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A job ad for 30 women in Saudi Arabia to drive trains draws an inundation of more than 28,000 applicants

Saudi women are seen in line as they prepare to travel from the Dammam railway station in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, in 2019. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)
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An ad for a job has created a clamoring rush in Saudi Arabia, where more than 28,000 female applicants have signed up for just 30 spots to work as train drivers in the kingdom, which is trying to liberalize economic opportunities for women.

The advertisement is for positions as train drivers for Renfe, a Spanish transport company responsible for operating bullet trains between the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina — a route traveled by millions of Muslim pilgrims each year.

Women in the conservative kingdom were permitted to drive cars only in 2018, after much global scrutiny and internal social pressure.

Renfe said in a statement Wednesday that this was the first time in the country’s history that Saudi women would have access to such a profession. It added that more than half of the applicants had passed the first phase of the hiring process, which assessed academic records and English-language skills.

“More than 28,000 candidates of Saudi nationality have registered in just one month in the selection tests,” the company said. “Those selected will drive the train that connects the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the first high-speed train to be built in the Middle East.”

The hiring process was opened in January, the company said, with candidates of age 22 to 30. The lucky few who make it to the next round will need to undertake more tests, an interview and, if successful, one year of paid training beginning in March, Renfe said.

Women make up about 42 percent of the Saudi population but account for just 21 percent of the total labor force, according to World Bank data. They have long faced strict gender segregation rules and guardianship laws often requiring the permission of male relatives to travel or marry, with jobs largely confined to professions such as teaching and health care.

Female participation in the workforce has nearly doubled in the past five years, according to Reuters, but female unemployment remains far higher than male joblessness, despite the efforts of the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to diversify the oil-reliant economy and expand the nation’s workforce.

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“I think the great success this call for applicants had reflects the will of Saudi women to join the new economic and social change that is taking place in their country,” Rosalina Reyes Ges, Renfe’s train operators trainer, said in a video posted online.

“I think they have seen an opportunity to do a different job, a job that is normally done by men. And they’ve also seen an opportunity to contribute financially in their home, gain financial independence and improve their prospects,” she added.

Renfe said it had already hired and trained more than 400 Saudis for jobs at stations and on trains, but it did not specify their gender.

The Haramain High Speed ​​Railway, which opened in 2018, has revolutionized the movement of pilgrims who flock to perform the umrah and hajj in Saudi Arabia. The bullet trains, which are equipped with blowers to clear sand from the rails and air conditioning that is able to withstand scorching desert temperatures, reach a maximum speed of about 186 mph. At least 20 trains run each day, with more added during the holy month of Ramadan.

Maite Fernández Simon contributed to this report.

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