Saud is part of a rising generation of young Saudi women caught between a government spending billions to educate and employ them, and a deeply conservative religious society that fiercely resists women in the workplace.
Although Saudi Arabia has vast oil riches, its per capita gross domestic product ranks only 40th in the world, and many here note that the national economy would be stronger if half the brainpower in the country were put to better use.
“Teach me. Invest in me. Let me work. I don’t get it,” Saud said. “My friends are all in the same situation. What’s wrong here?”
Unemployment among Saudi women who want to work is 34 percent — almost five times as great as the 7 percent unemployment rate for men, according to government figures. Those unemployed women are disproportionately college-educated. Of Saudis receiving unemployment benefits, 86 percent are women, and 40 percent of those women have college degrees.
In a country where more than two-thirds of the population is younger than 30, thousands more college-educated women each year try to enter the workforce, and many of them are striking out.
“There are women out there desperate to find jobs,” said Samar Fatany, a leading Saudi feminist author.
Fatany and other women interviewed in the capital and in Jiddah, the commercial hub on the Red Sea, said young women are growing increasingly impatient with restrictions on their careers in a country that does not permit women to drive or vote.
Women have become increasingly aware of — and insistent about — their career possibilities because of King Abdullah’s massive spending on college scholarships and efforts to create more jobs for Saudi women, Fatany said.
“Young women are not as isolated as before. They realize that they don’t have to blindly follow what their fathers tell them,” she said. “There is no turning back. We are in the process of modernizing Saudi Arabia.”
Support for education
Abdullah, under pressure to close the gap between an aging royal family and a young population clamoring for change, has been an advocate of women’s education and employment.
Saudi Arabia had historically lagged behind its Persian Gulf neighbors in women’s education, but in recent decades, it has sharply reduced female illiteracy, virtually eliminating it among women ages 15 to 24, according to the World Bank.
In the past 10 years, the number of universities in Saudi Arabia has more than doubled, from 16 to 33, including the world’s largest women-only university, Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University in Riyadh, which opened last year. It has 37,000 students and a capacity of 60,000.