Among the many bold ambitions outlined in Vision 2030[1], Saudi Arabia’s blueprint for developing its economy over the next decade and beyond, is a determination to strengthen the contribution of women to society and to the economy:

“Our economy will provide opportunities for everyone – men and women, young and old – so they may contribute to the best of their abilities . . .

Saudi women are yet another great asset.  With over 50 percent of our university graduates being female, we will continue to develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”

Saudi Arabia Vision 2030

 In a country where women have historically played a restricted public role, relatively little attention was paid to these inspiring aspirations when Vision 2030 was first published.  But that is now rapidly changing. 

In September 2017, the Government announced that, from July 2018, women will be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia for the first time[2].  It was followed, a month later, by the announcement that women will also be allowed to watch live sport at the three main national stadiums in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam[3].

Although seemingly relatively small changes in themselves, the ambition reflected in these two decisions to embrace the potential of Saudi Arabia’s women has been seen as a powerful indication that the country’s commitment to strengthening the economic involvement and contribution of women is much more than just warm words.

With Saudi Arabia remodeling its economy away from a dependence on traditional hydrocarbon-based industries, enabling women to play a freer, more independent role in society is seen as “an economic bet that is sure to pay off[4].

A continuing process

The recent announcements regarding women being allowed to drive and to enter the three main national stadia reflect an on-going transformation in the role and contribution of women in societies across the MENAT region over the past few years.  Traditional societal boundaries are changing in line with the belief that a more inclusive attitude will benefit overall economic progress.

The gap between girls and boys in terms of access to education and healthcare, for example, has been all but eradicated.  According to a World Bank report, almost all young girls in the region attend school and more women than men are enrolled in university.  Over the past 20 years, maternal mortality in the MENA region has declined 60%, the largest decrease in the world[5].

 In 2015, women in Saudi Arabia were able to both vote and run in municipal elections for the first time,[6] while in December 2017, it was announced that cinemas would once again be allowed to open in the country, after an absence of over 35 years.[7]

In addition, in September 2017, Saudi Arabia’s National Day celebrations included women at a range of events including concerts, laser shows, and plays[8], organized by the General Entertainment Authority as part of its responsibility to grow the entertainment sector (also outlined in Vision 2030).  In a precursor to the Government’s subsequent announcement, women were allowed to enter the King Fahd International Stadium for the first time[9] to watch the festivities.  Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman said:

“We see our country, thanks be to God, as an active member of the G20, a group that comprises the world’s strongest economies.  With tremendous ambition, we look forward to the Kingdom becoming a pioneering model in all respects, relying on the roles played by our young male and female citizens, as we strive to achieve the goals of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.”

In a society known for its conservative values, there is emerging evidence of attitudinal shifts among working women, too.  Saudi Arabia still operates a male guardianship system in which females must gain permission to travel or speak with members of the opposite sex.  However, when asked about their comfort in working in mixed-sex environments, 73% of employed women said they were either “extremely comfortable” or “comfortable to some extent”.  Only a combined 9% reported being “uncomfortable to some extent” or “not at all comfortable”.[10]

Employment opportunities

Until recently, the progress achieved with regards to women’s roles in cultural and social life, and in areas like health and education, was not reflected in their economic contribution to the country’s development. 

As a World Bank report outlined:

Although, most MENA countries have made admirable progress in closing their gender gaps in education and health outcomes, these investments in human development have not yet translated into commensurately higher rates of female participation in economic and political life.[11]

 That, too, is now changing, however, and an increasing number of Saudi women are entering the employment market.  Although the public sector remains the biggest female employer, the number of women working in the private sector increased by 130% between 2012 and 2016, from 215,000 in 2012 to 496,000 in 2016, according to data published by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development in March 2017[12].

Women now represent 30% of the total Saudi work force in the private sector, up from just 12% in 2011.

In the first seven months of 2017 alone, over 500,000 Saudi women entered the labor market across both public and private sectors, according to figures released by the General Organization Social Insurance.  While in November 2017, a new transportation program, Wusool, set up specifically for working women, saw over 3,100 registrations in its first three weeks from Saudi women employed in the private sector.

The majority of private sector jobs for women are in the retail, hospitality, and construction sectors.  The first two sectors in particular have been the focus of major government Saudization and feminization campaigns aimed at encouraging women to enter the workforce.

According to the Ministry of Labor’s statistics, the number of women working in retail has seen a particularly large increase, rising 12-fold from about 10,000 in 2010 to 122,000 in 2014.  This followed a decision in 2011 by the Ministry of Labor that shops specializing in cosmetics and women’s clothing, together with the women’s sections of department stores, should employ all-female Saudi Arabian sales staff.[13] 

The first Saudi Arabian female lawyers were also granted their practicing certificates in late 2013.[14]

Driving economic growth

By providing women with more freedom and more opportunity to contribute economically, Saudi Arabia is taking strategic and proactive action to deliver two of its major goals outlined in Vision 2030: first, to lower the country’s unemployment rate from 11.6% to 7%, and second, to increase women’s participation in the workforce to 30%[15] by 2030, with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development working towards an interim target of 28% by 2020.[16] 

 The current proportion of Saudi women with jobs is around 15% and according to the World Bank, the MENA region contains 13 of the 15 countries with the lowest rates of women participating in the labor force[17].  This compares to a global figure (in 2016) of 39.39% of the workforce[18].  In several high GDP territories, the figure is even higher: France (47.2%), Germany (46.2%), Japan (42.7%), South Korea (41.4%) and Norway (47.0%).

 Research from the McKinsey Global Institute finds an enormous commercial benefit to increasing the female participation rates in MENA workforces.  If until 2025, each country in the region was to match the momentum of the country with the fastest-growing increase in the percentage of females in the workforce, McKinsey estimates it would add US$ 600 billion each year to the MENA economy[19].

These figures indicate the huge untapped economic potential among the female workforce.  Potential that now, through small but significant policy changes, the Government has reaffirmed its determination to unleash. 

Allowing women to drive is predicted to have a sizable impact on Saudi Arabia’s economy.  Indeed, some estimates put the value of the economic impact at US$ 90 billion by 2030[20] – suggesting a potential rise in the country’s GDP by 0.4%-0.9% each year until then. 

By reducing the female population’s dependency on drivers, who are often foreign members of the workforce, there will also be “more money ‘staying home’ to circulate in the economy”.[21]  An estimated 800,000 men currently work as drivers for women in Saudi Arabia – and one-in-five households have a hired driver for that purpose[22] – at a total cost of US$ 5.1 billion per year[23].  This could save families upwards of US$ 400 per month that had previously been spent on drivers – providing a substantial increase in their spending power[24].

Auto industry certain to benefit

Issuing female driving licenses should certainly have a direct impact on the automotive industry.  According to a survey published by Ipsos in December 2017, most women (70%) say they are likely to drive after the ban is lifted. 

A majority also reported that they will likely purchase a new car, while one-in-two households with a driver will release the driver and use that car.[25] 

The number of drivers on Saudi Arabia’s roads is expected to almost double, with supply chains across the automotive industry set to profit from increased demand in accessories, servicing, car wash facilities, and insurance[26].  Over the next decade, car numbers are expected to grow by an additional 20% as a direct result of the decree[27] – with insurers and manufacturers as the most obvious winners.

The reaction to the decree from leading automotive manufacturers was both swift and revealing.  Ford and Volkswagen quickly released adverts congratulating women[28], and it appears likely that Saudi Arabia will now witness an increase in both female-focused marketing campaigns and the number of two-car families.

However, the decree will also have an adverse effect on some businesses.  Uber, for example, has revealed that more than 80% of its Saudi Arabian passengers are female[29].  It seems logical that this demand will fall from summer 2018.  Careem drivers are likely to be adversely affected, too.  There are also more than 100,000 “official” taxis in Saudi Arabia[30], for whom demand could also fall as increasing numbers of women move to secure their personal driving licenses. 

Indirect benefits

On a macroeconomic level, significant increases in the number of women working in Saudi Arabia would be a major national success.  As well a substantial direct economic impact, it would also transform the lives of Saudi Arabia’s women, families and children in a variety of ways – ranging from mental wellbeing and satisfaction through to alleviating large-scale poverty and enhancing the educational prospects of Saudi Arabia’s future generations.

According to a YouGov survey of working women in the Middle East[31], the top three motivations for securing and maintaining employment are:

  1. “To become financially independent;
  2. To be able to support / financially contribute to the household, and;
  3. To broaden my perspectives on life.”

The decree to allow women to drive helps to facilitate all three of these aspirations and the real-world impacts should not be underestimated.

According to the World Bank, “women’s employment can significantly improve household income – by as much as 25% – and lead many families out of poverty[32].  In turn, this could secure major advantages for the next generation. 

Alia Moubayed, the Director of Geo-economics and Strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, highlights the tendency for women to invest larger portions of their income into the education of their children.  She believes that a higher percentage of women in the Saudi Arabian workforce would power higher school enrolment rates for girls.  This, she says, is a “critical factor (in) helping to reduce poverty and lifting (the) standard of living[33].

Bab Rizq Jameel Female Employment initiative in Saudi Arabia - Abdul Latif Jameel®
Community Jameel’s Bab Rizq Jameel Female Employment initiative helped create and find jobs for 26,634 women in Saudi Arabia last year. The 2016 figure takes the total number of jobs created by BRJ Female Employment since 2007 to 121,529, with projects and initiatives undertaken in 96 cities and villages.

Working towards a brighter future in Saudi Arabia . . .

Abdul Latif Jameel has always recognized the talents, skills and endeavor of Saudi Arabia’s female citizens.  For many decades it has worked tirelessly to promote the environment and wellbeing of all citizens across Saudi Arabia and the wider MENAT region.

In 2015, Bab Rizq Jameel – a Community Jameel cornerstone initiative that offers education, training and employment opportunities to Saudi Arabia’s youth – launched the Bab Rizq Jameel Female Recruitment Company at an event in Jeddah.  In the first half of that year alone, Bab Rizq Jameel helped create 18,015 jobs for women[34].  Rola Basamad, the Senior General Manager of the Bab Rizq Jameel Female Recruitment Company, highlighted the group’s “core belief in gender equality, and the critical role of women in building a productive society and a thriving economy” while outlining the company’s ambition to “provide women in Saudi Arabia with a platform to build their skills and further their standing in the local job market.”[35]

Nafisa Shams Academy for Arts And Crafts supports Saudi Arabian women - Abdul Latif Jameel®
Supporting Saudi Arabian women to enter the job market, the Nafisa Shams Academy for Arts & Crafts was established in 2006 (named after the late wife of Abdul Latif Jameel). Since inception, the Academy has provided training for over 7,000 women.

By 2016, Bab Rizq Jameel had partnered with almost 1,400 private-sector companies and helped to create more than 100,000 jobs for women in Saudi Arabia[36].  “We are committed to… investing in the development of emerging young talents and instilling a sense of pride in the women of Saudi Arabia,” said Basamad.

Other organizations across Abdul Latif Jameel businesses have also invested significant time, energy and resources into helping the government achieve its ambitions around female contributions to the economy.  

. . . and worldwide

This focus is not only confined to Saudi Arabia.  The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, continues to assess the scientific evidence surrounding potential national, regional and global policies that could reduce poverty.  Enabling women to make a greater economic contribution could play a key role in potential solutions to help alleviate poverty.

If we, as a society, can empower women politically—as leaders, as informed voters, and as active citizens—we enable them to take control of their own economic lives.  This helps ensure that their economic contributions are reflected in the benefits they receive from their country’s growth,”[37] said J-PAL affiliate Rohini Pande in March 2017, at an event to mark International Women’s Day.  This was also featured in the Spring 2017 edition of Opening Doors, read more here.

J-PAL affiliate Erica Field added: “Over the last decade, researchers have generated a body of evidence on the impact of women’s economic and social empowerment, as well as the differential effects that social policies and programs can have on women.  It is critical to understand and quantify these impacts in order to design development programs that enhance the well-being of both women and men.”

To date, J-PAL affiliates have conducted over 140 evaluations in 39 countries that focus on impacts of policies and programs on women and girls.  These include efforts to prevent teen marriage and pregnancy; improve access to high-quality education, good jobs, and leadership opportunities; strengthen decision-making power in their families and communities; and more.

Through its support of globally significant research programs like J-PAL, together with its efforts to economically empower women and help them to access employment opportunities, Abdul Latif Jameel will continue to promote an environment in which every Saudi Arabian citizen can fulfil their potential – contributing to the greater good and helping to ensure the country achieves the ambitious reforms and far-reaching objectives laid out in Vision 2030.

[1] Vision 2030, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, April 2017

[2] Saudi Arabia driving ban on women to be lifted, BBC News, 27 September 2017

[3] Saudi Arabia to allow women into sports stadiums, BBC News, 29 October 2017

[4] Women Can Drive Now in Saudi Arabia. Here’s What They Still Can’t Do. Fortune, 28 September 2017

[5] Opening Doors: Gender Equality and Development in the Middle East and North Africa, The World Bank, 2013

[6] Saudi Arabia to allow women into sports stadiums as reform push intensifies, The Guardian, 30 October 2017

[7] Saudi Arabia allows cinemas for first time in over 35 years, Center for International Communication, Ministry of Culture and Information, Saudi Arabia, 11 December 2017

[8] Saudi Arabia Marks 87th National Day With Series of Concerts, Plays and Entertainment Events, Business Wire, 24 September 2017

[9] Saudi Arabia Marks 87th National Day With Series of Concerts, Plays and Entertainment Events, Business Wire, 24 September 2017

[10]The Status of Working Women in the Middle East Survey, Bayt and YouGov, November 2014

[11] Opening Doors: Gender Equality and Development in the Middle East and North Africa, The World Bank, 2013

[12] 130% spike in Saudi women joining workforce; 11.1 million expats in private sector, Gulf News, 4 July 2017

[13] Saudi Arabia Beyond Oil: The investment and productivity transformation, McKinsey Global Institute, December 2015

[14] Keys to The Kingdom: The slow rise of Saudi women, BBC, 9 April 2015

[15] Vision 2030, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, April 2017

[16] 130% spike in Saudi women joining workforce; 11.1 million expats in private sector, Gulf News, 4 July 2017

[17] Despite high education levels, Arab women still don’t have jobs, The World Bank, 3 September 2016

[18] Labor force, female (% of total labor force), The World Bank, accessed November 2017

[19] How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth, McKinsey Global Institute, September 2015

[20] How Female Drivers Can Spur Growth in Saudi Arabia, Bloomberg, 27 September 2017

[21] How Female Drivers Can Spur Growth in Saudi Arabia, Bloomberg, 27 September 2017

[22] Driving ban survey Saudi Arabia, Ipsos, December 2017

[23] Saudi Royal decree will help families save money currently spent on private drivers, Arab News, 27 September 2017

[24] Saudi Royal decree will help families save money currently spent on private drivers, Arab News, 27 September 2017

[25] Driving ban survey Saudi Arabia, Ipsos, December 2017

[26] The real winner from Saudi’s new stance on women drivers, The National, 22 October 2017

[27] The real winner from Saudi’s new stance on women drivers, The National, 22 October 2017

[28] Saudi Arabia wants to revitalize its economy. Letting women drive will be part of that. The Washington Post, 29 September 2017

[29] Saudi Arabia bought a huge stake in Uber. What does that mean for female drivers? The Washington Post, 2 June 2016

[30] Women allowed to drive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from 2018: Will this reshape mobility patterns? New Mobility, 3 October 2017

[31] The Status of Working Women in the Middle East Survey, Bayt and YouGov, November 2014

[32] The Status and Progress of Women in the Middle East and North Africa, The World Bank, accessed November 2017

[33] How Female Drivers Can Spur Growth in Saudi Arabia, Bloomberg, 27 September 2017

[34] Bab Rizq Jameel launches a company for female recruitment in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Latif Jameel, 15 September 2015

[35] Bab Rizq Jameel launches a company for female recruitment in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Latif Jameel, 15 September 2015

[36] Bab Rizq Jameel enables more women to enter the workforce in Saudi Arabia by helping generate thousands of employment opportunities, Abdul Latif Jameel, 20 June 2016

[37] Celebrating International Women’s Day, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, 8 March 2017