kingdom’s embassies offer crucial lifeline for Saudis stranded abroad due to pandemic

  • Saudis stranded abroad by coronavirus tell Arab News how they cope

RIYADH: Hundreds of Saudi citizens stranded abroad due to the coronavirus travel bans are living in the lap of luxury at the expense of the Kingdom.
Since the first case of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was reported in Saudi Arabia, the government has been taking all necessary measures to protect its people through the closure of schools and offices to the halting of international and domestic flights.
And Saudi embassies around the world have been working day and night to organize the safe return of citizens, posting flight deadlines and important contact numbers on Twitter.
However, not all Saudis studying, working or on vacation in other countries have been able to make it home.
As the world battles with the pandemic, the Saudi government has been trying to ensure the well-being and health of its citizens stranded abroad, urging Saudi nationals to abide by the rules and regulations of the countries of their residence.
The Kingdom has expanded a ban on international flights for two weeks to help authorities fight the virus effectively within the country.
A number of Saudi families, tourists, businesspeople and students have found themselves stuck in the US capital, Washington, DC with no idea of when the next evacuation flights will take place.
However, the Saudi Embassy has provided luxury hotel accommodation for stranded Saudi nations including full-board meals and free laundry services.
Ayman Nassief and his family were on a two-week holiday in Orlando, Florida when the travel ban came in.
“When they closed Disney World in Orlando, we sensed something, and decided to go back to Washington to take the first flight to Saudi Arabia,” said Nasseif, an architect from Jeddah who had traveled to the US with his wife Safinaz Salamah, a pediatrician, and their daughter Hatoon, a freelance graphic designer.
“I knew that the flight had been canceled before I arrived in DC, so I called the embassy on their dedicated hotline. The embassy immediately made arrangements for our stay at the Hilton McLean hotel.”
The Saudi Ministry of Health made it mandatory for people entering the Kingdom after March 11 to go into 14-day quarantine and Nasseif said his family’s places of work had been very cooperative and understanding over their situation.

 

 

Safinaz said she was keen to get back to Saudi as soon as possible to help in her role as a pediatrician. “I wish I was there to return some of the favor that the government has bestowed upon me.
“I sit here with my family at the expense of the embassy; it is taking care of our accommodation, food and even paying for our laundry here. Now I really know what it means to be Saudi,” she added.
Nasseif said: “We understand the burden on the government, and we want to go back as soon as possible, but we realize how big the pandemic is. It put us at ease that the government was taking extreme measures to fight the virus, and we stand along with them.”
Another Saudi citizen, Faten Ahmed, became stranded at the Hilton McLean after her flight home was canceled during a visit to Florida to see her brother.
“Although I am missing my family and home, the help I have received here has made it up for me. I have nothing to complain about. I only hope the world passes through this crisis with the minimum of lost lives.”
Ahmed had only been in Miami for 24 hours before she heard the travel ban rumors and drove immediately to Orlando to catch the first available flight to Washington, DC. However, when she got there all flights to Saudi Arabia had been grounded.

Ibtihaj Al-Hanaki who was in the US capital for a brief personal trip was also unable to return due to the pandemic. Her flight was one of the last to land in the city from the Kingdom before things were shut down.
“I didn’t think that things will escalate this fast, when I finished my business here I tried to go back, but unfortunately it was too late,” the mother of two boys, 2 and 5, told Arab News. “I miss them too much, I didn’t plan to leave them for a long period, and they weren’t prepared for that,” she said.
Nevertheless, Al-Hanaki praised the action of her country to take strict precautions during the coronavirus outbreak, which has brought most of the world to a halt.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Saudi embassies around the world have been working to organize the safe return of citizens, posting flight deadlines and important contact numbers on Twitter.

• Saudi Embassy in Washington has provided approximately 40,000 Saudi students in the US with clear guidance and advisories regarding how to ensure that their studies are not disrupted.

Fahad Nazer, spokesperson at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, told Arab News: “The well-being of Saudi citizens abroad is the top priority of all of the Kingdom’s diplomatic missions around the world.
“The Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan is personally overseeing the embassy’s effort to ensure that Saudis currently unable to return to the Kingdom due to the international travel restrictions, have adequate accommodation until the restrictions are lifted.
“The Kingdom’s embassy in Washington, in addition to its consulates in New York City, Los Angeles and Houston have spared no effort to make sure that the approximately 600 Saudi citizens who were visiting the US and are currently unable to return to the Kingdom have all their needs met,” said Nazer.

A group of Saudis gathered in the lobby of a hotel in Washington, DC.

“The accommodation, provided free of charge, includes transportation from airports to hotels and lodging at hotels, along with complimentary meals. In addition, the Kingdom’s cultural mission in Washington has provided approximately 40,000 Saudi students in the US with clear guidance and advisories regarding how to ensure that their studies are not disrupted, including guidance on distance learning.”
The embassy and consulates in the US have also advised all Saudis to strictly adhere to the public health and safety advisories issued by the states they reside in.
Saudi embassies and consulates around the world continue to closely monitor the spread of the coronavirus and provide advice and accommodation for stranded citizens.
In Indonesia, a video went viral of the Saudi ambassador to the country, Essam bin Abed Al-Thaqafi, reassuring a large crowd in an airport that they would all be cared for. “Our responsibility lies in overseeing that we care for you during this time,” he said.
The Saudi Embassy in Indonesia flew out 800 citizens and those that failed to make the flight have been provided free accommodation.
“There is no doubt that the authorities in the Kingdom are working hard for their return, but after taking all necessary precautions,” the envoy added.
The Saudi Embassy in Egypt helped to evacuate 5,900 Saudis in the space of 72 hours with the Kingdom’s ambassador, Osama Nugali, personally overseeing operations at the airport.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always been at the forefront of caring for its citizens whether in the country or abroad. The instructions we received from the leadership were to help facilitate and to accommodate the needs of our citizens during this crucial time,” he told Arab News.