Saudi Arabia struggles to employ its most-educated women

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Manar Saud graduated in May from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, with a master's degree in organizational leadership, paid for by a Saudi government scholarship. She came home to Riyadh eager to put her new skills to work, but after six months of looking for a job, she is still unemployed.

"It's really sad," said Saud, 27, sipping coffee in a Starbucks, a black scarf framing her face, with floral trim on her long black abaya robe. "You come back so well prepared and so eager. Then all of a sudden, there is a brick wall in your face."

Saud is part of a rising generation of young Saudi women caught between a government spending billions to educate and employ them, and a deeply conservative religious society that fiercely resists women in the workplace.

Although Saudi Arabia has vast oil riches, its per capita gross domestic product ranks only 40th in the world, and many here note that the national economy would be stronger if half the brainpower in the country was put to better use.

"Teach me. Invest in me. Let me work. I don't get it," Saud said. "My friends are all in the same situation. What's wrong here?"

Unemployment among Saudi women who want to work is 34 percent — almost five times as great as the 7 percent unemployment rate for men, according to government figures. Those unemployed women are disproportionately college-educated. Of Saudis receiving unemployment benefits, 86 percent are women, and 40 percent of those women have college degrees.

In a country where more than two-thirds of the population is younger than 30, thousands more college-educated women each year try to enter the workforce, and many of them are striking out.

"There are women out there desperate to find jobs," said Samar Fatany, a leading Saudi feminist author.

Fatany and other women interviewed in the capital and in Jiddah, the commercial hub on the Red Sea, said that young women are growing increasingly impatient with restrictions on their careers in a country that does not permit women to drive or vote.

Women have become increasingly aware of — and insistent about — their career possibilities because of King Abdullah's massive spending on college scholarships and efforts to create more jobs for Saudi women, Fatany said.

"Young women are not as isolated as before. They realize that they don't have to blindly follow what their fathers tell them," she said. "There is no turning back. We are in the process of modernizing Saudi Arabia."

Abdullah, under pressure to close the gap between an aging royal family and a young population clamoring for change, has been an advocate of women's education and employment.

Saudi Arabia had historically lagged behind its Persian Gulf neighbors in women's education, but in recent decades, it has sharply reduced female illiteracy, virtually eliminating it among women 15 to 24, according to the World Bank.

In the past 10 years, the number of universities in Saudi Arabia has more than doubled, from 16 to 33, including the world's largest women-only university, Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University in Riyadh, which opened last year. It has 37,000 students and a capacity of 60,000.

Abdullah also created a government-funded scholarship program that has sent thousands of Saudi women — including Saud — to foreign universities since 2005. About 145,000 Saudis, including 40,000 women, are studying on the scholarships this year in more than 30 countries.

The king created the scholarships after meeting in 2005 with then-President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch. Both leaders wanted to improve a relationship damaged by the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were Saudis.

The number of Saudis studying in the United States dropped to about 4,000 after the terrorist attacks. But that number has since skyrocketed, reaching 71,000 this fall, including 17,000 women.

"The vision is that these people will come back and fix our problems," said Fahad al-Fahad, a business consultant in Jiddah who specializes in labor issues. "But you have to find jobs for these educated women. They should be the elite of the society, but they are just sitting at home."

Job prospects for women are complicated by the kingdom's severely restrictive religious culture. Under Saudi Arabia's austere interpretation of Islam, it is considered a violation of God's will for unrelated men and women to mingle. The most devout Saudi men find it dishonorable for others to even know the name of their wife or mother. They oppose women working or leaving their homes unaccompanied by a male relative. They believe it is an Islamic duty to honor women and protect families by having women stay at home and not be distracted by outside employment.

"Women are like pearls," said one Saudi man. "We must protect them."

The Saudi royal family has a long history of making social reforms slowly and cautiously to avoid antagonizing the country's influential religious leaders. As a result, Saudi society is still segregated by gender to an astonishing degree. Women are rarely seen outside their homes without abayas and veils that cover everything but their eyes. They are not permitted to mingle with men to whom they are not related. Women need permission from a male relative to travel, get medical care and receive other basic government services.

Restaurants have separate entrances and eating areas — one for single men, one for families. Starbucks and other coffee shops have private sitting areas with tall walls to keep women from being seen by men. Shopping malls have women-only floors. Banks have side-by-side branches — one for women and one for men.

At Princess Nora University, the country's new showcase university for women, only female teachers are allowed in classrooms. Male professors teach by video link from a remote location; the students can see the professor, but he never sees them.

It is unusual to see a woman working in public anywhere other than shops, and even then mostly in shops that cater to women by selling clothing, lingerie or groceries. Many of those shops have signs banning men from entering unless accompanied by a female relative.

The segregation of the sexes is enforced by "religious police," bearded men who roam shopping malls and other public places to ensure that unmarried, unrelated men and women are not mingling.

Saudi women have typically also worked in fields such as medicine, nursing and teaching. Abdullah's government is trying to open more jobs for women, in some cases by urging employers to create gender-segregated work areas in factories and other businesses.

The government recently announced plans to lift a ban on female lawyers arguing cases in a courtroom. They are currently allowed to represent clients and offer legal advice, but not in court.

Officials acknowledge that change comes slowly in such a hard-line religious environment.

"It is not happening in as many numbers as we would like, but it is happening," said Labor Minister Adel Fakeih. "Women are working in the banking sector, in manufacturing, in training and development, human resources, in consulting."

Fakeih said his department was trying to create jobs that allow women to work from home so they can still manage children and household responsibilities.

"We want to open a whole new world for women, and at the same time will be in tune with our culture with how we'd like our families to continue to be," he said. "We don't want necessarily to copy a Western lifestyle."

Fakeih noted that some women don't have a "sense of urgency" to work, because under Islamic sharia law, men are required to be financially responsible for women. Even if a woman earns far more money than her husband, he is required to pay for her needs, he said.

"She can decide not to spend any of her money," Fakeih said. "She can just keep her money to go to Hawaii or something. That's the law."

Job opportunities for women are also limited by Saudi Arabia's two-tiered labor force.

The country has about 28 million people, and almost a third of them are foreign workers. As Saudi Arabia became rich with oil revenue, an economy emerged in which Saudis gravitated to good-paying, and often cushy, government jobs, while lower-paid foreigners were brought in to be the nation's cooks, barbers, shopkeepers, electricians and factory workers. About 90 percent of private-sector workers are foreigners.

Saudi officials realize they can't grow the government fast enough to employ the 300,000 or so young Saudis who enter the labor force each year. So they have begun an aggressive program to increase the number of Saudis in private businesses by offering incentives and penalties to private employers based on their number of Saudi employees.

Fakeih said that in the past year, the government's efforts resulted in more than 335,000 new private-sector jobs for Saudis. Only 15 percent of privately employed Saudis are women, but that number is rising, he said.

But for young women such as Saud, and her friend, Tahany Omar, who earned an MBA at Shenandoah University last year, that trend hasn't translated into jobs that match their skills.

Omar, 36, works in a poorly paid job at an insurance company, making less than she did before she got her MBA. "I have the experience, and I have the credentials," she said. "But I can't find a good job in my country."

Saud said she wants to use her master's degree to teach, preferably at the college level. She has applied for several jobs, but with no luck. So she sits at home, unemployed, growing increasingly disillusioned.

"It's a big disappointment," she said. "I'm hoping for a better future, but I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon."

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