Saudi Women Get More of a Voice as Economy Needs Boost

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Training Session for Women in Riyadh
A trainer explains how to attract campaign volunteers at a training session for Saudi female candidates running in their first elections, at Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women in Riyadh. Photographer: Deema Almashabi/Bloomberg

At a workshop on an ordinary summer’s day in Riyadh, prospective candidates in local elections are limbering up: one wants to help kids, one improve living conditions in the Saudi capital, another become a political role model.

Even in a kingdom with few occasions for voting, the scene would be unremarkable save for one aspect that would have made it unthinkable just five years ago.

In the room are 21 female candidates, all dressed in the black cloaks that are compulsory under the strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, learning how to woo voters and manage campaigns and budgets in the first election that’s open to women in the kingdom.

“My message during my campaign is simple: change,” said Haifa Al-Hababi, 36, who is preparing to stand and has four months to hone her pitch before the December election. “Change the system. Change is life. The government has given us this tool and I intend to use it.”

While giving women more of a voice is a watershed alone, it also underlines the growing importance of having them play a bigger role in society and, crucially, the economy.

With living and housing costs rising and the oil price back below $50, there’s just less wealth to spread around given the tripling of the population since the 1970s oil boom. The bottom line is a woman’s place can no longer be at home if the menfolk want to maintain the living standards they’re accustomed to.

“It’s getting to the point where they need two incomes if they want to live in a certain way,” said Stefanie Hausheer Ali, associate director at Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington. “In 15 years, we’re going to see more of this shift.”

Facing Resistance

King Abdullah, who ruled from 2005 until his death in January, slowly expanded women’s rights in the face of resistance from some parts of the religious establishment.

He permitted women to stay at hotels without a letter from a male guardian, making it easier for women to travel on business. He appointed the first female deputy minister, opened the kingdom’s first coeducational university and phased out male employees at lingerie and make-up stores.

He also appointed women to the country’s 150-member advisory body and allowed female athletes to compete at the Olympics in London in 2012 for the first time, their covered bodies contrasting with competitors. His successor, King Salman, hasn’t rolled back the changes, focusing his new royal court on asserting Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.

As a result, female workers are entering the labor force in record numbers, a surge of 48 percent since 2010, last year’s official labor report showed.

Economic Boost

“It’s job creation within the national population and there’s a great multiplier effect in the economy,” said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank in the neighboring United Arab Emirates. “To have around 50 percent of your possible workforce not being utilized is a burden.”

Though more of them are working, women still only make up 16 percent of Saudis with jobs and account for 60 percent of the unemployed, according to the labor report.

Even as their status has improved from a decade ago, their lives remain restricted. They cannot drive, and they need a guardian’s permission to travel or have some surgeries.

Foziah Abu Khalid, a political sociology professor who helped organize the training, said she hoped women’s participation in the vote will mean the voice of all Saudi citizens, not just half of the population, will be heard.

“Entering municipal councils is not our ultimate goal,” said Abu Khalid. “We are aspiring that it would be the first step toward a political partnership between society and the state.”

The government is holding workshops to introduce women to the basics of voting and running in elections, including one on Wednesday in the southern city of Baha, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. Others, like the event in Riyadh, are organized by activists, charities and NGOs.

Al-Hababi, a candidate at the Riyadh workshop, said constraints have made women less confident. After returning from the U.K., where she lived and studied architecture for 10 years, women would respond with “What’s the point?” when she asked why they weren’t living the way they wanted.

Another woman running for local office, Areej Almuallem, 32, said her candidacy will allow her to show that women are trying to make a difference. And that’s “enough for me to feel proud and honored,” she said.

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