Saudi Arabia has adopted a long-term strategic policy of economic diversification, from an economy purely based on oil revenues to the development of a knowledge-based economy. The success of this policy will largely depend upon the ability and willingness of the country to educate, train and utilise the skills of all its citizens, including its women. Recognising this imperative, the government is committed to the education of women and their gradual introduction into the workforce, but also mindful of the need to implement such changes in the context of the country’s religious, cultural and social identity. Although significant changes have been made in recent years, the challenges facing the government, the private sector and society remain formidable, and should not be underestimated.

In 2009 the workforce of Saudi Arabia was 8.6m, half of which were Saudi nationals. Equally significant, 84% of nationals in the labour force were men. The gap is closing and the government’s policy of Saudiisation is now including women. Through a series of measured steps, the government has been opening up the education sector to women, preparing them not only for the workforce but also to make a broader contribution to the economy and society, beyond the family. Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University City, north of Riyadh, was opened in 2011 and is the most visible illustration of the education opportunities now available to Saudi women. It is the world’s largest women-only university, with accommodation for about 50,000 students.

Education alone will not be sufficient to assimilate women into the workforce. In 2009 54% of university graduates were women, but 78% of the unemployed women seeking work were university graduates. Legislative, social and occupational constraints mean that even highly educated women are limited to professions perceived as feminine. For example, in 2008 78% of all working women were in education, mostly in the public sector. In 2010 women made up 31% of government employees and a significant majority of working women are in the public sector, as conservative customs have restricted their opportunities to work in the private sector. For example, although universities produce more female law graduates each year, no regulations permitting women to be licensed as lawyers are yet in place. However, it is understood that such regulations are presently under consideration. The path to a career equal to their male counterparts remains elusive for most Saudi women. However, legislative changes, along with education and global influences, are creating opportunities. King Abdullah’s appointment of 30 women to the historically all-male Majlis Ash Shura, the country’s legal consultative council, is a landmark development intended to assist the process of change. The anachronistic requirement for a woman to obtain the consent of a wali amr (male guardian) before taking a job has also been overturned. The Labour Law enacted by Royal Decree No. 51 in 2005 gives the right to work to all citizens and has improved provisions for maternity, medical care leave and nursery facilities.

Several government initiatives, for example the Human Resource Development Fund, are focusing on the creation of job opportunities for women in the private sector. Consent from the Ministry of Labour is no longer required to install a women’s section, and these are now commonplace, but the ministry reserves the power of inspection to ensure that segregation is observed. Still, women remain in a narrow range of jobs in the private sector. The Ministry of Labour is seeking to broaden the range of jobs available to women, for example as receptionists in offices and hospitals and shop assistants in ladies’ clothing stores, while there are initiatives to involve women in the hospitality sector. International observers may dismiss these opportunities as trivial, but in a society that has historically stigmatised woman working in mixed-gender public areas, this is significant. If Saudi Arabia intends to create a dynamic and diversified market economy and reduce its heavy reliance upon expatriate workers, educating and assimilating women into the workforce must be regarded as a fundamental national priority.