Hasnaa Ali

Hasnaa Ali

Journalist

Women-powered Australian coffee shop opens in Hail

Venturing into a unique Australian-inspired concept for the kingdom’s coffee drinkers, a Saudi businesswoman has revealed plans to employ Saudi female baristas at her coffee shop Al Hail, in the northern west region of Saudi Arabia, serving male and female patrons.

Taking into account Saudi Arabia’s cultural sensitivities and a history of gender segregation in public spaces, she tested the waters in a private hospital coffee shop setting, with the aim of easing both her young female employees and would-be patrons into the experience. It was a calculated risk, in light of a decision in February 2018 restricting the employment of female staffers to coffee shops located inside malls.

The experience went without a hitch, the businesswoman claimed. She plans to extend it to a second mixed branch for the shop.

Mixed reactions

Female employees who had undergone the three-month experience were also reassured; working consecutive shifts running through to 8 pm – after which a male employee would take over, in consideration of customary curfews on Saudi women – they claimed their experience with patrons was positive and unobstructed.
The coffee shop’s design and concept were modeled after those in Australia, where the Saudi businesswoman accompanied her husband during his one-year stint in the country, and was inspired to replicate these spaces in her hometown Hail.

Her mixed coffee shop setting marks a first for Saudi female baristas. But Saudi Arabia’s Medina, which houses Masjid an-Nabawi (Prophet's Mosque), a major Islamic pilgrimage site, saw a similar experiment four years ago; an all-women coffee shop employed female college students, primarily to support them in earning extra pocket money. Public backlash ensued at a time when women’s rights in the kingdom were making lukewarm progress. The market was unready, and the concept flopped.

The times seem to have changed with Al Hail’s successful mixed coffee shop experience; reactions to it have been less severe and outrageous, and the timing, optimal for the kingdom’s sociocultural reform plans. The latter are heavily focusing on women’s empowerment and additional rights.

Fueling up the momentum

Many other Saudi businesswomen are building on this reform momentum across sectors – and more so, into unchartered territory. Among them, Mervat Bukhari broke into the highly male-dominated and monopolized petroleum distribution and station management field.

In January, she would launch the first fully integrated digital petrol station in the kingdom, a few months after a royal decree was issued allowing women to obtain driver’s licenses in the kingdom.

In the press, Bukhari was reported to have set up the station as a hygiene and quality service benchmark model for other stations to follow suit, designed around citizens and residents. More importantly, she saw opportunity in the decree for petrol stations that would provide a safe and comforting environment for future Saudi women drivers.

Longer-term investments

Bukhari’s and other women’s entrepreneurial ventures are merely the starting point. Only days ago, the Saudi ministry of commerce launched the “No Need” initiative; it announced that women would be allowed to resort to governmental institutions, and to register and start their businesses without the consent or permission of a guardian. Previously, commercial activities for women in Saudi Arabia were subject to male guardianship.

Now, under the kingdom’s macro plans to support and overhaul the private sector, both human capital and revenue generation opportunities are ample for women’s contribution; more so with the rise of professionally and academically qualified Saudi women who were once sidelined by an imbalanced regulatory framework for their employment.

Women in this article

Businesswoman, poet and media personality Mervat Bukhari is the first Saudi woman to run and work at a petrol station in Saudi Arabia.

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