Saudi aims for bigger female role in economy

Hundreds of Saudi female investors will attend the October 4-5 conference in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia has invited local businesswomen for their first conference to discuss investment opportunities in the Gulf Kingdom within a drive to expand their role in the domestic economy, the local press has said.

Hundreds of Saudi female investors will attend the October 4-5 conference in Riyadh, to be sponsored by the Federation of Saudi Arabian Chambers of Commerce and Industry with the participation of the government.

It will be the first major gathering of Saudi businesswomen to be jointly sponsored by the public and private sector and patronized by a royal figure, Princess Saita bin Adbullah bin Abdul Aziz, the papers said.

"The conference will be entitled 'investment opportunities in the country's regions'...it will focus on investment opportunities for women and means to expand their participation in the economy," the Chambers said.

"Several investment opportunities will be presented during the conference so women can benefit from available business chance......it will also cover the role of the private and public sector in giving access for women to investment and business opportunities in the Kingdom."

The statement by the Chambers, carried in several Saudi newspapers, said women would have a chance to get acquainted with services provided by the Chambers and the government to promote domestic investment as well as available financing tools for projects sought by female investors.

Businesswomen in conservative Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter and largest Arab economy, have often complained about lack of investment opportunities and obstacles blocking female participation in the economy.

Some of them have accused the private and public sectors of bias and discrimination, saying businessmen get priority in most contracts.

According to the Chambers, businesses owned by Saudi women are far below their massive financial resources as a result of those obstacles. Saudi women have also blamed social barriers for their poor economic participation.

The Chambers' figures showed Saudi women control in excess of $10 billion (Dh37 billion) in domestic bank deposits while their operating projects and businesses account for only around 4.3 per cent of the total private sector firms.

"The Saudi Chambers is organizing this conference in line with the instructions by the Monarch to allow women to play a more active role in the domestic economy and ensure jobs for women," the statement said.

Besides the obstacles to female business, Saudi women are also suffering from high unemployment because of social curbs, preference of men for jobs, slow economic performance in some years and the absence of female business.

In a recent lecture, a well-known Saudi university scholar urged the Kingdom, which controls over a fifth of the world's proven oil deposits, to enact legislations to force the private sector to recruit national women to cut female unemployment and allow them to contribute to the domestic economy.

Dr Siham Al Issa, Scholarship Director at the Riyadh-based Princess Noura University, said society needs to be gradually prepared for a wider role by Saudi women and called for equal rights for men and women at work.

"We now need new policies and regulations to overcome the obstacles that are blocking Saudi female graduates from actively contributing to their economy and their society," she said in the lecture in Riyadh.

"We should adapt to the new changes....unemployment is high among Saudi women and I think it is time that we act to activate the woman's work in the private sector...this is a fundamental demand and we should work to remove all obstacles facing it by gradually educating the society about such realities."

Saudi Arabia has been reeling under high unemployment because of the rapid growth in its population and volatile oil prices. The joblessness rate was officially estimated at just above 10 per cent at the end of 2009, far lower than in other Gulf oil producers, mainly Kuwait, UAE and Qatar.

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