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Saudi Arabia sees a spike in women joining the workforce, Brookings study shows

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Key Points
  • The labor force participation rate for women in Saudi Arabia increased from 20% to 33% in two years, according to the Brookings Institution.
  • Women of all ages and varying education levels are joining the workforce at higher rates, but the report picked out two groups that saw the largest increases — Saudi women between the age of 40 and 54, and those with secondary education.
  • However, non-profit organization Human Rights Watch says Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go, with women's rights activists still in detention.
A Saudi female employee serves a customer at a hypermarket, newly launched by the operator LuLu and run by a team of women, in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah, on February 21, 2021.
Amer Hilabi | AFP | Getty Images

The number of Saudi women in the workforce has risen sharply in recent years, according to Brookings Institution.

In late 2018, around 20% of adult women held jobs or were actively looking for one. By the end of 2020, the female labor force participation rate stood at about 33%.

"That is to say that the share of Saudi women in the labor market expanded by an incredible 64 percent in just two years!" Brookings said in a blog post last week.

The authors of the post said there were no clear reasons for the "dramatic change" in Saudi Arabia, but that "one should not underestimate the potential impact of the many reforms that made it easier for women to work over the last few years."

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has spearheaded initiatives to change economic and societal rules as part of his Vision 2030 plan to diversify the country's economy.

One of the program's aims is to increase women's participation in the workforce to 30%, a goal that has now been achieved.

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Women take the wheel in Saudi Arabia

The ultra-conservative country lifted a long-standing driving ban for women in 2018, and the government ended gender segregation in restaurants in December 2019.

Brookings also pointed to changes in laws on guardianship, labor and family. Before recent reforms, women were not allowed to travel out of Saudi Arabia without a male guardian, and could be fired for pregnancy in some cases.

"It seems that these reforms are starting to pay off," the authors said.

Evolving Saudi jobs market

Women of all ages and varying education levels are joining the workforce at higher rates, but the report picked out two groups that saw the largest increases: Saudi women between the ages of 40 and 54, and those with secondary education.

There was an increase of more than 20 percentage points among women between 40 and 54 years of age. Meanwhile, 25% of women with secondary education are now in the labor force — up from 9% previously.

The Brookings blog post said that the inflow of Saudi women into the workforce did not result in more unemployment.

"What we observe in Saudi Arabia, is that many of these women joining the labor market are finding work quickly," said the authors Sofia Gomez Tamayo, Johannes Koettl, and Nayib Rivera.

Saudi women still require a male guardian's approval to marry, be released from prison or obtain certain sexual or reproductive health care.
Human Rights Watch

The employment rate of women has grown from 68% to 76% over those two years despite new entrants, they said.

"Maybe even more importantly, this increase in employment was not driven by the government hiring Saudi women," Brookings said. "It was genuine private-sector-led employment growth."

Public sector employment of Saudi women increased by 5% from the start of 2019 to the end of 2020.

In the private sector, female employment in the accommodation and food industries grew by 40%. The construction and manufacturing sectors saw more modest growth of 9% and 14%, respectively. The wholesale and retail trade hired 5% more women, the report said.

Criticism

While Saudi Arabia has implemented gender reforms in recent years, rights groups say women and girls still face discrimination.

In a February news release, Human Rights Watch noted that some prominent women's rights activists are still in detention and called recent reforms "incomplete."

"Saudi women still require a male guardian's approval to marry, be released from prison or obtain certain sexual or reproductive health care," the report said.

In its 2020 report, Amnesty International pointed to similar shortcomings.

"Women and girls continued to face discrimination in law and practice in relation to marriage, divorce and inheritance, and remained inadequately protected from sexual and other forms of violence," the rights group said.