Mention the term “brain drain” and most people immediately think of the best in the land — doctors, teachers, accountants, businessmen and the like — emigrating in search of better pay and conditions. Something similar is happening in Saudi Arabia. Here, it is women who are leaving. Because of limited opportunities for employment and business ventures, there is a distinct females exodus.
The slow pace of bureaucracy (particularly when it comes to getting permission to set up a company), the need to have the consent of a male guardian, the rule that women in business have to employ a male manager and not being allowed to drive are some of the reasons Saudi women give for quitting their native country for other destinations. But they are not necessarily going that far. With more relaxed regulations, the preferred destination is other Gulf states where opportunities abound and there are open arms for Saudi investors, men or women.
Bahrain, the closest GCC state to Saudi Arabia in terms of ease of access by road, is a prime destination for Saudis, professionally and leisure wise. The existence of the King Fahd Causeway linking the two states has strengthened bilateral relations both economically and politically.
Suzan Younis, who works in Gulf Air’s corporate communications department, left Saudi Arabia in the early 80s. Since then, she has worked in Jordan, Kuwait and Dubai before finally moving to Bahrain. She feels comfortable there. A quick trip across the causeway allows her to be in touch with her family at weekends.
In her work in various countries, both in PR and in organizing events for a large number of clients, she is in constant touch with both journalists and suppliers. That includes needing to drive somewhere at a moment’s notice, and be hands-on when planning an event or a press conference.
“In Saudi Arabia, it would cost me double to run my business. I would not only have to hire a driver but also have to hire a man to negotiate on my behalf. Profits would be used on these additional expenses that I do not have to pay for when living outside the Kingdom,” says Younis.
Experience has taught her that in any business the person in charge is the one who can negotiate the best. “I would not like to have to depend on someone else to do my talking or driving for me,” she says.
Working abroad for Saudis can have its complications, however. In January 2006, the General Organization for Social Insurance announced that it was extending its pension to all Saudi employees working in the private sector in GCC states. The worker can obtain all benefits the scheme offers under the Annuities Branch, just like any other Saudi employee working in Saudi Arabia. However, the law was only implemented in 2008.
“Saudis working in Bahrain or Bahrainis working in Saudi Arabia are now part of the same insurance system and the years spent in either countries will be calculated and added to the retirement fund for the employee,” explains Younis. “However, the same does not apply in the other GCC countries, which is a pity, as the years I worked in Dubai and Kuwait will not be calculated,” she continues.
In many people’s view, Bahrain has the best of both worlds — openness and Islamic culture — and is seen as a good environment for the professional Muslim woman. However, Younis believes that no matter where she goes, at the end of the day she represents her family, her country and her Muslim values. Having grown up in Aramco, she was used to certain liberties that many other Saudi women did not experience. “I do what I have always done, and that includes socializing, swimming, traveling and other activities,” she says, adding that she has every intention of returning to the Kingdom when she retires. Maybe before.
“I will see if things have changed, so I can start a business and carry on with what I love to do — event planning,” she explains.
The UAE, with its clean streets, its well-ordered and business-friendly environment, has been a destination for both Saudi investors and weekend travelers. With its glamorous Burj Al-Arab, the Atlantis resort in Palm Jumeirah and other facilities, Dubai hosts probably more Saudi second homes than anywhere and, despite the economic fallout, still attracts large numbers of Saudis. It is also seen as a desirable place for Saudis to work and study.
Sisters Sara and Rima Ashemimry started their fashion brand there, creating women’s off-the-peg clothes and selling to retailers. The business opened when Rima, a designer, moved to the emirate with her husband. She and her sister found it easier to start a business there, especially bringing in foreign employees.
This year they obtained a license to open a branch in Saudi Arabia. “It was not difficult because we had ‘wasta’,” she says. Nonetheless, they encountered difficulties getting visas for employees. They will persevere; when it comes to markets, they see the Kingdom as the top place to operate.
The chief reason Gulf states such as Bahrain and UAE are beneficiaries of the Saudi “brain drain” is, according to those who have left, the relative simplicity of setting up a business in such places compared to the Kingdom, plus the fact that there is no need for the consent of a male guardian or the requirement to bring in a man to do the work for you.
“The easiest country for starting a business is America,” declares Rima’s 26-year-old married sister Sara who currently lives in the US and commutes between there, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “However, we (she and her sister) did everything in Dubai ourselves. We visited 12 ministries to do our papers unlike Saudi Arabia where we would have had to hire a legal agent (giving the power of attorney to follow procedures in different governmental offices),” she explains. “I am taking the opportunity of being in the US to introduce and expand the brand there,” Sara said. Rima runs the business in Dubai.
Some women simply want to work in a professional environment. That is the reason they move.
Working in Dubai as a producer and a presenter at Alaan television channel is 27-year-old Maysaa Al-Amoudi. She left the Kingdom in 2007 to further her professional career in broadcasting. She used to work with the Saudi television and then joined MBC.
Transportation was a major issue for her. “I know that people say women driving is only a superficial matter and we have more important issues to solve in the Kingdom but I say otherwise. Not being able to drive and get around was a major obstacle for me,” she says.
Al-Amoudi sees Dubai and Jeddah as similar in many ways, the big difference being that Dubai has a “system.” “There are laws here (in Dubai) for everything. Whatever we want, we get legally,” she said.
Al-Amoudi reminisces the time when she applied for a driving license in Dubai. She was told she had to bring her male guardian’s consent. She refused. “I told them that my family is in the Kingdom and I don’t have a male guardian. They immediately gave me an alternative solution — an employment letter from the company I am working for. Now I have a license,” she said.
Working in the Dubai School of Government, Asma Siddiki was drawn by the school’s vision as well as by the hassle-free lifestyle and facilities available in a major cosmopolitan city “where friends and family members from all over the world can visit me without me having to pull strings for them.” After leaving her job in Jeddah and taking time off to visit Dubai, she received a job offer from the school and decided to make the move. She hopes to return to the Kingdom soon, “because it is home,” but is waiting to see if the environment changes. In Dubai, she says, people can maintain a standard of living without worrying about regulations which people find loopholes for anyway, such as finding part-time help. The ease in dealing with officials is another plus for her. “I can go to any government institution and deal with everything myself,” she says.
In February 2008, in a bid to increase the number of teachers, Kuwait started to target Saudi men and women. The news spread fast in the Kingdom. According to the Kuwaiti Ministry of Education, it resulted in 300 applications from Saudi women teachers wanting to move to Kuwait.
Aisha Al-Rawdan, administrative affairs deputy assistant in the Kuwaiti Education Ministry says that they are still receiving applications from Saudi women and that one of the reasons is that there is no discrimination between Kuwaitis and the citizens of other GCC states. All are treated the same. “The ministry hires whoever is eligible and passes the exams,” she says.
Sana’a Ibrahim, a Saudi woman who has worked for several companies over the past 12 years, has watched her women friends move to other Gulf states because of practical considerations. “Basically, the brain drain to the Gulf is our loss and other countries’ gain,” she says.
Who can disagree with that?