On the first floor of the upscale, Riyadh Park shopping mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, customers in black abayas mill around Victoria’s Secret, examining colorful panties and bras. There are no scantily clad mannequins in the window — instead, they’re dressed in modest pajamas.
Jihan, a salesclerk, gets ready to start her shift. She's an English major by day, and in the evenings, she works here. She has been on the job for a year now, and she likes it.
Jihan, who asked that her full name not be used, says that until a few years ago, women salesclerks in this country were unheard of. Even lingerie shops had all-male, mostly foreign workers.
At the Riyadh mall, it's evident that work culture is evolving in Saudi Arabia. Today, more young people — especially women — are doing nontraditional jobs once eschewed by the kingdom’s residents.
In the past, Saudi women were prohibited from the workplace, by law, and family traditions — and that has held the economy back. The Saudi government hopes that having more women in the workforce will tackle the youth unemployment rate, which hovers at around 31 percent, overall, of which more than half are women, according to The National, an English-language news outlet that covers the Middle East.
"Giving women driving licenses and better access into the workforce will improve mobility and unlock an underutilised resource: more women will work, thereby spurring productivity, incomes and economic growth," The National report says.
"The majority of unemployed youth in Saudi Arabia are women. The idea now is that we can have more of a thriving economy by investing in the potential of women who are actually outnumbering men in education."
"The majority of unemployed youth in Saudi Arabia are women. The idea now is that we can have more of a thriving economy by investing in the potential of women who are actually outnumbering men in education," said Hala al-Dosari, a scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University's law school in New York.
At the Riyadh mall, several women say working outside the home has transformed their lives. It has given them a degree of independence, the opportunity to be present in public, interact with customers and earn an income. But others maintain that change is slow, and gender equality still has a long way to go.
For starters, Saudi women have only been allowed to drive since last June. And while it has enabled some women to get to work or even take on jobs that involve lots of driving, women are still a minority on the road.
"The rules and regulations are the same regarding women's basic rights. Not a single thing has changed except for driving and entertainment."
Nasreen Alissa, a Saudi lawyer who created the Know Your Rights app to help women navigate these policy changes, told NBC, an American network, “All the changes that we are hearing about are economic and entertainment changes," adding, "The rules and regulations are the same regarding women's basic rights. Not a single thing has changed except for driving and entertainment."
For women like Jihan at Victoria’s Secret, the turning point came when Reem Asaad, a banker and academic, began what was called the Lingerie Campaign. Asaad, who felt more comfortable buying her lingerie abroad, wanted to see more women in sales positions. The campaign, which began with a Facebook post and expanded to include training for women, took off. In 2011, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud issued a royal decree requiring lingerie stores to be staffed by women.
Watch an interview with Asaad, named in 2012 as one of Saudi Arabia's most powerful women:
A year later, in 2012, the kingdom relaxed its laws that required women to get permission from a male guardian to work outside the home. Four types of work were now exempt — including sales representatives, chefs and amusement-park attendants.
Asaad estimates that between 50,000 and 60,000 women work in the retail sector in the kingdom.
Those changes have yet to be fully embraced by the masses, however.
Jihan says even though she didn’t need her father’s permission to work at Victoria’s Secret, he was still skeptical. Two weeks after she started her job, her father showed up at the store asking if any men worked there and wanting to know if things were “comfortable.” Jihan assured him that everything was fine — all of her colleagues are women, even her boss. Eventually, he was convinced.
Her mom also works in sales for a clothing store. It's satisfying, she says, getting out of the house and making a living. "This job has given me confidence, and I feel I am a stronger person. Now, I don't have to rely on my father for money."
"Ladies used to stay at home only, but now they can work and live their life."
Another sales representative at Victoria's Secret, Rasha Shayeen, 20, has been on the job for almost a year, earning up to $900 a month. She likes the financial security, and freedom. "It's great that women can work in these jobs now. I like being a working woman because I feel more responsible," she said, adding, "Ladies used to stay at home only, but now they can work and live their life."
Upstairs from the Victoria's Secret store, Hessa, 25, who also didn’t want her full name used, works at the Let’s Popcorn store. She's been there for a couple of months. She lives with her parents (it's not uncommon for children here to live with their parents until they get married) and says her family provides her with the basics — like lodging and food.
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But everything else, including money for clothes or eating out, she pays for herself. And this job gives her a chance to do that.
"I’m comfortable here. I actually love my job."
Hessa says that if given a choice, she would stay put. "I’m comfortable here," she said. "I actually love my job."
It helps that she loves popcorn, too. She's glad that "Now, Saudi women can work, and no one can stop them, not even their family." She doesn't yet have a family of her own, but she says when she does, she wants them to be educated and work in any field they like.
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Kingdom with a vision
In his Vision 2030, the blueprint for advancing Saudi society in the next decade, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud says that one of his goals is to “increase women’s participation in the workforce from 23 percent to 30 percent.”
World Bank data from 2017, however, estimates female participation in the Saudi workforce to be closer to 16 percent, while women make up about 43 percent of the kingdom’s population, according to 2016 information. (For comparison, the percentage of women in the workforce in the Arab world is 20.5 percent, according to World Bank data. In the United States, it is 45.8 percent.) Women are expected to fill positions mostly in the retail and services sectors or to start their own small businesses — since they no longer need a male guardian's permission to do so.
Also, as part of the plan, which he unveiled in 2016, the 33-year-old crown prince, often referred to as MBS, wants to steer the kingdom away from oil. “We will not allow our country ever to be at the mercy of a commodity price volatility or external markets,” he says in his foreword for Vision 2030, referring to the country’s historic reliance on oil.
In its early days, Saudi Arabia’s economy relied on income from trade as well as pilgrims who came to visit Islam’s two holiest sites — Mecca and Medina.
The kingdom's longtime "addiction" to oil, as MBS put it, dates back to the 1930s — when drillers from the Standard Oil Company of California, today’s Chevron, struck oil in the eastern city of Dammam.
“The economy became lopsided. The government was making a lot of money from oil, and they were using that both to develop their country, but they were also employing a lot of people.”
“It completely transformed not just the Saudi economy, but the Saudi society,” said Ellen R. Wald, president of Transversal Consulting and author of “Saudi, Inc.,” a book about the history of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. “The economy became lopsided. The government was making a lot of money from oil, and they were using that both to develop their country, but they were also employing a lot of people.”
Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says the government also subsidized resources like electricity, water and fuel. “And what this has done in terms of economic development is that it has created disincentive to grow the other parts of the economy,” Young said.
Cushy, civil sector jobs became plentiful. For the jobs that weren't appealing to Saudis, like service jobs, they relied on cheap, foreign labor. “And so, by asking foreigners to come in and do lower-wage, menial work, Saudis haven't had to do that kind of work,” Young added.
But the problem with oil is that there’s only so much of it. And markets are unreliable.
In recent years, the Saudi population has grown, and it costs the government more to provide the same level of assistance. At the same time, countries like the US have begun oil production of their own, and there has also been a gradual shift toward using renewable energies.
“So, the government took the step to say, ‘OK, we're going to reduce subsidies, especially on electricity, water and fuel, and we’re also going to implement a value-added tax of 5 percent tax on everything you buy.’ And so, this has been a real shift in the way that we think about the relationship between citizen and that state — what’s expected and what you get in return,” explained Young.
Will it work?
Whether these shifts will work remains to be seen. Repeated requests from The World to speak with officials at the Ministry of Labor in Saudi Arabia went unanswered. Several Saudi economics and labor experts declined interview requests, as well.
According to Bloomberg, the International Monetary Fund recently “cut its forecast for Saudi Arabia's economic growth in 2019 to 1.8 percent, well under the 2.4 percent it initially anticipated, and lower than 2018.”
Meanwhile, the Saudi government has rolled out the so-called Saudization program, which requires companies to employ Saudis instead of foreign workers. Last August, the Ministry of Labor announced it will deploy inspectors to follow up on the policy’s implementation. The government has also imposed taxes on foreign workers and their dependents who live in the kingdom.
That seems to have backfired.
According to the Saudi Gazette, “latest figures show that while more than 700,000 expats have left the country in a little more than a year, Saudi unemployment figures actually rose to 12.9 percent in the first quarter of this year.”
Additionally, the government cut back on energy and gasoline subsidies.
“I think [the Saudis] have realized that yes, they need to make these changes and they need to make them sooner rather than later, but if they make them all at the same time it could have such a negative effect on the economy — that their economy really slows down.”
Wald thinks rolling out major changes all at once is the trick. “I think [the Saudis] have realized that yes, they need to make these changes and they need to make them sooner rather than later, but if they make them all at the same time it could have such a negative effect on the economy — that their economy really slows down,” she said.
Jane Kinninmont, who has researched the Saudi economy and politics for the last 15 years, says she’s seen this scenario before. “Saudi Arabia has been talking about diversification for four decades, at least,” she said. “But it’s often run into difficulties because moving away from that traditional role of the state as provider has political implication. This is a very, very hard cultural shift to make and a very hard economic shift to make.”
Yet, on the streets of Riyadh, it seems that some younger Saudis are slowly embracing jobs their parents shunned.
“People still feel more safe when they get a government job, but there are not as many government job opportunities like before.”
“I think the circumstances are changing,” said Asir, a 32-year-old barista at Nabt Fenjan Coffee shop in Riyadh. Asir didn't want to share his name because he feared a backlash from the government. “People still feel more safe when they get a government job, but there are not as many government job opportunities like before.”
And at Victoria's Secret, Jihan is already thinking about her next steps. She's seeing more and more Saudi women entrepreneurs — and she's got a mind to start her own business, too.
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Editor's note: The Saudi government requires visiting reporters to be accompanied by a government minder at all times.