Saudi women frustrated by pandemic in quest for financial independence

Government stresses commitment to job creation for women, youth.
Friday 05/06/2020
A Saudi woman sells jewellery at a retail store in Riyadh. (AFP)
A Saudi woman sells jewellery at a retail store in Riyadh. (AFP)

Al ULA- SAUDI ARABIA --Saudi Arabia has come a long way since the announcement of its Vision 2030 plan, showing commitment to reforms, such as ending gender segregation and creating new cultural activities, to further open up the country.

The Vision 2030 plan was launched by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to diversify the economy from the oil sector, including by expanding the services and tourism industries.

Women and youth have pinned a lot of hope on the plan’s inclusive potential.

Thousands of jobs have been created and Saudis have flocked to concerts, festivals and sporting events. However, the pace of reform may have slowed down due to the global coronavirus pandemic affecting the world.

The pandemic has hampered Saudi Arabia’s nascent non-religious tourism industry, newly introduced under Crown Prince Mohammed’s drive.

“It is very tough, but I keep telling myself things will get better after corona. One has to remain optimistic,” said Abeer al-Howayan, a young Saudi woman whose online business has slowed due to the pandemic.

Howayan despaired of ever working after spending eight years trying to find a job that would put her chemistry degree to use in the Saudi town of Al Ula. Eventually, she abandoned her scientific ambitions and turned to selling homemade cakes. Last year, however, she was chosen for a government training programme to support a $20 billion flagship tourism project in the kingdom’s northwestern region.

Women visiting the Diriyah Oasis amusement park in Diriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP)
Women visiting the Diriyah Oasis amusement park in Diriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP)

The 31-year-old learned how to make artisanal soap from French experts flown in by Saudi authorities, and in late December started selling her creations at a booth near the rock-hewn tombs of Madain Saleh, site of an ancient civilisation.

She also began offering her products online. Then the coronavirus struck, rendering Howayan’s future uncertain again.

Howayan is among nearly one million unemployed Saudis, 12% of the working-age population, who see hope in the crown prince’s vision to modernise the conservative kingdom with ambitious projects.

Women make up about 83% of the jobless, according to the Saudi statistics office. And it’s an educated group — 70% of those women have high school diplomas or university degrees. Many count on new sectors such as tourism to help them enter into the workforce.

For Saudi women, the downturn is particularly damaging, striking just as their efforts to move up in the workforce and gain greater financial independence were gaining traction.

Tackling unemployment is a main pillar of Crown Prince Mohammed’s plan. He promised in 2017 “better unemployment numbers by 2020” and to cut the jobless rate to 7% over the next decade. But the rate has fallen by less than 1 percentage point.

Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan told Reuters that the government remained committed to job creation targets and was still funding training and capacity building.

“Coronavirus is with us this year and possibly for a part of next year, but then it will go away and when it goes away we need to make sure that we have seized this time to build more capacity and train more people to be ready when we start offering services again,” said Jadaan.

Abeer Mohammed Jumuah has also greatly benefited from Crown Prince Mohammed’s reform drive. After graduating from university with a degree in economics, she spent years looking for a job as a teacher until eventually joining a government training programme to learn culinary arts in Paris.

The 31-year-old has returned to a catering role in Saudi Arabia, helping Michelin-starred chefs, but it is only temporary and she will eventually need to find new work, which has become increasingly difficult during the pandemic.

“I hope that one day I can open a cafe where I can offer a breakfast menu with lots of French pastries,” she said. “I want to be financially independent and I want my two daughters, aged four and seven, to have a better living standard.”

Madiha al-Anazy, for her part, is hopeful about the future. The 29-year old woman joined a five-month tour guide training programme when she returned from Florida in May 2019 with a masters degree in biotechnology, and now has a permanent job as a tour guide.

Her husband, Mohamad, was temporarily taken on as a part-time “ranger” to protect heritage sites and the couple is betting on a revival of the tourism sector.

“We hope he will find a permanent job one day,” Anazy said.

Private-sector job creation is partly intended to wean citizens off of reliance on the state, which employs more than two-thirds of the Saudi workforce. Their salaries account for roughly half of 2020 budget spending.

“People’s expectation for income and lifestyle are going to be different to their parents,” Anazy said.