There is no doubt that the status of women in general has improved immeasurably throughout the Kingdom, and that businesswomen in particular are now playing a decisive role in the Saudi chambers of commerce. The Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce and Industry (EPCCI) has taken a major step forward in changing attitudes to the role of women in business, with the creation of the EPCCI Businesswomen’s Center. This writes in stone, as it were, the fact that women officially play a part in their region’s, and their country’s, economic growth and health. Not only that, it recognizes the key contribution that women can make in the private business sector and in building a fairer, more cohesive society.
Hind Al-Zahid, the Center’s manager, is a woman with a mission to help other women realize their commercial aspirations. “Our vision is to guide all businesswomen in the region. Pioneers, new entrepreneurs, small businesses, even job seekers,” is her mission statement.
The Center, on Alkhobar’s Corniche, runs training programs with graduate qualifications, aimed both at women who already have their own businesses and at new entrepreneurs. Al-Zahid explains: “We have committees divided into sectors. For example trade, education, women’s tailoring and beauty shops. They deal with problems that established businesswomen face, and try to come up with solutions. They then can move on to presenting particular cases to the relevant authorities, or inviting some important figures, for example the minister of commerce or the minister of labor, to listen to what we are doing here.”
Entrepreneurship has been given a big boost in the Eastern Province, and the Businesswomen’s Center has several specialized programs, including one for women wanting to start up small businesses at home. The Center already has more than 140 graduates, and the number of applicants continues to rise. Proudly she points out that 60 percent of those who have passed through its doors have set up their own enterprises.
There is a long way to go, of course — 67 percent of women in the Kingdom do not work. “Wasted manpower,” laments Al-Zahid, who is not someone to be daunted by seemingly overwhelming odds: “One of our major initiatives was the establishment of Asharqia Businesswomen’s Council,” she adds; and the Council is a further stepping stone on the road to help women identify and realize their chances, and to go on to create their own businesses.
Al-Zahid believes that Saudization is a major area of concern to the Center. “We can ease the process of setting up a business, and, of course, we have a fully qualified work force on our books.”
Apart from the training programs, the Center holds meetings, seminars and workshops, which help businesswomen stay in touch with each other and keep abreast of new developments.
Al-Zahid is particularly proud of her Tuesday’s Meeting, an initiative “that is exclusive to EPCCI”. On the first Tuesday of each month, the Center has a special guest evening. “We get a pioneering businesswoman to talk about her personal experiences in the field and interact with her audience.”
Another area in which the Center is very effective is as a pressure group, dealing with the slow grind of governmental procedures and the ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, of employment or company laws that have already been ratified by the relevant ministry. For example, the Ministry of Commerce has confirmed that some of its regional offices have been in flagrant violation of a law issued in 2004, which states that Saudi women can set up businesses without the authorization of a male agent. At the same time, the male agent was replaced with a male manager if the business is not just for women. The manager has to be Saudi and runs the business.
It is easy to see why Al-Zahid might sometimes get frustrated: “Procedures need to be much clearer. What is the point of the Ministry of Commerce issuing regulations, if they then don’t reach other ministries?” She then cited the example of a woman who wanted to open a contracting business, but the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs sat on the application, unaware that it was now legal. “The ministry said they had received no such communication,” she said with a raised eyebrow.
Even more frustrating is another example Al-Zahid gave concerning the law permitting saleswomen in lingerie shops. This gave rise to the bizarre Catch-22 situation, where the law could only be implemented if the shop windows were covered, but then the license to operate was refused (again by men), because male store owners wanted to be able to see what was being sold in their stores.
Help is at hand, however, from the Center’s Women Economic Forum, set up last year. The theme of this year’s two-day conference, which took place earlier this month, was “Women as Partners in Development”. As well as examining the role of women in the economic development of both the Kingdom and other Gulf Cooperation Council member states, the forum also covered such topics as investment plans specially tailored to women’s economic priorities and the obstacles that still confront Saudi businesswomen.
So, it is not yet a case of “with one bound they were free” but certainly the EPCCI Businesswomen’s Center has covered a great deal of ground. And just think what things were like only 20 or so years ago.