The Saudi cabinet, chaired by King Fahd, last week took a landmark decision allowing women to obtain commercial licences.
Previously women could only open a business in the name of a male relative, and religious and social restrictions excluded them from all but a few professions such as teaching and nursing.
“This decision will certainly reduce social and economic pressures on men, who are no longer capable of meeting family needs due to a drop in personal income,” said Nahid Tahir, a senior economist at National Commercial Bank.
She said that creating employment had become a way of
fighting “homegrown terrorism”. “It also has an important security aspect in fighting terrorists in the kingdom, as the solution to this problem is no longer of a purely security nature.”
Tahir said 55% of university graduates in the oil-rich kingdom are female, but the overwhelming majority stay at home because of the ban and a general lack of job opportunities.
According to official figures, only 5.5% out of some 4.7 million Saudi women of working age are employed. The cabinet also ordered government ministries and bodies to create jobs for women, and asked the Chambers of Commerce and Industry to form a committee for women to help train and find jobs for them in the private sector.
It also decided that land will be allocated for the establishment of industrial projects to employ women, and said in future all positions in shops selling women’s clothes and accessories would be reserved for Saudi women.
The head of the Jidda-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, Anwar Eshki, said the steps highlight the role the economy can play in “fighting extremism”.
Cost of living
“The cost of living has gone up and women must share the burden with their husbands. If this is not done, it will negatively affect the security situation. It will only breed further complications,” Eshki said.
Unemployment in Saudi Arabia is
“We cannot separate terrorism from the economy … The security solution is essential, but it is not the decisive one. The cabinet’s decision is a response to this understanding,” he said.
The kingdom, the world’s largest oil producer and exporter, has in the past year been jolted by a string of attacks which killed more than 85 people. The attacks have been blamed on hardliners sympathetic to the al-Qaida network.
Two attacks last month on the petrochemical and oil centres of Yanbu and Khobar raised concern in international markets, pushing crude prices to record highs early last week.
The unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is estimated at more than 20%, though officials insist it is below 10%.
Women outnumber men in Saudi universities because they seldom study abroad and unlike men they normally only look for jobs after graduating from university.
Tahir said the government’s decision will remarkably improve the income of many Saudi families, but added she feared it may remain “ink on paper”.
Liberals in Saudi Arabia hope to ease a range of restrictions on women that make them dependent on male relatives.
“We cannot separate terrorism from the economy. The security solution is essential, but it is not the decisive one”
Women in Saudi Arabia have to be covered from head to toe in public and cannot mix with men other than relatives. They are also not allowed to drive or travel alone.
Riyadh began issuing separate civil identity cards for Saudi women in late 2001 but the documents can only be issued with the approval of a male guardian such as a husband or father.
The government has in recent months been seeking to boost
women’s role in society but faces opposition from the powerful religious establishment.
It promised that the third round of a national dialogue, launched in the kingdom a year ago to debate crucial issues, in mid-June will be entirely devoted to discussing “women’s rights and duties”.