By Hisham Al Sheikh
Comment: The dialogue is moving beyond “how do we get more women into the workforce”, and is becoming about how we resolve the challenges that lie ahead
In 1970, the literacy rate for women in Saudi Arabia was two percent. Today, women make up more than half of our university graduates. Such an advance would not have been possible without the wisdom and guidance of King Faisal Bin Ibn Abdul Aziz, whose rule saw the first schools for girls established and who championed the cause of female education throughout his reign. Without King Faisal, it is fair to say that women’s education would be very different in the Kingdom – as would the role of women in society.
Around the world in 2017, we see the benefits of this more enlightened approach to women’s education, with the number of women entering the workforce rising exponentially over the past few decades. From supermarket cashiers to Olympic athletes – women are enjoying more varied roles than ever before.
In KSA, change is also appearing. The head of the Saudi stock exchange – the largest in the MENA – is headed by a woman, as are a number of other key financial institutions in the country. The foundation that is tasked with building the Kingdom’s education system is also led by a woman, as are some of the most important NGOs that are helping to transform the country.
Giving greater employment opportunities to women will help us achieve the objectives of Saudi’s Vision 2030. Moreover, the government is committed to getting more women into the workforce. Our labour ministry is trying to create thousands of jobs for women by supporting remote working.
In KSA, we see the glass as half full. The engineers who work with our healthcare customers are women, some of our Avaya partners are led by women, and I have just closed a hiring contract to appoint a woman marketing manager. This is in line with our commitment to transform our business in the Kingdom to 25 percent Saudization by the end of 2017, and 50 percent by the end of 2018.
The dialogue is moving beyond “how do we get more women into the workforce”, and is becoming about how we resolve the challenges that lie ahead. How do we upskill generations of men and women to build an economy that is moving away from oil reliance? How do we, as private, public and NGO players plan for a transition of public sector services towards full Saudization? Who and when will kick off a nation-wide education strategy that transforms our education system and builds a generation that is ready for the future?
King Faisal famously declared: “Every responsible citizen and every individual in every Arab country should devote himself to the service of his country and his people to raise his country to the place it deserves among the nations of the world”. These words ring as true today as they did when he spoke them in 1963: it is not the sole responsibility of our leaders to change; it is up to all of us to play our part.
For my own small contribution, I want to hear from my colleagues, friends, family and any Saudi national who has an idea about how we can drive our Kingdom’s transformation. Let’s see how we, Saudis running multinational technology companies in the Kingdom or operating local businesses can give back to our country and help build a bright future. The road ahead is challenging, but it is also exciting as we all do our part to help carry the transformation flag.