Behind the Veil: Saudi Women and Business

By Patni, Ambika | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Behind the Veil: Saudi Women and Business


Patni, Ambika, Harvard International Review


From the outside, Al-Multaka looks like any other Saudi Arabian shopping center. Upon entering the door, however, the conventionalities disappear. But when the women remove their traditional full-length abaya robes to reveal the latest fashions, one quickly realizes that no men shop at Al-Multaka.

In this mall, located in Riyadh, women are not only the customers, but also the owners, managers, and clerks of all the stores, setting a precedent for the conservative Islamic nation. Saudi Arabian women have traditionally been barred from entering the workplace; only recently have they had the opportunity to choose professions, such as nursing, teaching, and medicine. Because Saudi Arabian women historically have been much more repressed than women in neighboring Middle Eastern countries, the rise of women-owned businesses and female entrepreneurs--women currently run about 16,390 businesses--represents a significant advancement for Arab women. Encouraged by better education, a changing economy, and more opportunity, Saudi women are entering new, unorthodox business and industrial professions, despite daunting obstacles stemming from the traditions of Islamic culture.

The rise of women-owned businesses is rooted in the gradual improvement of women's education and literacy rates. English is widely spoken and taught, making international business easier. Of Saudi Arabia's seven universities, five now accept women, although the campuses and classes are still strictly segregated. Further, the construction of the first all-women's private college in Jeddah highlights the increasing importance of women's education. The Effat Private College for Girls, opening in January 1999, will grant bachelor's degrees in seven fields, including pharmacology, English, computer science, and information systems. Mai Yamani, a lecturer at the King Abdulazziz University and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, states that modern Arab women are more educated and thus receive better jobs, and subsequently will have a higher standard of living than previous generations and will participate more effectively in the workplace. In addition, some Arab women go abroad for higher or vocational education, despite knowing that job opportunities for them in Saudi Arabia are scarce. This may be why so many educated Saudi women are starting their own businesses.

The changing economy in Saudi Arabia has also made it easier for women to enter the workplace. The Saudi Arabian economy has greatly suffered from the sharp drop in oil prices, which fell from a high of US$37 per barrel in 1980 to US$10 per barrel this year. As a result, the nation's per capita GDP has fallen from US$18,500 in 1981 to US$6,200 today, driving women to work to supplement family incomes. Further exasperating Saudi Arabian economic problems is the controversial issue of prohibiting women from driving. Each year, US$2.8 billion are spent on chauffeurs, which could be reduced if women started driving. An unsuccessful challenge to the ban on women drivers occurred in November 1990, when 47 women protested by driving through the streets of Riyadh. Although the government suspended these women from their jobs, it is now considering allowing women over the age of 45 to drive during the daytime.

Because of the combined effects of the changing economy, increased education of women, and changing mentalities, many professions that previously barred women have started to accept them. Careers in retailing, marketing, and industry are all possibilities for the modern Saudi woman. Women's banking is also a promising field. The United Saudi Bank's all-women's branches have multiplied over the past few years, encouraging Saudi Arabian women to take control of their money. …

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