‘Look Where We Were and Where We Are Now'
Bloomberg Markets|June - July 2021
IT LOOKS LIKE a woman’s world on the 29th floor of Tamkeen Tower, where a call center for Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics overlooks the beige sprawl of Riyadh. Past frosted glass doors, the few men to one side of the room are vastly outnumbered by female colleagues sitting at desks spread across the office.
VIVIAN NEREIM

The scene is the opposite of what most workplaces in the conservative Islamic kingdom looked like a few years ago, reflecting the growing influx of women into the job market. “Look where we were and where we are now,” says Reem Almuhanna, 31, who oversees the call center’s 74 employees as they gather data on households and businesses.

Keeping women at home is a luxury the world’s largest exporter of crude can no longer afford. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 35, is overhauling the economy to prepare for a postoil future and striving to create jobs amid sputtering economic growth. With the cost of living on the rise as the government cuts gasoline and electricity subsidies and introduces new fees and taxes, including a 15% value-added tax, Saudi households increasingly depend on women working.

As a result, social and economic changes are ripping through the country—upending traditions, changing women’s lives all across the class spectrum, and stirring resentment among some conservative Saudis. The state, facing pressure from foreign governments and human-rights groups over its clampdowns on dissent, recognizes that the narrative of female empowerment may help burnish its reputation abroad. But the changes are not illusory.

Gender segregation—once strictly enforced by religious police—is gradually dissolving, not just among the metropolitan elites, but even in conservative provinces such as Qassim. Men and women who aren’t related can mingle openly at restaurants now. Many offices are mixed, as are music festivals and business and professional conferences.

Although decision-making remains largely in the hands of men, female participation in the workforce increased from 19% in 2016 to 33% last year, according to the statistics authority’s Labor Force Survey. “The government’s strong commitment to Saudi female empowerment has been the main driver,” the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development said in a statement to Bloomberg News in March.

Increased female participation in the labor force was the only goal set out in Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 framework to be met a decade early, with Saudi women taking jobs as waitresses, cashiers, and police officers. In the process, the dress code for women has loosened; jeans and uncovered hair are now tolerated alongside traditional floor-length black abayas.

The shift began under King Abdullah, who died in 2015, but it’s quickened dramatically under Prince Mohammed, now the de facto ruler. In the past five years, the government has curtailed the power of the religious police, ended the ban on women driving, and eased rules that kept women beholden to male guardians. “There is this recognition that we cannot keep going—it’s economically not sustainable—without utilizing 50% of the population,” says Salma AlRashid, chief advocacy officer at Alnahda, an independent nonprofit focused on women’s empowerment.

The changes have come at a cost. As social liberties have expanded, political freedoms have retreated for men and women alike, leaving little room for the citizenry to debate policies that are transforming one of the world’s most socially restrictive countries. Prince Mohammed’s crackdown on domestic critics has ensnared female activists, writers, and academics alongside male ones.

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