Commerce's Wilbur Ross sees a 'big sea change' in Saudi Arabia regarding women in business

  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says he saw signs that Saudi Arabia continues "liberalizing their society."
  • Ross was back in Washington Monday after joining President Trump in Saudi Arabia where a number of business deals were sealed.
  • Trump landed in Israel on Monday morning, the next stop on his first foreign trip since taking office.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC on Monday that he saw signs that Saudi Arabia continues "liberalizing their society" and relaxing some of the restrictions on women under the strict interpretation of Islamic law that rules the kingdom.

Ross, a billionaire who made his fortune investing in distressed assets, was back in Washington after joining President Donald Trump over the weekend in Saudi Arabia where a number of business deals were sealed, including a Saudi arms agreement that could end up being worth $350 billion over 10 years.

"At one of the sessions where a lot of contracts were awarded, there was also some panel discussions," Ross said on "Squawk Box."

"One of the panelists was the woman who is the head of the Saudi Arabian stock exchange," he said. "That's a very unusual event and to my knowledge the first time a woman has been the head of an exchange in that region and for sure the first time in Saudi."

Ross was referring to Sarah Al-Suhaimi, who was appointed in February as board chair of the Saudi Stock Exchange, also called the Tadawul. She is the chief executive officer of NCB Capital, the investment arm of Saudi banking giant National Commercial Bank.

The Commerce secretary took Al-Suhaimi's role in the business community there as a sign that Saudi Arabia was continuing to value women more than in the past. "Clearly there's a big sea change underway. There's no question that they're liberalizing their society," he argued.

President Trump on Sunday stayed away from scolding the kingdom on human rights, a practice by past American leaders that has chafed U.S. allies in the Mideast.

"America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens," Trump said in a speech in Riyadh. "We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all."

Despite his campaign rhetoric criticizing Islam, Trump offered a message of unity, and a call to the Arab world to confront extremists. "Drive them out. Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy lands. Drive them out of this Earth," he said.

Ross said the "excitement was totally palpable" among the Arab leaders in attendance. He said Trump's speech put the rest the notion that Muslim allies would not want to work with the administration on defeating radicalization.

Trump landed in Israel on Monday morning, the next stop on his first foreign trip since taking office. Over two days, the president is set to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

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