Saudi plan to boost women's employment? Create a women-friendly city.

The Saudi government announced the formation of a women-friendly city in Hofuf, scheduled to open next year. The idea is to increase work opportunities – without defying religious custom.

A version of this story published earlier today mistakenly reported that only women would work in the city. A Saudi government report said that it will create job opportunities for both men and women in the area. We apologize for the error.

Women in the Westernized world largely take for granted being able to work and mingle freely with colleagues without fear of repercussions. That's not the case with women in Saudi Arabia: Among those who are allowed to work, most must operate in limited, segregated spaces.

But now the Saudis are addressing that, albeit in an unconventional way. A women-friendly industrial city with built-in segregated work spaces in factories and proximity to residential neighborhoods in Hofuf should create more job opportunities – but in accordance with religious customs. The Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) says it is slated to open next year.

"I'm sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suits their interests, their nature, and their ability," Modon’s deputy director-general, Saleh Al Rasheed, told the Saudi daily al-Eqtisadiah, according to The Daily Mail.

The motives for the city's development are several. Women can help boost Saudization – an ailing government program aimed at increasing the proportion of Saudi nationals in a labor market heavily reliant on foreign workers. Interest in diversifying away from oil also plays a role: about 5,000 jobs in textiles, pharmaceuticals, and food-processing industries would be created. And a growing cohort of female graduates who were sent abroad on a government scholarship aren't content with sitting at home anymore.

The Kingdom boasts one of the lowest national female labor participation rates of the region – at only 15 percent of its active workforce, it's outpaced by Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. About one quarter of those are unemployed, but highly qualified, according to a report issued by consultancy group Booz & Co.

But the number of women entering the workforce, eager to become financially independent from their families, has nearly tripled over the past 10 years. Saudi female business women are generally better educated than male workers – only 1 percent of business women have no formal education, in contrast to 14.5 percent of the Saudi workforce according to the Monitor Group and the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry – and are often regarded as more productive.

But not every woman is ready to give up on her religious beliefs and loosen the strict standards she was raised with. The new women-friendly city will allow such women to balance their religious beliefs and desire to work.

Modon said in a statement that the city would be "characterized by allocating sections equipped for women workers... consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations.”

Trying to break with tradition at a media company

Mashail Almadi, a former human resources executive at Rotana, a media company owned by Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud, recounts the difficulties she had when trying to hire female employees. In defiance of the Kingdom’s strict dress code, the company does not allow women to wear their abayas at the office, where men and women work alongside one another.  

“When I mentioned these requirements, some female candidates would just hang up or start yelling at me over the phone,” Ms. Almadi says. Many aren’t ready for such a change. "The prospect of working in a mixed work environment is a scary one for many Saudi women.”

She experienced some of that social resistance first-hand. At a previous job, she wore the niqab, or face-covering veil. At Rotana, this wasn’t necessary anymore. “But my father didn’t want everyone to know I was working here,” she says, “to protect the family’s reputation.”

Recent efforts in retail to allow women to sell lingerie and cosmetics are increasing employment, but fall short of addressing the many regulatory challenges female businesswomen face.

Indirect access to government services and capital, the requirement to appoint a male manager, and the absence of proper licenses for female business activities such as beauty salons and women’s fitness centers – which can only be opened if affiliated with a medical establishment – persist. Less than half of all female entrepreneurs register their businesses themselves.

Saudi businesswomen rate their experience as most challenging in terms of gender compared to their peers in the Middle East/North Africa region, but are also among the most optimistic about their prospects for growth, according to a survey. The women-friendly city, it is hoped, will contribute to this trend.

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