Gates: Women Key to Saudi Arabia Economy

The Associated Press
Saturday, January 27, 2007; 5:30 PM

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Bill Gates cited Saudi Arabia as an example Saturday of why he believes limiting the rights women can hinder economic growth.

During a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, Gates described speaking to a segregated audience at a recent business seminar in Saudi Arabia.

On one side of an auditorium sat men. On the other side of a large partition was a "sea of black," Gates said _ women in full-length abayas that cover their faces, as required in Saudi Arabia.

A questioner asked if he thought Saudi Arabia could meet its ambitious goal of becoming one of the world's most competitive economies by 2010, Gates said.

"I said, 'Well, if you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top,'" Gates said.

How did the audience react? "One side loved it," Gates quipped.

The co-founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp., along with his wife, endowed and run the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on eradicating disease and poverty in Africa but also works on education and empowering women.

Gates spoke two days after a prominent Saudi princess said during a public session at the economic forum in Davos that if she could change one thing about her country, she would allow women to drive.

Saudi Arabia's conservative Islamic government says restrictions on driving and the mixing of the sexes are needed to guard women's morality.

Many critics say that although jobs are open to women in Saudi Arabia, women from poorer families often cannot work or get to school because their families can't afford drivers.

© 2007 The Associated Press