JEDDAH - A large portion of Saudi Arabia’s wealth is in the hands of its women, who are believed to be sitting on pure cash totaling $11.9 billion. Yet, their true potential has been undermined for many years.
Women constitute almost 45 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total population, and have a literacy rate of 79 percent.
However, only about 65 percent of them are employed and 78.3 percent of unemployed women are university graduates, recent reports said.
Saudi Arabia has the lowest national female labor participation rate (20.1 percent in 2009) compared to its peers, such as Qatar, UAE and Kuwait.
The government is the largest employer of women in the country and their exposure to the private sector is minimal (0.8 percent of total private sector employees).
Recognizing the large pool of human capital in women, the government built the King Abdullah Science and Technology University (KAUST), which was opened in September 2009 and became the country’s first co-educational university.
During 2005, the government announced plans to set up 17 technical colleges in different parts of the country that would offer various specializations in line with the needs of the job market and designed exclusively for women.
In 2007, the government also announced plans to set aside one-third of all government jobs for Saudi women. Saudi Arabia earmarked 25.5 percent of its budget for 2010 for education & training, up from 13 percent in 2009.
To promote entrepreneurship among Saudi women, the government created the King Abdul Aziz Women’s Charity Association’s Al-Barakah Loans Center that finances projects undertaken by low-income, divorced and widowed Saudi women.
The Saudi King also established The Centennial Fund (TCF) in 2005 to provide funding services to young entrepreneurs - so far, TCF has directed 26 percent of funding to projects run by women.
Many NGOs are also providing training programs for the recruitment and employment of women in Saudi Arabia.
For instance, the Abdul Latif Jameel (ALJ) Community Services Program has created more than 113,855 job opportunities for both men and women in Saudi Arabia since 2003.
Many local and foreign banks, such as National Commercial Bank (NCB), Riyad Bank, Saudi Hollandi Bank and BNP Paribas, have opened commercial ladies-only branches to tap the huge wealth in the hands of Saudi women.
Moreover, women-focused funds such as Al Jawharah Ladies Fund and TNI Dana Women’s Fund have also been launched to help manage women’s sleeping wealth.
In fact, women in the Middle East controlled 22 percent (or $0.7 trillion) of the region’s total assets under management (AUM) in 2009.
Consequently, the region ranked fifth among global regions in terms of AUM controlled by women.
Saudi Arabia can take cues from Malaysia, which has already implemented strategies for women’s empowerment that greatly aided the country’s economic development. Malaysian women’s participation in the workforce is fairly diversified.
Also, contrary to Saudi Arabia, the private sector in Malaysia is the largest employer of women.
Malaysia also ranks fifth globally in terms of the percentage of senior positions held by women in medium-to-large enterprises (MLEs).
Considering the significant human capital represented by Saudi women and the large pool of wealth in their hands, Saudi women could and should become a major growth driver for the country’s diversification policy, and reduce the Kingdom’s overdependence on oil.
By tapping into this large potential, the Saudi public and private sectors have a new tool through which to develop and grow social and economic policies that transcend generations.
While the government discovers news ways to engage this human capital, the financial services sector is doing its part to extract the considerable wealth lying idle and introduce it into the money supply.
The true potential lies in this development happening in parallel with positive growth in the mindset of the society.
Only then will the real impact of the Saudi woman seen. - SG