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.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
The New Economics
Policymakers learned the lessons of 2008 and deployed a wider set of tools to help repair the damage from Covid. They know how to create a recovery, but can they manage the boom?
‘Look Where We Were and Where We Are Now'
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.
You Have to Be Prepared to Act
To repair the economic damage wrought by the pandemic, Freeland says she’s using lessons from her journalism career and the collapse of the Soviet Union
WHEN IS ALL THIS going to be over?
The U.S. Can't Afford a Tax Policy That Punishes Wealth
HIS CRITICS AND supporters agree: President Joe Biden’s tax plans are radical. He wants a substantial increase in U.S. public spending and means to pay for it by raising taxes on the rich, in particular by almost doubling the top tax rate on investment income. Unsurprisingly, the idea seems to be playing well in opinion polls. It would be odd if the promise to lift up the poor and middle class at the expense of the top 3% was unpopular. The question is whether it’s smart.
The Death Cross
In South Korea, living alone and childless is becoming a way of life—with dramatic consequences for one of Asia’s most successful economies
Stay on Top of Deal Developments With These Automated Stories
DEALMAKING JUST HAD the best first quarter in more than 20 years. Global mergers-and-acquisitions volume hit $1.1 trillion in the January-through-March period, and the number of deals—14,852—was the highest recorded in any quarter since Bloomberg started compiling deal data in 1998. While M&A soared in every region, North American acquirers led the way, racking up $568 billion of transactions.
The Bahamas' Central Banker Explains Why Its ‘Sand Dollar' Led the Way
THE BAHAMAS BECAME a global leader in e-money last year when it launched one of the world’s first central bank digital currencies— the “sand dollar”—beating China’s “digital renminbi” to the market by six months.
Saving Youngstown. Again
One U.S. president after another has promised to turn this Rust Belt city around. Now Joe Biden is planning to steer millions of dollars in federal funding to revive manufacturing. So where are the jobs?
Poverty Soars in the World's Most Unequal Region
THE COVID-19 pandemic has sent a wave of poverty racing across Latin America, deepening declines that began over the past decade and consigning millions to lives of deprivation.
Learning the pilot’s favorite crutch
GLOBAL AUTO SALON
A WORLDWIDE RECORD-SETTING EVENT
As The Coronavirus Spreads, What Are The Regional Implications?
The coronavirus infection that has left China grappling, has also managed to disrupt the global supply chain, writes Zainab Mansoor
The Transformations Of Saudi Arabia's Hotel Market
As Saudi Arabia opens its doors to travellers from across the globe, the hotel industry is responding with enthusiasm, introducing new properties and hospitality concepts that will put the country on the world business and leisure tourism map
Now They're Taking On Saudı Arabia
Paint fumes lingered inside the airy new studio, where my thighs were burning from the endless squats.
KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
New and upcoming hotels to check out when you next visit Saudi Arabia
Trending - Letters of love
Dietician Soleha Shaikh monetises on her calligraphy skills, perfected in the lockdown
UAE strongly condemns attack on Yemen airport
Ministry of Foreign Affairs says UAE stands by the brotherly Yemeni people; dozens killed; Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed tweets he and other cabinet members are safe.
From despair to hope
BBC correspondent Frank Gardner talks candidly about living with disability...
MASTERCHEF CHAMPION - ‘I AM A NATURAL BORN ATTENTION SEEKER'
CELEBRITY MASTERCHEF WINNER RIYADH KHALAF EXCLUSIVELY INVITES OK! INTO HIS HOME