Earlier this month, Saudi women attended football matches at three major football stadiums for the first time, overcoming an infamous symbol of gender segregation in one of the Islamic world’s most deeply conservative nations.
While the attendees savored the moment, debate raged over the significance of the change. Both supporters and skeptics of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms are wondering: will the presence of women in stadiums prove merely symbolic, or a sign of deeper change to come? How far does the young royal’s commitment to social reform go?
The event was indeed about more than ‘the beautiful game’. The decision, announced a few months ago, puts to rest one of many battles that will determine the shape of Saudi society in the coming decades. Many argue the impetus for this social milestone is economic, with faltering oil wealth pushing the monarchy to reduce restrictions on women to secure its own future. But Saudi female liberation cannot be written off as simple PR. A small but tireless circle of activists have made personal sacrifices for years to lay the groundwork for these changes. The trailblazing bin Salman should solicit their help when, not if, he goes further.
Vision 2030’s Gender Dilemma
The crown prince’s blueprint for the future of Saudi Arabia is called Vision 2030. His ultimate goal is to place Saudi at “the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the investment powerhouse and the hub connecting three continents.” It’s a bold rethink for a country whose economy is overwhelmingly reliant on oil, but requires breaking down deep-rooted Wahhabi social norms in one of the world’s most conservative societies.
The role of women will be key to determining whether this strategy thrives or flounders. The past Saudi approach to female empowerment was tantamount to economic self-harm. Saudi women can’t even open or maintain their own bank accounts, and the country is ranked at 141 out of 144 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index. Female participation in the workforce is just 28% of the rate for men. In the private sector, Saudi women make 56% less than male counterparts.
In fairness, this is a regional problem. “Democratic” Tunisia ranks 126th on the Gender Gap index, while supposedly progressive Turkey and Jordan find themselves in the 130s. All the same, a post-oil Saudi economy and society will need to draw on all its human capital. As Bernard Haykel of Princeton put it, “the Saudis finally understand that the economy will not diversify or reform without bringing women into the workforce.”
Saudi women already have the tools to close those gaps. They are well-educated and ready to add their skills to the economy once the barriers in their way are removed. Bin Salman has already slated one of those obstacles, the longstanding ban on women driving, for abolition.
The economics of undoing the driving ban are straightforward. The move will enable women to get to work while saving money they have had to spend on chauffeurs. A 2017 labor survey showed around 1.3 million of those chauffeurs were foreign workers, a surefire recipe for funneling money out of Saudi Arabia via remittances. Some believe as much as $4 billion exits the kingdom annually instead of being spent in Saudi and supporting the service industry.
No surprise that the end of the ban is expected to produce a considerable uptick in consumer demand and spending. Employers who hire women will no longer need to factor the cost of a driver into salaries or locate workplaces in expensive city centers. All in all, bringing female participation in the labor force to GCC average levels could add up to $90 billion to the Saudi economy by 2030.
These two moves have already secured considerable dividends for Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. The foreign investors the Kingdom wants to attract are also watching developments carefully to see how quickly Saudi can change Western perceptions of oppressive conservatism and gender discrimination. Elevating the status of women is indispensable to that task.
Bin Salman and the government will no doubt be watching the reaction from the global business community intently. Several Vision 2030 initiatives have already generated excitement in Europe, Asia, and North America, even as gender issues lurk under the surface. The expected public offering (IPO) of Saudi Aramco has provoked fierce competition between financial capitals, with New York and London fighting to host it. Theresa May made repeat visits to Riyadh to lobby on London’s behalf and emphasize the role women can play in society.
The more the status of women improves, the more success Vision 2030 will have in engaging counterparts overseas. Beyond Theresa May, the crown prince has found other willing partners like France’s Emmanuel Macron, who visited him in November and who will receive him in Paris in the next few weeks. French companies like EDF have already been bidding for stakes in major Saudi infrastructure projects. Macron, ever the advocate for French business, will almost certainly borrow from May’s playbook in trying to leverage his relationship with Saudi leadership into greater business opportunities.
For all of these headline changes to stick, however, bin Salman should reach out to the activists who plugged away for many years to end of the driving ban and keep narrowing the gap between Riyadh and the West. There is room for plenty of other campaigns to follow the lead of Women2Drive, and many more obstacles to overcome before Saudi Arabia can truly claim to draw on the talents of its entire population.
The bold modernizers at the top of the political pyramid should empower the women at the grassroots to go after other enduring institutions of inequality. Only then can bin Salman’s vision truly take root.