quotes For Saudi women, in isolation lies economic opportunity

06 April 2020
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Updated 17 April 2020

For Saudi women, in isolation lies economic opportunity

This week, the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)-induced isolation that has given rise to both unimaginable loss and moments of resilience.
In the Gulf, daily life has been reshaped by restrictions that few could have predicted. Saudi Arabia, which acted quickly to suspend travel, implement remote work, and close restaurants, stores, and malls out of concern for public safety, has been hailed for its thorough response.
The Kingdom recognized that the earlier it mandated these measures, the more severe economic disruption it might face in the immediate term. The public’s welfare took priority, nevertheless, with the aim of shielding the Kingdom from a more devastating outbreak down the line.
Now, with most citizens and residents at home, some may see opportunity in isolation. Saudi women in particular may use these challenging times to identify ways to enter a market that will shift almost entirely online.
Saudi Arabia is likely to see an increase in homebound women selling goods and services online. For those who are otherwise not working or studying remotely, the shuttering of physical storefronts can boost sales for businesses run from the home.
In February 2020, Saudi Minister of Commerce Majid Al-Qasabi stated that e-commerce in Saudi Arabia represented SR80 billion ($21.3 billion) in services and products, with the Kingdom boasting over 45,000 shops and e-commerce platforms.
These figures are likely unsurprising to many Saudi women, who have long found creative ways to generate income from their homes, using social media and word of mouth to sell goods as diverse as traditional foods, custom-designed abayas, handmade jewelry, perfume, and more.
In fact, women owned nearly half of the 27,000 online shops registered on the Ministry of Commerce’s Maroof portal last year.
Some of these women have faced difficulties entering the traditional workforce due to personal or cultural factors, including family concerns over gender mixing at work and a higher likelihood of starting a family while young. In recent years, these barriers have in part lowered due to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform drive.

Without a doubt, the road to economic recovery will be long and arduous. The public will find, however, that while Saudi Arabia stays at home, women’s economic ambitions will not be limited by four walls.

Madison Clough

Under the National Transformation Program, the government aims to raise Saudi women’s economic participation from 17 to 25 percent. Progress has been extremely promising so far: In early 2019, the number of women working increased by more than 280 percent, from 156,000 in 2018 to 596,700 only one year later.
In the coming days, it is likely that even more Saudi women will embrace opportunities to work as independent businesswomen from the privacy and comfort of their homes.
We may also see a rise in women as service providers, from teachers to language tutors, life coaches, counselors, and consultants. Should these women one day decide to scale their pursuits into larger enterprises, they will be able to take advantage of the lightning-quick time it takes to process a business license in the Kingdom, which the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) cut from 53 hours to 4 hours in 2018.
A question worth asking, then, is what the Saudi workforce might look like when the situation eventually stabilizes and normalcy returns to daily life. The country as a whole will benefit if Saudi women who become engaged in e-commerce during the COVID-19 crisis can maintain their economic participation.
Income-earning women produce societal and economic rewards for all. With more gender-inclusive economic growth, a diversified range of goods and services often appears to meet the public’s tastes. At the family level, working women can contribute to empowered households where financial decision-making is more equitably spread.
Greater female inclusion can also lead to higher spending power among women who give back to the national economy. One World Economic Forum study noted that achieving greater gender balance in the workforce could increase GDP by approximately 35 percent, leading to higher productivity and pay for both men and women.
The Saudi government and business community can take a number of steps to encourage women who are now wondering how to monetize their pursuits from home. For example, SAGIA can release an online business toolkit tailored to women seeking to initiate small enterprises. Prominent female business owners can also share their success stories and practical advice in virtual workshops and coaching sessions with aspiring entrepreneurs. Most practically, Saudi Arabia’s Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority (Monsha’at), which has facilitated millions of riyals in new business funding and online training for entrepreneurs, can also consider a new round of online outreach campaigns targeted towards women. 
Well suited to innovate in these challenging circumstances, Saudi women deserve the financial assistance and professional mentorship necessary to raise their economic participation at a time when it is needed most.  
Without a doubt, the road to economic recovery will be long and arduous. The public will find, however, that while Saudi Arabia stays at home, women’s economic ambitions will not be limited by four walls.

Madison Clough is a strategic communications professional residing in the Gulf. She holds a master’s degree in international security from George Mason University and specializes in communications on geopolitical and cultural issues.