When Saudi entrepreneur Amal Albasheeri opened her first business in 2003, women were not allowed to enter most commercial premises. “It was a totally different era,” said Albasheeri, founder of the interior design platform Makan.Design. In 2018, women obtained the right to register a business without the consent of a husband or male relative.
“Now we feel like we have the right to exist!” she told Al-Monitor.
In recent years, the Saudi leadership ended the world's last ban on female drivers and encouraged women to enter the workforce, accelerating the inclusion of women into the local economy. The moves aim to increase the number of dual-income families at a time when deteriorating economic conditions are eroding the country’s welfare system.
The government also outlawed discriminatory practices in accessing bank credit. But beyond an improved legal framework, empowering women might require a profound change of mentality at the society level.
While more than half of Saudi university students being women, female entrepreneurship is yet to be entirely accepted. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that in the broader Middle East and North Africa region, gender-based discrimination in laws and social norms costs $575 billion a year.
Decades of cultural conditioning
Unlike regulatory restrictions, internal boundaries built in the minds of Saudi women by decades of cultural conditioning and a draconian male guardianship system cannot be repealed in the blink of an eye and are likely to resist state-led reforms.
Human rights organizations have long criticized the Gulf country for making women second-class citizens. A study published in 2018 found Saudi women tend to lack self-confidence due to gender limitations “deeply rooted in the culture.”
Arwa Shafi is a program associate at TAQADAM, one of Saudi Arabia’s top startup accelerators. She told Al-Monitor, “The challenges that remain are all at a personal level. There are still a lot of built-in ideas of what you can or cannot do as a female.”
Mentorship and accelerator programs like TAQADAM help participants explore opportunities that were previously off limits and turn an idea into a marketable product. “More than 30% of our founding entrepreneurs are female,” said Shafi, who said the flexibility offered by the six-month-long program has been vital to achieving such high participation by women.
“I could attend with my newborn son and continue breastfeeding,” Moudi Alghashyan, co-founder of the online wish list Hadiya Registry, told Al-Monitor.
TAQADAM also provides zero-equity funding to facilitate access to finance, one of the biggest challenges faced by women-led ventures as bank credit available to small and medium-sized enterprises in the Arab region is the lowest in the world.
“It has been the opportunity I needed. I got to socialize with other entrepreneurs, built connections and received a $20,000 grant,” said Alghashyan. During the COVID-19 crisis, Hadiya Registry’s sales tripled as “many started buying online for the first time.”
The importance of role models
For those who wish to reconcile family life with a job, the pandemic has been a wake-up call as business opportunities in the digital economy surged and online shopping gained momentum. The pre-pandemic growth rate of Saudi e-commerce already exceeded 32% annually.
But aspiring female entrepreneurs struggle to identify with the male-led businesses that dominate the headlines. “Saudi women do not have role models, that is what we lack,” London-based Saudi political analyst Najah Al Otaibi told Al-Monitor.
According to Babson College, a global leader in entrepreneurship education, “Role models have a greater impact on a woman’s entrepreneurial self-efficacy than on a man’s.”
In Saudi Arabia, less than 2% of business owners with at least one employee are women, according to a 2018 Mastercard study. While “the number of Saudi women entrepreneurs grew significantly from 2007 to 2017,” entrepreneurship remains the exception as the vast majority of Saudi citizens prefer public sector employment attracted by high wages, social benefits and job security — government departments pay 59% more than the private sector.
In the long term, new curricula could play a crucial role in nurturing a generation of female entrepreneurs. For decades, the education system upheld “dominant socio-cultural norms that emphasize the role of women as wives and mothers,” read a study by prominent Saudi researcher Hessah Al Sheikh.
According to World Bank estimates, women in the Middle East and North Africa enjoy half the legal rights of men. International organizations and experts have long called on Gulf governments to favor critical thinking-centered teaching methodologies.
“Music and arts, which used to be banned, are now part of the curriculum in public schools. This is a great development! We should have an environment encouraging creativity, freedom of thought, freedom of expression,” Al Otaibi said.
'Saudi Arabia is now a police state'
Since he was named crown prince in 2017, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has portrayed himself as a reformist and Western leaders initially commended this posture. In early 2018, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the kingdom's de facto ruler “has demonstrated by word and deed that he aims to guide Saudi Arabia in a more open direction.”
Critics argued the move is an attempt to create a smokescreen. “The new regime had to make reforms to gain legitimacy in the West,” said Lina al-Hathloul, whose sister is behind bars along with other female activists who had campaigned for the right to drive.
According to Human Rights Watch’s former Middle East director, "Their only crime was wanting women to drive before Mohammed bin Salman did." Al-Hathloul told Al-Monitor, “Saudi Arabia is now a police state; no one dares to talk,” and lamented new regulations like the public decency law have “blurred the line” between what is allowed and what is not.
Saudi entrepreneurs like Albasheeri are hopeful, saying a more inclusive society is taking shape as the kingdom has entered a new era. “As much as we want to keep our traditions, we don't want to live as a conservative country forever,” she said.