The Another

    The great leap forward for women in Saudi Arabia



    At the LEAP Tech Convention in February, the conference center in Riyadh showcased the Saudi kingdom’s ambitions for modernization. Experts from around the world and companies at the forefront of new technology came to present the latest robots and new artificial intelligence apps to more than 250,000 visitors. Three years ago, before the abolition of gender segregation at the end of 2019, it would have been inconceivable that Saudi women were so widely represented. Hostesses welcoming the public were dressed all in black wearing a niqab (the full veil) and an abaya (the long tunic worn over clothes). Female professionals in the sector networked and made new contacts.

    Wearing a simple black veil over her abaya, Aseel Addawood was there to promote her start-up. At 34, she embodies a whole generation of Saudi women who trained abroad and went through international companies. Back in the kingdom in 2019 after specializing in computer science in the United States, followed by a stint at the American database management company Oracle, she now wears many hats. She’s CEO of a start-up with 100 employees, 70% of whom are women, she leads investment in three others, she’s head of an NGO, a teacher at university – and advisor to the energy minister.

    “The position of women has changed: not just in terms of the law, but also mentalities. Saudi women want to work and have a career. Doors are open to them,” said the entrepreneur. In April 2016, the Vision 2030 reform plan was launched under the impetus of Mohammed bin Salman (known as “MBS”), the son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, now crown prince at the age of 37. Since then, Saudi society has been living at the pace of the changes brought about by the authorities to allow the kingdom to overcome its dependence on hydrocarbons and loosen the ultra-rigorous stranglehold of the Wahhabi clergy on society. Saudi women have been at the heart of these changes, engendering a mini-revolution in society.

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    ‘Changing attitudes’

    Gender diversity has been introduced into the public sphere. Women have been given the right to study, have a passport, travel and work without permission from a male guardian. Fairer laws have been introduced regarding one’s personal status and access to the labor market. Workplace harassment is now penalized.

    The crown has set an example by making room for women in the senior civil service. Two women have been appointed deputy ministers, and six have become ambassadors, including in Washington and Brussels. The culture ministry is the first administration to employ men and women equally.

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