Aisha Bint Abdullah

Aisha Bint Abdullah

Journalist

Saudi Arabia fast-tracks its feminization program

Under a phased rollout across women’s shops and outlets in the Kingdom, the Saudi Council of Chambers’ coordinating body for women’s employment is extending its feminization program – the third stage of which began in October 2017 – to the hospitality sector. In a gradual and joined effort between public and private sector, the program falls under a larger initiative led by Riyadh ruler’s wife and women’s rights activist, Princess Noura bint Mohammed Bin Saud.

Beyond providing equal opportunity, Saudi Arabia’s feminization program is recalibrating gender balances in the workplace by blocking male employment in specific sectors – particularly those more sensitive to women’s privacy and intimacy.

The country’s leadership is pushing its reforms against tough and time-sensitive objectives in tackling women’s unemployment which, today, stands at 33 percent. Over the coming years, Saudi Arabia’s National Vision 2030 set out to raise women’s contribution in the local workforce from 20 to 30 percent.

Efforts to ramp up female employment in Saudi Arabia’s women outlets were initiated by a royal decree issued in 2011. The latter detailed a four-stage rollout, the first of which focused on lingerie and cosmetics shops, and the second, on special occasion and traditional wear, as well as accessories stores.
The latest and third, in October 2017, trickled down to perfume, shoes and bags shops, ready-to-wear outlets, and more public women-only kiosks and clothing sections.

The Saudi Ministry of Labor is betting big on its feminization program. It forecasts it will create 80,000 job opportunities for Saudi women in the third stage alone, and half a million opportunities by the time it concludes.

Since its establishment in 2017, the Saudi Council of Chambers’ coordinating entity for women’s employment has already launched seven initiatives aimed at women’s inclusion in the local job market.

 The latest, extending to the hospitality sector, is headed by businesswoman – and one of Saudi Arabia’s newly elected councilors – Huda Al-Jeraisy. It entails a number of incentives for business owners, as well as regulatory, legislative and transport measures and support in providing a safe environment for female staffers.

But in effect, many challenges concede to the efficient and timely rollout of Saudi Arabia’s feminization ambitions. Terms and conditions on outlets employing female staffers have been deemed unrealistic by many critics. They included shading the entirety of their store displays and fronts, and prohibiting men to enter their premises even in the company of their family. Inversely, they excluded necessary security measures, such as the restriction of women’s working hours to ‘safe’ times and security services.

But the Saudi Ministry of Labor is pushing on, strictly enforcing its recently revised penal code on violations to the program. Business owners who employ men in roles reserved for women face a full business day closure, and fines of 10,000 Saudi Riyals (SAR) per male employee (equivalent to $2,666).  Similarly, establishments that do not dedicate sections for women employees will have to pay the same amount, and half of it should they employ women after the due deadlines and timelines.

The numbers add up to the difficulty of involving the business community in such efforts;  by last January, over 7,000 violations to Saudiization and local labor programs – including feminization – had been recorded, and estimated at SAR 138 million, reported Saudi newspaper Okaz on behalf of Khaled Abalkhail, the Ministry of Labor’s official spokesperson.

Drawbacks aside, the ministry’s feminization efforts have been transformative for Saudi women’s employment and professional recognition. They answered a near decade-long call by Saudi women’s rights activists; it was “Enough Embarrassment”, a homegrown launched in October 2010, that mobilized women’s employment at lingerie and cosmetics shops. After the 2011 decree was issued, another campaign followed in its support under the tagline “The Embarrassment Has Ended”. And so it did.

Women in this article

Saudi businesswoman, Head of the Women’s Committee at the Council of Saudi Chambers, Head of the taskforce for the feminization of the restaurant and hospitality sector.

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