Should the Islamic Republic utilize the March 1 elections to end effective enforcement of the hijab law, it will remove a source of constant friction between state and society in Iran, but the regime will also lose an instrument of intimidating the urban middle class.
AGSIW's publications are also available in Arabic. Help AGSIW expand its Arabic-language analysis.Donate
In April, Endeavor Insight published a report indicating that Saudi Arabia had boasted higher startup rates for women in the technology industry than for men. Not only was Saudi Arabia the only country where women outranked men in tech startups, but women’s overall participation in the tech industry was higher than female participation rates in other regions, according to the Endeavor Insight study. Standing at 28% at the end of 2021, the participation rate of Saudi women outranked European women in the tech industry, whose average participation rate was 17.5%. Saudi Arabia, historically known for its rigid gender-based restrictions, has recently witnessed a significant increase in women in the workforce.
Saudi women’s economic involvement, especially in informal jobs, is not a new phenomenon, but their participation in the domestic workforce has steadily increased since Saudi leaders announced several gender reforms in 2017. These reforms, partially influenced by international pressures, followed the 2016 launch of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 economic diversification plan, which included a goal of increasing female participation in the workforce to 30%. Reforms have included lifting the ban on women driving, forbidding gender discrimination in the workplace (including lifting restrictions on women’s employment in jobs deemed “dangerous” and mandating equal wages and retirement ages), forbidding the dismissal of women from jobs for maternity reasons, criminalizing sexual harassment, and loosening the dress code.
No longer restricted to specific jobs, women have had the opportunity to join traditionally male-dominated industries, such as tech, construction, and manufacturing. According to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2020 report, Saudi Arabia, when compared to other countries around the world, has made the most progress on women’s rights in the workplace since 2017. In 2019, for example, women made up 26% of the Saudi workforce, compared to 20% in 2018 and 17.6% in 2017. In 2020, boosted by the job vacancies left by expatriates leaving during the coronavirus pandemic and the push for increasing the number of Saudi nationals in the workforce, or “Saudization,” the participation rate of women increased to 33.2%.
In 2021, women’s participation rate in the workforce was 35.6%, surpassing Vision 2030’s goal of 30%. In the first quarter of 2022, the Saudi female participation rate declined to 33.6% but bounced back up to 35.6% in the second quarter. Female unemployment rates have also declined. While still significantly higher than the unemployment rates of Saudi men, which ranged from 4% to 5% between 2020 and 2022, female unemployment stood at 19.3% in the second quarter of 2022, down from 22.5% in 2021 and 20.2% in 2020.
Saudi women have been largely employed by the private sector and are only beginning to make their way into public positions. The first two women to hold senior government positions were appointed in July: Shihana Alazzaz as deputy secretary-general of the Saudi Cabinet and Princess Haifa bint Mohammed Al Saud as deputy minister of tourism. The Shura Council itself has a mandated gender quota, requiring only 30 seats to be set aside for women out of 150 total seats.
But in the private sector, women have made significant headway. By the first quarter of 2022, 39% of Saudi women in the private sector held senior and middle management positions. As of March, about 27.7% of women were working in the education sector and 17.7% in the retail and wholesale sectors. A November report by the Global Cybersecurity Forum stated that around 94% of women in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, were interested in studying and working in cybersecurity, encouraging a push for the diversification of the traditionally male-dominated field.
Saudi women have had a particular interest in entrepreneurism, which has, in turn, played a significant role in supporting female employment throughout the kingdom. By May 2021, Saudi Arabia had the third-highest percentage of women holding entrepreneurial roles at 17.7% globally, while men were at 17%, following Angola, where women held 51.1% of entrepreneurial roles, and Panama, where women held 29.1%. Saudi Arabia’s status was aided by the issuance of 139,754 new commercial licenses to women in 2021, a 112% increase in commercial registrations issued for women entrepreneurs since 2015. Saudi Arabia’s female entrepreneurs have been recognized internationally. In March, Forbes ranked Sarah Al Suhaimi second among the Middle East’s top five most influential women in banking and finance. Hutha Olayan made it to the Forbes Middle East list of the top five most influential women leading diversified conglomerates.
The various gender reforms that have been passed since 2017 significantly facilitated the increase of women’s participation in the Saudi workforce. In addition to laws against discrimination and increased access to labor and financial services, the reforms also resulted in the slow, but steady, dissolution of gender segregation to varying degrees across the country. Unrelated men and women can now interact in public without punishment. Women over the age of 21 are no longer by law required to attain permission from a male guardian to travel. Sexual harassment has been criminalized. While religion is still legally, socially, and culturally central to the kingdom, the extent to which it is imposed by the state is changing, making gender restrictions a private affair to be determined by individual families, rather than enforced by law and the religious police.
The easing of state-enforced gender restrictions has also allowed for greater women’s participation in other areas of society. Gender reforms have encouraged an increase in female enrollment in college, both at home and abroad, with women surpassing the number of male college students in the kingdom in 2020. Saudi women are also shifting the traditionally male-dominated field of academia into a female-led space as they dive into graduate school as both students and instructors. Saudi women have also become more openly involved in sports, where female participation rose 149% between 2015 and 2020, and in esports, where nearly half of the kingdom’s gamers in the rapidly growing industry are women. Women are also being included in national cultural events, such as the annual camel festival, where they were allowed to compete for the first time in January.
Despite the progress made, gender reforms in Saudi Arabia still have a long way to go. Gender inequality persists throughout the kingdom in various forms, such as in wage gaps and social expectations. Additionally, gender reforms have bypassed non-Saudi women, particularly female domestic workers. And while women have been making progress in a variety of labor sectors, some fields, such as engineering and finance, remain male dominated, despite male concerns that women are getting priority in employment and taking jobs that would otherwise have been theirs. The persistence of these male-dominated economic fields and social spaces, combined with the low level of women’s representation in public sector leadership positions, can also hinder the future growth of women’s involvement outside traditional female spaces simply because of their limited networking systems and their lack of wasta, or personal connections, used for access to jobs, education, or other professional opportunities and resources. Without connections or representation, this method of access that is so commonly used by men in Saudi Arabia is still out of women’s reach.
Saudi Arabia’s recent progress on women’s rights and empowerment, influenced by international pressures and the need to strengthen the domestic economy, is notable. There has been an increase in women’s participation in the workforce, education, and social spaces, meeting some Vision 2030 goals a decade early. But despite the hope for future advancements these successes bring, the kingdom still has a significant ways to go to ensure equal rights for its women.
Sussan Saikali is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Her primary research focus is identity politics and the effects of sectarianism on political attitudes and behaviors in the Middle East as well as the spillover of sectarianism in the Middle Eastern diaspora population in the West.
As Central Asian states seek to diversify their economic partnerships, the UAE and Saudi Arabia double down on green investments in the region to bolster their energy transitions.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More