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Saudi Arabia explores women’s buying power with 30% entering work force

To expand its own economy, Saudi Arabia is joining a global structural shift toward multiple-wage households as women move into more and more careers that used to be off-limits.
Saudi women

The percentage of Saudi Arabian women of working age who have a job has roughly tripled since 2013 to reach 30%. Although the economic participation of Saudi women is still less than half that of men, the narrowing gap is one of Vision 2030's major achievements. The social and economic reform plan spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims to redraw the country’s economy after decades of religious conservatism.

When Saudia opened flight attendant and first officer jobs for Saudi women in 2020, the flag carrier of Saudi Arabia received a “huge number” of applicants, said Yasmeen Al Dakheel, a 29-year-old Saudi who lives in Jeddah and worked as recruitment specialist at the airline at the time. “It made me so proud that Saudi women are actually going above and beyond to have any kind of career they want,” she told Al-Monitor.

Greater education levels and a decline in the number of births per Saudi woman, from over seven in the 1970s to 2.8 according to the latest census, are also contributing factors. “In general, the fewer children a woman has, the more she’s able to participate in the workforce.” S&P Global said in September 2023.

Demah Banajah, 28, a business analyst in Jeddah who has been working since 2016, told Al-Monitor, “Just 30 years ago,, the default aspiration of most Saudi teenage girls was to become moms. ... For the new generation it is no longer about whether to work or not, it is what profession I want. My nieces and nephews even question why their moms don't work. For them it is weird if you stay at home!” 

Rana Abdullah Zumai, a Saudi nicknamed "the woman who works between cotton and copper," told Al-Monitor, “A woman used to just have to wait until marriage. Now she has her life, she is busy with her work, she does not have to wait for someone to give her a life!”  Zumai works as vice president of the Professional Fashion Association Board and also as head of communications at the Saudi Geological Survey.

The rise of multiple-wage households

For decades, the ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam dictated daily life in the kingdom and virtually excluded women from many jobs. But religious restrictions came at a high cost. The kingdom could stimulate its economic growth by an additional 1.6% of gross domestic product each year if it increased female participation to the OECD or G20 average, the International Monetary Fund estimated in 2023.

The Vision 2030 program has already started to unlock the potential of Saudi Arabia’s 9.4 million women. “After they allow women to drive, all women want to own their own car.” Zumai told Al-Monitor. Rising female employment is making multiple-wage households common, as opposed a decade ago when only 10% of working-age women had a job.

“The new generation knows that the world is going forward, and they do not want to go backwards.” Al Dakheel said, noting that Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms have given “the final push” for an influx of Saudi women into the labor market.

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