The flash of purple abayas at a conference in Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, Jeddah, was more than a fashion statement. It’s a sign of the changes Jeddah is embracing as King Abdullah slowly loosens restrictions on women in his conservative land.
The Red Sea port city is in the vanguard of the royal social experiment that could spur the Arab world’s largest economy. At the conference last month at the city’s Hilton hotel, women mingled with men, took questions at corporate booths and forsook the head-to-toe black abayas that Saudi wives, mothers and daughters traditionally wear in public.
In the only country in the world to prohibit women from driving, Jeddah in Hijaz province stands out for making the most significant advances in terms of employment opportunities and social freedoms, said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy based in Vienna, Virginia.
“There is near-universal agreement that Jeddah’s proximity to Mecca and the Red Sea has exposed it to multiple cultural influences,” said Nazer, a former analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington. Many of these influences “have left an indelible mark on Hijazi culture in general, which has correctly been described as more cosmopolitan than that of central areas of the kingdom,” he said.
As change ripples through Jeddah, women are also taking charge in high-powered and visible roles. In March, Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank, the country’s largest, appointed Sarah Al-Suhaimi as chief executive of its investment banking unit, NCB Capital. A month earlier, Somayya Jabarti was selected as editor-in-chief at the Saudi Gazette, becoming the first woman in Saudi’s modern history to run a newspaper. In October, Bayan Zahran, the first woman to receive a license to practice law in Saudi Arabia, opened a firm in the city.
That the same isn’t happening as quickly in the conservative capital of Riyadh, about 950 kilometers (600 miles) inland, shows how fine a line the government has to tread between conflicting demands for a more open society in places like Jeddah and conservative voices elsewhere.
Within the context of Gulf states, Saudi Arabia allows women the fewest freedoms. In Qatar, women work in public. In Kuwait, they leave the house in skirts and high heels without fear of arrest. In all other Gulf nations, women can be seen in public with men and drive their own cars.
King Abdullah, born in 1924, tentatively began promoting greater freedom for women in the workplace after ascending to the throne in 2005 and embarking on a campaign to diversify the economy and create new educational and job opportunities. The popular revolts from 2011 that toppled authoritarian leaders in the region made these changes a matter of self-defense as well.
Since then, Abdullah has granted women in the kingdom of 30 million the right to vote and run in municipal elections, beginning in 2015. In January 2013, he appointed women for the first time to the Shoura Council that advises the government, and they now account for a fifth of its 150 members.
Princess Adela bint Abdullah Al Saud, a daughter of King Abdullah, said in an e-mailed response to questions that the decision shows “the important contribution that women can have in the process of development and stresses that women are entitled to practice politics.”
Female unemployment declined to 32 percent at the end of 2013 from 36 percent a year earlier, as career opportunities open for them, according to government data.
Change is slow, however. While female joblessness may be down, it’s still more than five times higher the 6 percent for Saudi men. Since 2011, Saudi Arabia has created 123,093 jobs for women, government data show. About 727,000 women held down jobs in 2013, fewer than the number who are illiterate.
‘Stuck at Home’
“Women in Saudi Arabia are currently stuck at home doing not very much at all, by and large,” James Reeve, an economist at Samba Financial Group in London, said in response to e-mailed questions. “If they get jobs in shops, for example, then they will be contributing to economic growth.”
The Saudi economy is forecast to grow 4.2 percent this year compared with 3.8 percent in 2013, the second-fastest pace in the Gulf region after Qatar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
In addition to driving growth, getting more women into the workforce will ease the fiscal burden in a country that has allocated $28.8 billion for health and social affairs for 2014. “As I understand it, most of the people claiming unemployment benefits are women,” Reeve said.
Across the country, there are signs of the measured steps taken to advance women’s rights. Women have been allowed to take retail jobs that were previously barred. In malls, they sell lingerie and perfume in “Family Only” stores.
Jeddah was at the forefront of this trend, said Hend Al-Shaikh, the director general of the Institute of Public Administration.
“Jeddah is more socially open and more socially accepting,” she said. “Women worked in stores ahead of the labor market laws because it was more acceptable there. So the fact that woman are advancing more quickly career-wise in Jeddah than they are in any other city is expected given the social fabric there.”
The city is a melting pot of Asian, Arab and African pilgrims who traveled to the kingdom and never left. Unlike other, more conservative cities, it has outdoor seaside restaurants, where men and women dine together, chat and smoke water pipes, and cafes without sections set aside for families.
Residents like to say, “Things are different in Jeddah,” or “Jeddah Ghair” in Arabic. And they are.
“Jeddah has always been Arabia’s gateway to the world,” said Robert Lacey, a British author and historian of the Saudi royal family. “A hundred years ago you had to travel for a week to reach Riyadh from the sea -- making for great toughness and resourcefulness, but also an isolated mindset that has not vanished to this day.”
Jeddah was a port and trading city for centuries before the Al Saud dynasty created Saudi Arabia in 1932 after seizing most of the Arabian peninsula through military conquests. Large merchant and trading families, such as the Bin Laden Group and the Alireza family, are based there. Kingdom Holding Co., Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s investment company, is building a kilometer-high skyscraper there that would surpass Dubai’s Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest tower. Jeddah also serves as a gateway for millions of Muslims who make the annual pilgrimage to nearby Mecca, Islam’s holiest city and the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad.
While things are changing for women in Jeddah, the quest for greater gender equality has encountered resistance in Saudi Arabia’s conservative center. In Qassim province, where barren rolling dunes and date-palm groves stretch across the horizon, most people strictly adhere to an austere interpretation of Wahhabi Islam.
While it’s common in Jeddah to see women smoking cigarettes and reading books in cafes, it’s still rare to see them walking without a male guardian in Qassim’s capital, Buraidah.
This month, a group of religious vigilantes, known as mohtasibeen, demonstrated in front of the Riyadh offices of the Shoura Council, the kingdom’s advisory body, against a proposal to add physical education to the curriculum at all-girl schools.
Women also raised their voices against the idea. Reem al-Harbi, writing under the hashtag, “adding PE classes for girls’ schools,” warned: “This is exactly what Westernization is all about. First, they demand for sports to get fit. Then they develop a desire to start dating and in the end, the West wins!”
The council approved the proposal a day later, according to Al Hayat newspaper.
While some changes have been made, they aren’t sweeping enough, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Despite some small reforms, Saudi women are largely denied the right to be treated as full legal adults like their male counterparts,” the group said in a report last month. “Sex segregation and the ban on women driving relegate them to second-class status.”
Saudi women themselves are beginning to challenge the restrictions. Dozens of women defied the driving ban on Oct. 26, demanding that the government provide a “valid and legal justification” for maintaining it. The following month, Interior Minister Mohammed Bin Nayef met with women activists to discuss the ban, which hasn’t been eased.
Princess Adela she’s “very optimistic” about the progress women have made and the government’s “positive response” to their demands. More should be done, though, to guarantee women’s rights in society and the economy, she said.
“I have a deep conviction about the abilities of Saudi women,” she said. “I believe Saudi women have achieved many goals due to their perseverance,” despite “the negative effects of certain customs and traditions.”