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PoliticsMiddle East

Saudi women break the glass ceiling

May 27, 2023

Accelerated by Vision 2030, Saudi businesswomen have been thriving in various industries despite the ongoing clampdown on dissent and political activism.

Saudi astronaut and cancer researcher Rayyanah Barnawi forming a heart with her hands
Saudi astronaut and cancer researcher Rayyanah Barnawi is the first Saudi woman in outer spaceImage: Joe Skipper/REUTERS

This week, Saudi women have quite literally reached new heights. Rayyanah Barnawi, a 34-year-old cancer researcher, swapped her workspace at Riyadh's King Faisal Specialist Hospital for a mobile lab in the International Space Station (ISS).

For 10 days, she will be conducting research and hosting Q&A sessions with Saudi students via the ISS radio station. She has already started tweeting from outer space, sharing selfies with the global audience on earth and showed them not only her work but also her grandmother's earrings. 

The fact that Barnawi is currently in outer space is an indication of how the situation has changed for Saudi women, who until June 2018, were not even allowed to drive, let alone work in a variety of sectors. 

A Saudi woman drives in Riyadh for the first time just after midnight, June 24, 2018, when the law allowing women to drive took effect
Women were banned from driving in Saudi Arabia until 2018Image: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Modernizing process

In 2016, the country's de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, colloquially called MBS, introduced a set of reforms dubbed Vision 2030 in an attempt to modernize society and the economy. 

Human rights watchdogs regularly point out that the changes have not improved the situation regarding political dissent or human rights activism. Major organizations estimate that hundreds of prisoners, including women, serve record prison sentences, some facing death sentences.

For women in general, though, the situation has massively improved.

In 2019, the male guardianship rule was abolished and women were granted the right to live alone, apply for passports and open their own businesses without the consent of a male guardian, usually their father, husband or brother.

These reforms have made a major difference, said Marriam Mossali, CEO of Saudi Arabia's leading luxury communications consultancy Niche Arabia. "The ambition of Saudi women has always existed, albeit veiled in anonymity, before Vision 2030 placed Saudi women in the spotlight," she told DW. "We were on boards but our photo was never published on the corporate website, we invested in businesses but were never the face of our brand, but today, this has all changed," she said.

Marriam Mossali, Saudi entrepreneur and influential role model
Marriam Mossali founded one of Saudi Arabia's most successful agenciesImage: privat

Mossali said that she was thrilled about Rayyannah Barnawi's trip to outer space. "This will have a domino effect, as impressionable girls witness women in space, women who are the heads of financial institutions or even ambassadors," she said, adding that "these young girls will never think that they can't achieve that kind of success themselves." 

Sebastian Sons, a senior researcher for the German-based think tank Carpo currently in Riyadh, also highlighted the visibility of the massive changes on the ground. "Riyadh is completely different to what it was six years ago," he told DW. "It's just like anywhere in the world, women now work on their laptops in mixed gender cafes and there are many successful women in leading roles," he said.

Saudization benefits women

For Julie Barbier-Leblan, who was named among the Top 20 women behind Middle Eastern Tech brands by the business magazine Forbes in 2022, there are two other key reasons why this development happened. "Most women are immensely supported by their families, and by the Saudization laws," she told DW.

The Saudization laws, or Nitaqat in Arabic, are a set of rules initially introduced in the 1970s to boost Saudi employment in industries dominated by foreign workers. "Saudization has become a key aspect of Vision 2030, as it sets a quota for Saudi employees and if these are not met, companies have to pay a fine," Sons said. 

These laws have now apparently helped boost female employment. A recent report by the General Authority for Statistics (GASTAT) said that the unemployment rate of Saudi women had dropped from 20.5% in the third quarter of 2022 to 15.4% in the last quarter. 

Portrait of Arab businesswoman holding a tablet
More Saudi women graduate from university, but female unemployment is still twice as high as among menImage: Satura/IMAGO

Gender gap remains

However, despite the fact that more women are finding paid work, they continue to earn less than their male counterparts. The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) published a reporton September 18 2022, International Equal Pay Day, stating that the difference in wages between men and women varied in 2022 between 4% within the government-held public sector, and some 36% in the private sector, even though the Saudi labor system officially prohibits gender discrimination in wages. 

"When it comes to constraints related to marriage, laws affecting women's work after having children, and gender differences in property and inheritance, Saudi Arabia could consider reforms to improve legal equality for women," a recent World Bank report on "Women, Business and the Law" concluded. 

Maha Shirah, Saudi Women Empowerment Advocate, and founder of SheWorks, the first female workspace in Riyadh
Maha Shirah, founder of SheWorks, the first female workspace in Riyadh, sees herself as an advocate for Saudi women Image: Mohammad Obaidi

Workspace for women only

The entrepreneur Maha Shirah has been observing on a daily basis that more women have been setting up their own businesses in the past five to seven years. "The changes that were introduced after 2016 have affected female business entrepreneurs in a very good way," Shirah, the founder of Saudi Arabia's first female workspace SheWorks, told DW. She is convinced that a whole generation of women has new opportunities ahead of them —  including herself.

Shirah’s goal is now to turn SheWorks into an incubator for female Saudi entrepreneurs. "I feel there is no limit to my ambition," she said. "People are ready for change, the population is young and eager to learn."

Edited by Ben Knight


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Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa