Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Make Saudi women visible -- boost the economy

By Mounira Jamjoom, special to CNN
January 23, 2013 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
(File photo) Saudi women shop at a local mall in Riyadh on August 18, 2012.
(File photo) Saudi women shop at a local mall in Riyadh on August 18, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The number of Saudi women seeking employment has risen faster than the number of jobs
  • The engagement of women in the policy debate is critical, Jamjoom writes
  • She argues that economic measures need to be accompanied by civic changes

Editor's note: Mounira Jamjoom is a Senior Research Specialist with the Ideation Center, Booz & Company's think tank in the Middle East. She is leading the Ideation Center's research efforts on education, women's studies, and evolving social issues that have important implications for the Middle East region. Mounira holds a Ph.D. in Education from Oxford University and a Master's Degree from Columbia University.

(CNN) -- A friend once said "We women must learn to choose our battles." Women in Saudi Arabia shape their agenda according to where they choose to take on their new challenges, what they prioritize, when they let go, and how they win. The self-evident statement that "Saudi Arabia should integrate and empower women economically" defines my battle and that of many other women.

Read more: Saudi activists say kingdom trying to silence them

Mounira Jamjoom
Mounira Jamjoom

Economic empowerment offers a win-win scenario for Saudi Arabia and its women. It promotes gender equality and helps the country to diversify away from petroleum, a longstanding national goal.

Rising numbers of well-educated women enlarge the national talent pool, allowing reduced dependence on expatriates (who comprise over half the workforce). Instead women are still not seen as part of the solution. Since 2001, the number of Saudi women seeking employment has risen faster than the number of jobs, resulting in a 28 percent female unemployment rate, nearly four times that of men, according to The Ministry of Labor in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with Booz & Company analysis.

Opinion: Small protests have big impact in Saudi Arabia

Women's economic empowerment also boosts household income. Studies demonstrate that women are more likely than men to use their resources to promote their children's health and education.

Saudi women protesting detentions
Saudi activist pushing limits for reform
Saudi woman beheaded for 'sorcery'

Economic growth alone is not enough. It needs to be geared instead towards inclusive growth of women. Saudi Arabia is prosperous, with GDP per capita of close to $23,000 in 2012 according to the IMF. However, Saudi Arabia ranked 123 out of 128 countries in Booz & Company's Third Billion Index which measures women's economic participation. In addition to economic growth, Saudi Arabia needs inclusive economic policies that promote long-term, targeted reforms that harness the potential of its aspiring women. Allowing women to drive, for example, is economic empowerment. Many Saudi women are likely to give up their jobs because they cannot afford to hire drivers to get them to work.

Read more: America, the Saudi Arabia of tomorrow

Economic measures need to be accompanied by civic changes that make women more visible in leading positions and that allow them to engage in shaping the debate. The decision to appoint women to the Shura Council, the kingdom's national consultative body, will have both these effects.

Saudi women educated, unable to work

Research shows that visibility is a key dimension of empowerment. It creates national role models and encourages younger women to advance in their careers. In Argentina, for example, women have made progress thanks to their national prominence. They hold high political office and are 39 percent of the parliament, compared to 6 per cent in 1990. Visibility fosters economic integration—Argentina's women are now 40 percent of the workforce, according to the World Bank.

The engagement of women in the policy debate is critical. Women's issues can become more salient in Shura Council discussions. The council's advisory role means it can offer proposals and programs to executive bodies that emphasize women's education, employment and civil, legal and social status.

The step forward of putting women on the Shura Council, and King Abdullah's promise that women can vote in the 2015 municipal elections, raises the prospect of women holding ministerial posts (Currently, one woman is the deputy minister of education, unlike many other Arab Gulf countries where women now hold ministerial positions).

The struggle for economic empowerment is the right fight for Saudi women and for a country seeking to transform its economy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mounira Jamjoom.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
January 23, 2013 -- Updated 1308 GMT (2108 HKT)
Global policymakers, leading thinkers and key entrepreneurs are gathering in Davos. CNN brings you the latest news, views and musings live.
January 25, 2013 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Free trade, transparency and a crackdown on tax cheats will be at the heart of Britain's G8 presidency, Prime Minister David Cameron told the World Economic Forum in Davos.
January 25, 2013 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
Walk the halls of Davos and you're bound to bump into celebrities, heads of state and even princes and princesses.
January 25, 2013 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
The mayor of London says a controversial vote for the British people whether to stay in the European Union is all part of democracy.
January 25, 2013 -- Updated 1820 GMT (0220 HKT)
A top European Union official says there's no need for Britain to make threats to leave the union in order to reform its membership.
January 25, 2013 -- Updated 1820 GMT (0220 HKT)
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga says his country will not negotiate with al Qaeda-linked Somali militants who have threatened to kill Kenyan hostages unless Nairobi releases all Muslims charged with terrorism.
January 26, 2013 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LeWeb founder Loic Le Meur is looking to "digital hippies" as a potential theme for his next conference.
January 28, 2013 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)
The head of Airbus says the European aviation giant will take care to learn from its own mistakes -- and rival Boeing's -- ahead of the launch of its new widebody A350 aircraft.
January 23, 2013 -- Updated 1040 GMT (1840 HKT)
As extreme weather events cost the global economy billions each year, the "neglected" risk of climate change seems to be rising to the top of the agenda, Andrew Steer writes.
January 23, 2013 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Economic empowerment offers a win-win scenario for Saudi Arabia and its women, Mounira Jamjoon writes.
January 23, 2013 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
The recession in Europe is entering its fifth year and unemployment doesn't look like it will be returning to normal levels anytime soon.
January 22, 2013 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
What has been made clear by current events and financial upheavals since 2008 is that the global economy has become truly that -- global.
January 21, 2013 -- Updated 1458 GMT (2258 HKT)
On July 1, 2013 the 27-nation European Union will become 28. But is the Adriatic country ready to join Europe's elite club?
ADVERTISEMENT