Saudi Arabia on a fast track to gender equality, study suggests

Easier access to passports and traveling abroad is among measures offering women in Saudi Arabia greater mobility along with new freedoms in the workplace, marriage, parenthood, education and entrepreneurship. (AFP)
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Updated 12 February 2020

Saudi Arabia on a fast track to gender equality, study suggests

  • A World Bank report places Kingdom first in gender equality in GCC bloc and second in the Arab region
  • The WBL report measures gender inequality in the law and identifies barriers to women's economic participation

DUBAI: Rapid reform in Saudi Arabia is opening the door for female “role models and leaders of the future” — and the Kingdom’s women are seizing the opportunity, according to major employers.

Saudi women are bringing “passion, energy and enthusiasm” to the workplace in greater numbers than ever, Danielle Atkins, chief marketing and communications officer at Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) in Riyadh, told Arab News.

 Atkins said that she has seen a sharp rise in the number of women working in the Kingdom.

“I look for passion, an entrepreneurial spirit and commitment —  and all of this I see from the Saudi women in my team,” she said.

“This is an incredible time for Saudi women.”

FASTFACT

38.8

Jump in Saudi Arabia’s score in World Bank’s ‘Women, Business and the Law’ report.

Atkins’ comments follow a World Bank report that highlighted Saudi Arabia’s rapid progress towards gender quality since 2017 by ranking it the top reformer and the top improver among 190 countries.

 The bank’s “Women, Business and the Law” (WBL) 2020 report gave the Kingdom an overall score of 70.6 out of 100 — a 38.8 jump since its last ranking  — placing it first among GCC countries and second in the Arab world.

WBL measures gender inequality in the law, identifies barriers to women’s economic participation and encourages reform of discriminatory laws.

The report highlights improvements in Saudi Arabia’s score in six of the eight indicators, notably in women’s mobility, following the removal of restrictions on obtaining a passport and traveling abroad.

Besides mobility (100), the most improvements were recorded in the workplace (100), marriage (60), parenthood (40), entrepreneurship (100) and pension (100).

New legal amendments also equalized women’s right to choose where to live and to leave the marital home, the report says.

Atkins told Arab News that the “remarkable change” in opportunities for women  can be attributed to the implementation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s blueprint for transformation — the Saudi 2030 Vision

“Today, women are being appointed to senior governmental roles and are leading in fields such as science and medicine, which were traditionally male oriented,” she said.

“They will become role models for the future.”




Reforms including the right to drive offer Saudi women a stake in the Kingdom’s economic future, according to a World Bank report. (AFP)

With regard to the workplace, Saudi Arabia has enacted legislation and criminal penalties for sexual harassment and prohibited gender discrimination.

In the area of marriage, the Kingdom has begun allowing women to be head of the household and removed the legal obligation to obey their husbands. With regards to parenthood, Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, prohibited the dismissal of pregnant workers.

“One of the goals of Vision 2030 is to increase the proportion of women in employment from the current level of 22 percent to 30 percent,” Atkins said.

“The DGDA team is comprised of 83 percent Saudis, of which 34 percent are women. The marketing team has an even higher percentage with 57 percent of women.

“My first three new hires are all Saudi women, and my impression as someone who is new to the Kingdom is that this change is being led by the government and individual CEOs. It would be great to see this cascade into all industries within Saudi Arabia,” she said.

In a boost for entrepreneurship, the Kingdom has made access to credit easier for women by prohibiting gender-based discrimination in financial services, a legal provision that has been proven to increase women’s access to finance and is still not in place in 115 economies.

In the pension section, the Kingdom equalized the age (60) at which men and women can retire with full pension benefits. It also mandated a retirement age of 60 for both women and men.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the changes underway in the Kingdom is the trend for women to study what have traditionally been regarded as exclusively male domains: Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines.

For instance, of the 5,200 who graduated from the Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) in Riyadh last year, 1,400 came from STEM faculties.

“I predict a huge contribution from women in that sector in the near future,” Einas Al-Eisa, rector of the PNU, told Arab News at the recent annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“One good story that comes from Saudi Arabia is the increased number of women engaging in the technology sectors, for example, versus the drop we see worldwide. Elsewhere women are moving away from these fields, whereas in the Kingdom, the number is going up constantly.”

Cyril Widdershoven, director of VEROCY, a Dutch consultancy advising on investments, energy and infrastructure in the region, said improvements in the position of women in Saudi Arabia are visible in offices, workplaces and on the streets.

“The role of women in the Saudi economy is clear. It is an available workforce that should be accessed,” he said.

“At the same time, diversity in the workforce is increasing overall productivity, profitability and sustainability.

“What needs to be done is to educate and strategize sectors for women.”




Women university students in the Kingdom are entering traditional male domains such as science, engineering and mathematics in growing numbers. (AFP)

According to the World Bank report, economies in the Middle East and North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa make up nine of the top 10 reforming economies.

Some of the Kingdom’s groundbreaking reforms include criminalizing sexual harassment in public and private sector employment in 2018, as well as allowing women greater economic opportunity last year.

Legal amendments now protect women from discrimination in employment, including job advertisements and hiring, and prohibit employers from dismissing a woman during her pregnancy and maternity leave.

“These reforms build on other historic changes in Saudi Arabia, which in 2015 for the first time allowed women to vote and run as candidates in municipal elections and, in 2017, gave women the right to drive,” the report said. “The reforms are spurred by an understanding that women play an important role in moving Saudi Arabia closer to its Vision 2030.

“This ambitious plan to modernize the Saudi Arabian economy by diversifying it beyond oil and gas, promoting private sector growth, and supporting entrepreneurship also includes the goal of increasing women’s labor force participation.”

The report mentioned  remaining legal constraints on women’s participation in the economy, which, if addressed, could increase their economic contribution.

As for what young Saudi women will do after graduation, the Vision 2030 strategy envisages a big increase in the female workforce, rising to as much as 30 percent over the next decade.

Recent statistics show that the Kingdom is well on the way to reaching that target, with 23.5 percent of the private sector workforce being female.

“Just as it should be everywhere else in the world, it is the competency of the graduates that dictates where they go,” Al-Eisa said.

For Saudi Arabia to diversify and advance, Widdershoven said, the Kingdom’s women need to be financially independent, but also able to fill in gaps in the workforce.

“From health care to finance, energy, agriculture and industry, the strength of these mainly young women is remarkable,” he said.


If Saudi Arabia is forced to put the Hajj on hold, it will not be without precedent

Updated 05 April 2020

If Saudi Arabia is forced to put the Hajj on hold, it will not be without precedent

  • Saudi minister's remarks have called into question viability of this year's Hajj amid coronavirus crisis
  • The annual Islamic pilgrimage has a history of disruptions and cancellations going back centuries

JEDDAH: Will the Hajj, which draws millions of Muslims annually to Islam’s birthplace in Saudi Arabia, be suspended this year owing to the global coronavirus pandemic?
That question had been uppermost in the minds of millions of Muslims worldwide even before a Saudi official asked them to put on hold any plans to perform the obligatory pilgrimage, scheduled to begin in late July.
“We’ve asked our Muslim brothers around the world to wait” before making Hajj plans “until there’s clarity,” Dr. Muhammad Salih bin Taher Banten, minister of Hajj and Umrah, told state-run Al-Ekhbariya TV in comments on March 31 that quickly bounced around the world.
He added: “We've asked the world not to rush with regards to Hajj groups until the path of the epidemic becomes clear, keeping in mind the safety of pilgrims and public health as a priority.”
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health has taken the whole gamut of precautionary measures to control the spread of COVID-19 infection in Makkah and Madinah, yet a total of more than 480 active cases have been reported in the two holy cities so far.
Last month, the Kingdom suspended the Umrah pilgrimage until further notice, halted all international passenger flights indefinitely, and blocked the entry and exit to several cities, including Makkah and Madinah.
There have been 25 deaths reported among more than 2,000 COVID-19 cases in Saudi Arabia.

Globally, more than 1,000,000 people have been infected and nearly 59,000 of them have died.
Against this backdrop, a decision to suspend the Hajj may seem at once inevitable and unprecedented.
In actual fact, the pilgrimage has experienced disruptions through the centuries due to circumstances beyond the control of Hajj authorities.
According to a report published by the King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives (Darah), the first time the Hajj was interrupted was in 930 AD when the Qarmatians, a syncretic branch of Sevener Ismaili Shiite Islam that revolted against the Abbasid Caliphate, attacked pilgrims on the eighth day of Hajj.
The report says the Qarmatians, convinced that performing the Hajj was an act of idolatry, killed more than 30,000 pilgrims that year, desecrated Makkah’s Zamzam well with corpses, and ran off with the Black Stone of the Kaaba back to Hajr (Qatif nowadays), their capital on the Arabian Gulf at that time.
On account of the bloody assault, the Hajj was not performed for another 10 years, according to the Darah report.
The next disruption happened in 968 AD, says the report, citing Ibn Kathir’s book “Al-Bidaya wan-Nihayah.” It said a disease spread inside Makkah and claimed the lives of many pilgrims.

The Prophet Muhammad said, ‘If you hear of an outbreak of a plague in a land, do not enter it.’


At the same time, camels used for transporting pilgrims to Makkah died owing to a scarcity of water.
“Many of those who managed to reach Makkah safely could not live long after Hajj for the same reason,” according to the Darah report
Among those who came to Makkah to perform the Hajj in significant numbers were Egyptians.
But in 1000 AD, they could not afford to undertake the journey because of the high cost of living in the country that year.
Some 29 years later, no pilgrims from the East or Egypt came for the Hajj. According to the Darah report, in 1030 only a few Iraqi pilgrims managed to reach Makkah to perform the Hajj.
Nine years later, Iraqi, Egyptian, Central Asian and north Arabian Muslims were unable to perform the Hajj.
Dr. Emad Taher, head of the history department at King Abdul Aziz University, said the reason was political unrest and sectarian tensions.
Similarly, no one performed the Hajj in 1099 owing to fear and insecurity across the Muslim world as a result of wars.

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Some five years before the Crusaders seized Jerusalem in 1099, lack of unity among Muslim rulers of the Arab region meant that no Muslims could manage to reach Makkah to perform the Hajj.
In 1168, Egyptians found themselves locked in confrontation with Kurdish Commander Asaduddin Shirkuh, who was hoping to extend the Zangid dynasty to Egypt. The situation naturally did not allow Egyptians to perform the Hajj.
The pilgrimage was again disrupted in the 13th century. The Darah report says no people from outside the Hijaz region could perform the Hajj between 1256 and1260.
French leader Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in the Ottoman territories of Egypt and Syria from 1798 to 1801 made the standard routes to Makkah unsafe for pilgrims.
More than two centuries on, a global pandemic has cast a huge shadow of uncertainty on the Islamic pilgrimage.
Hani Nasira, an Egyptian academic and writer, said if COVID-19 cases worldwide continue to increase, a decision to halt the Hajj should come as no surprise.
“If imposed, such a decision will be wise and in full compliance with the Islamic Shariah, which basically aims to protect and preserve peoples’ lives,” he told Arab News.
“In the Holy Qur’an, Allah says, ‘and do not kill yourselves.’ Also, the Prophet Muhammad warned his companions against epidemics.

Muslims visit the Kaaba during a pilgrimage to Makkah in 1954. (AP)

“Abdulrahman bin Awf narrated that the Prophet Muhammad had said, ‘if you hear of an outbreak of a plague in a land, do not enter it; but if that epidemic breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.’ This Hadith shows the significance of avoiding plagues.”
Nasira noted that the COVID-19 outbreak has claimed thousands of lives across the world and shows no sign of abating.
“The whole world is suffering from the swift spread of the coronavirus, which has filled people everywhere with unprecedented dread,” he told Arab News.
“With scientists having little information about the virus, a cure isn’t likely to come out soon, so the continuation of the situation makes suspending the Hajj necessary to protect lives.”
Nasira drew attention to the fact that some Muslim countries, including Iran and Turkey, are among the biggest casualties of the pandemic.
“We don’t want to add fuel to the fire. It’s illogical, and Islam also never accepts or approves that. If I were a mufti, I wouldn’t hesitate to call for a suspension,” he said.
Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, a researcher of Islamic studies, pointed out that the Hajj is not a limited ritual in the sense that it can be carried out at least once in the lifetime of an adult Muslim.
“Performing the Hajj isn’t limited to a specific time. An adult Muslim can perform the Hajj whenever he or she likes once they’ve reached the age of discretion,” he told Arab News.
“Prophet Muhammad, for instance, didn’t perform the pilgrimage in the first year the Hajj became a duty. He made his Hajj a year later,” said Al-Ghamdi, who specializes in Hadith and Islamic sciences. Like Nasira, he maintains that Islamic Shariah strongly backs public interest and wellbeing.
“In case of dire necessity, such as because of the spread of the coronavirus disease, political reasons or security compulsions, the Hajj can be suspended and this doesn’t contradict Islamic teachings,” Al-Ghamdi said. “The Almighty has ordered us to not expose ourselves to danger.”
Moreover, Al-Ghamdi said, the Hajj is founded in reason and logic, so if health officials find that a contagious sickness can cause deaths, preserving people’s lives is more important than the pilgrimage itself. “Nothing is wrong with this line of reasoning in Islamic Shariah,” he added.