July 2, 2018
Women Driving in Saudi Arabia – A Bellwether for the CountryContact
On Sunday June 24th 2018, in a hugely significant step for the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia’s women were allowed to drive in the country for the first time since 1957. Not only is this a hugely progressive step for female empowerment in the Kingdom, but will also prove beneficial for the Saudi economy and society.
The move should not be considered within a vacuum but seen through the prism of the wider economic and societal landscape within Saudi Arabia. Since oil was discovered, the Kingdom has long been used to bountiful revenues, as well as a relatively small population to share the proceeds with. However, there has been significant population growth in recent decades, and 60% of the 22 million Saudi nationals are currently below the age of 30. This significant demographic shift, coupled with the aftermath of the oil price plummeting in 2014, has had a severe negative impact on the Saudi state income.
In 2017, the 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced radical reform of the Saudi economy through the Saudi Vision 2030. The long-term ambition is to transform the economy from one dependent primarily on oil incomes to a post-oil economy, and to bring larger parts of the Saudi population into the labour force.
Women will increasingly contribute to dual household incomes, boosting the Saudi economy. This represents a seismic change in a country where women are largely absent from the workforce – women make up only 20% of the current Saudi workforce. In part, this is due to cultural traditions and religious interpretations that women should take care of the home while men take jobs outside the house.
The opening up of the Saudi job market for women will include more public sector jobs for females and relaxation of women’s strict dress code. In 2015, women were given a say in the electoral process with the extension of suffrage to women not only to vote, but also stand as candidates in the municipal election. Such steps serve to break down the country’s male guardianship system, which requires a women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.
The slow and steady emancipation of women in a number of areas of life is an essential part of creating a more efficient and competitive Saudi economy. More educated women will be introduced to the labour market, with the male workforce becoming more efficient. The increased interaction of men and women within the same spaces will serve to further spearhead changes in Saudi cultural norms and further transform the country into a more streamlined and competitive economic force.