Despite a recent World Bank report saying that Saudi Arabia tops the list of countries for laws that limit women’s economic potential, Saudi women are optimistic that empowerment among them is growing.
The World Bank report notes that nearly 90 percent of the 143 countries surveyed have at least one law on the books that ban women from certain jobs, making independent decisions, opening a bank account or accessing money.
In Saudi Arabia, the era of being limited to work in certain job categories, such as schools and kitchens,  has jeopardized the earning prospects for many Saudi women.
Yet several Saudi businesswomen  have made it to the world’s most influential women’s list. They have also taken steps to own businesses and be part of the Kingdom’s highest legislative body — the Shoura Council.
In fact, Saudi women are one of the most economically powerful women in the Middle East.
According to a study by the Sayyida Khadija bint Khuwaylid Center of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, Saudi businesswomen possess bank savings worth more than SR45 billion and SR8 billion in investment funds. Moreover, women’s real estate investments amount to nearly SR120 billion. The report also notes that Saudi women own 40 percent of the family-run companies in the country.“King Abdullah has a strong desire to see women advance in Saudi Arabia,” said Fawzia Al-Bakr, Saudi academic and author, in a March interview with TIME magazine.
“He wants them to work, he has given them scholarships (to Western universities), and now, with the Shoura Council, he is tackling the most difficult issue in our society today: segregation. If you can get rid of segregation, then most of our problems will be solved,” said Al-Bakr.
Early this year, Newsweek magazine named Al-Bakr among 125 women to have significantly and visibly influenced their societies.In the steadfast campaign for social and economic change in the Kingdom, women are gradually progressing from merely dependent roles to superior positions.
“The businesses we have here for Saudi women are minor businesses,” said Rania Salama, chairperson of the Young Businesswomen Committee at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI).
“Maybe we need to think big to keep in line with international businesswomen. We need to help them be more competitive, to have a competitive advantage in their businesses and generate more creative ideas. We have so many clones of the same businesses; they are either abaya designers or cupcake makers,” said Salama, adding that women’s businesses have a few unique expertise.“At the Young Businesswomen Committee at the JCCI, we have witnessed some good examples of young and successful businesswomen who have taken the challenge and the initiative to start their own businesses in different fields,” Salama said. “So, there are successful stories but we have to work on helping them think in a different way and start taking risks.”
Salama added that if the thought process is altered, 100 abaya designers could merge their businesses together to form companies instead of just running small home-based businesses. “If they change the way they think about their businesses, they will be able to get funds from banks and help from other places,” Salama said.
In May, Saudi women’s rights activist Sohaila Zain Al-Abedeen Hammad was nominated for the medal of excellence for the most influential figure in the world by Waldenburg International College and the International Council for Human Rights, Arbitration, Political and Strategic Studies.
“We worked on a program called the Jeddah Entrepreneurs Meet, where we took a number of young businesswomen, trained them, provided them with funds and gave them internships to help them start their own businesses and expand,” said Salama. “We concentrated on the competitive advantage, so they can build a stronger business here.”
Salama indicated that there are many existing businesses that need to be developed and expanded. “We want to feel that they are strong businesses that can recruit more people and compete in the market.”
“Regarding reaching an international level, Saudi businesswomen have to go a long way to keep in line,” said Salama.In a recent report, Fahd Al-Tukhaifi, assistant undersecretary at the Ministry of Labor, emphasized the ministry’s plan to expand job opportunities for women to cut down unemployment among them. “The government decision aims at creating a suitable working atmosphere for Saudi women,” he said.