Change, but at a slow pace
Officials acknowledge that change comes slowly in such a hard-line religious environment.
“It is not happening in as many numbers as we would like, but it is happening,” said Labor Minister Adel M. Fakeih. “Women are working in the banking sector, in manufacturing, in training and development, human resources, in consulting.”
Fakeih said his department was trying to create jobs that allow women to work from home so they can still manage children and household responsibilities.
“We want to open a whole new world for women, and at the same time will be in tune with our culture with how we’d like our families to continue to be,” he said. “We don’t want necessarily to copy a Western lifestyle.”
Fakeih noted that some women don’t have a “sense of urgency” to work, because under Islamic sharia law, men are required to be financially responsible for women. Even if a woman earns far more money than her husband, he is required to pay for her needs, Fakeih said.
“She can decide not to spend any of her money,” he said. “She can just keep her money to go to Hawaii or something. That’s the law.”
Job opportunities for women are also limited by Saudi Arabia’s two-tier labor force.
The country has about 28 million people, and almost a third of them are foreign workers. As Saudi Arabia became rich with oil revenue, an economy emerged in which Saudis gravitated to good-paying, and often cushy, government jobs, while lower-paid foreigners were brought in to be the nation’s cooks, barbers, shopkeepers, electricians and factory workers. About 90 percent of
private-sector workers are foreigners.
Saudi officials realize they can’t grow the government fast enough to employ the 300,000 or so young Saudis who enter the labor force each year. So they have begun an aggressive program to increase the number of Saudis in private businesses by offering incentives and penalties to private employers based on their number of Saudi employees.
Fakeih said that in the past year, the government’s efforts resulted in more than 335,000 new private-sector jobs for Saudis. Only 15 percent of privately employed Saudis are women, but that number is rising, he said.
But for young women such as Saud, and her friend, Tahany Omar, who earned an MBA at Shenandoah University last year, that trend hasn’t translated into jobs that match their skills.
Omar, 36, works in a low-paying job at an insurance company, making less than she did before she got her MBA. “I have the experience, and I have the credentials,” she said. “But I can’t find a good job in my country.”
Saud said she wants to use her master’s degree to teach, preferably at the college level. She has applied for several jobs, but with no luck. So she sits at home, unemployed, growing increasingly disillusioned.
“It’s a big disappointment,” she said. “I’m hoping for a better future, but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.”