To borrow a line from Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a’ changin’,” in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Since the Saudi Crown Prince, His Royal Highness Mohammed Bin Salman (or known by his nickname “MBS”), unveiled Vision 2030 in 2016, significant economic and social reforms have swept across the country at a breakneck speed. This ambitious initiative focuses on diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy beyond oil and gas, promoting private sector and small-to-medium size enterprise engagement, and creating jobs for its large youth population, where nearly 70% of its citizens are under the age of 30.
According to Vision 2030, “We [Saudi Arabia] have enormous untapped opportunities and a rich blend of natural resources, but our real wealth lies in our people and our society.” And there is no doubt that women will play a pivotal role in helping to unlock this vast potential.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently hosted Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, who serves as the Vice-President for Development and Planning at the Saudi Arabian General Sports Authority (GSA). HRH Princess Reema is just one of many women who have been appointed to prominent positions in the Saudi government, including Ms. Sarah Al Suhaimi, Chairman of the Board of the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul); Ms. Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah, Deputy Minister of Labor; and Ms. Eman Al-Ghamidi, Assistant Mayor of the Al Khubar province. During her meeting with the Chamber, HRH Princess Reema relayed that she sees sports not only promoting health, wellness, and entertainment, but also as a driver of economic development and vehicle for social change.
Vision 2030 aims to increase the participation of women in the workforce from 22% to 30% and the Saudi government is taking clear steps to achieve this goal. New laws will permit women to start their own businesses, allow women to drive later this year, and most recently, join the Saudi armed forces. These changes, which may have been unthinkable even just a year ago, have prompted a great deal of excitement among Saudi women eager to enter the workforce. When the Saudi Arabian General Directorate of Passports posted listings for 140 jobs for women, they reportedly received a staggering 107,000 applications.
Many American companies have had long-standing partnerships with the Kingdom for years, some dating back to the country’s formation in 1932. These businesses also see the clear, untapped potential of Saudi women and stand ready for provide their services and training to help them integrate into the workforce. General Electric’s All-Women Business Process & IT Services Center in Riyadh won the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Award for Corporate Excellence for its innovative approach for capacity-building of talented Saudi women. Saudi Aramco launched the Kingdom’s first all-women business and technology park with the goal of providing employment for 20,000 women over the next decade. Ford Motor Company is hosting a Driving Skills for Life program at Effat University, which will help women students learn how to drive safely. Uber, whose customer base in Saudi Arabia is 80% female, has already started to lay the groundwork to train and hire women drivers.
Given International Women’s Day is today, many in Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly be reflecting on the sweeping changes taking place to support women’s rights and inclusion in the economy, which some may never have expected to see in their lifetime.
With an eye on the future and the possibilities it holds, there is no doubt that times in Saudi Arabia are a’ changin’, indeed.