Opinion: Saudi women entrepreneurs are agents of change

Vision 2030 is introducing women to new levels of leadership and economic empowerment, writes Saudi sociologist Dr. Mona S. AlMunajjed.
Women, Equality, Empowerment, Business, Dr Mona S. AlMunajjed, Saudi Arabia, Middle East, Entrepreneurship

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The Saudi Ministry of Labour and Social Development announced 68 new initiatives in November to stimulate Saudisation in Saudi Arabia.

A few days ago, I tasted a delicious cupcake in Cake & Co, a trendy bakery in Riyadh owned by Nawal, a young Saudi woman whose passion for baking drove her to set up a business in 2014, offering custom-made cakes and cookies. Overseeing every aspect of the business, from decorating cakes to managing a team of seven and doing the accounts, she is the very model of the new successful Saudi women entrepreneurs who are revitalising and boosting the Saudi economy.

Today, entrepreneurship is a globally acclaimed innovation process that mobilises people and resources. It is crucial to economic development and a key factor for growth and expansion. And for women, it is a powerful tool of empowerment, offering flexible arrangements that enable them to balance work and family responsibilities.

My motto has always been that women’s economic empowerment contributes to the country’s economic development and to job creation, a necessity in Saudi Arabia, where although Saudi women’s participation in the labour market has reached 19.5 percent, the female unemployment rate is 30.9 percent (2018).

There is a large pool of dynamic Saudi women with the talents to run their own businesses. Providing women with the right education and opportunities will enable the country to use this massive resource and make entrepreneurship an impetus for prosperity.

When I worked for the United Nations, I ran training programmes for young women in Saudi Arabia designed to help them to set up and run their own businesses. I remember well the motivation and determination of the women on my courses.

They ended up starting their own businesses and succeeded; making a difference not only to their own lives but also to their families and their community.

Female entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia are now establishing and managing more SMEs than ever before. Saudi women account for 39 percent of the total number of entrepreneurs in the kingdom, up 35 percent over the past 10 years, according to official statistics presented for World Entrepreneurship Day 2017.  They are free to start their own business without the permission of a male guardian, and the number of commercial registers held in the name of Saudi businesswomen reached 98,853 in July 2018. They are mainly in the services sector, operating in small businesses such as fashion, interior design, jewellery, cosmetics, clothing, art, and other professional services in the fields of education, event management, exhibition organisation, public relations and marketing. Other areas include commerce, ICT, real estate, tourism, the restaurant business and manufacturing.

Women’s participation in the labour market is a top priority in the kingdom’s national development plan, and many national and private initiatives are taking place. The Saudi government’s Vision 2030 aims for bold economic reform, replacing the traditional reliance on oil with the creation of a dynamic private sector generating jobs for the young population. It focuses not only on developing an education system in line with the market, but also on boosting SMEs as vital agents of economic development.

The newly established SME Authority has been revved up with a new strategy, an up-to-date Kafala loan guarantee programme, and a law to reduce the administrative burden on smaller companies. These measures will help to increase employment by facilitating access to funding, introducing business-friendly regulations, providing specialised training institutions, and encouraging venture capital funding, all of which will help young entrepreneurs to market their ideas and products and export them through e-commerce and international partnerships. The goal is to encourage Saudi financial institutions to allocate up to 20 percent of overall funding to SMEs by 2030.

MISK, The Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Foundation, promotes entrepreneurship to young Saudi men and women. In cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, MISK launched the Grand Challenge initiative of $10m for the empowerment and motivation of young Saudis to bring change for a better community. $100,000 will be awarded to each of the 100 young innovators selected to find innovative solutions to crucial global challenges.

Women now make up more than 20 percent of all new hires at Saudi Aramco, and the company promotes through Wae’d – its entrepreneurship arm, the empowerment of young Saudi men and women. Aramco seeks to spread entrepreneurial awareness among 1 million young Saudis through entrepreneurship clubs and university roadshows. It promotes a culture of technology-based entrepreneurship by extending funds and business development aid to more than 50 technology pilots.

The non-profit Centennial Fund helps young women with financial loans for their projects in their cities and villages. The Badir Programme for Technology Incubators, an initiative from King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology, promotes an entrepreneurial culture through workshops and training programs for women university students. With the Human Resources Development Fund, it has launched the 9/10ths Startup Accelerator Programme, which develops early stage young entrepreneurs into potential high-flyers.

Effat University established the Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship Research Centre and launched a plan to educate and train young Saudi women in entrepreneurship development. Dar Al Hekma University offers new programmes and scholarships to develop women’s capabilities, and courses to encourage their participation in entrepreneurship and develop their entrepreneurial skills. Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University launched Mehwar, a support programme for women entrepreneurs, endorsing their projects and enhancing their skills through an innovation academy. And recently, the King Salman Institute for Entrepreneurship was launched on the Women’s Campus of King Saud University in Riyadh.

But is this enough? According to the 2015 Female Entrepreneurship Index, the top three countries for female entrepreneurs are the US, Australia and the UK, with Saudi Arabia ranking 49th out of 77. Saudi women entrepreneurs still face many challenges, and cultural and social barriers continue to hinder women from joining the labour market. Reforms should continue to reduce the structural barriers to female employment, creating innovative opportunities, providing increased SME finance along with developed debt markets and upgraded financial access for women, and taking actions through strategic policies.

Training programmes should promote and support entrepreneurship for women, developing their skills in management, accounting, customer care negotiation and team building. And equally importantly, they need to learn how to gain confidence to build their business, be willing to take risks, access knowledge, and even be aggressive in getting funding.

Vision 2030 is introducing women to new levels of leadership and economic empowerment. With further support and a more flexible environment favouring entrepreneurship, Saudi women will be able to enjoy, like Nawal, the taste of success and become the new agents of change and development the country needs.

Dr Mona AlMunajjed is an award-winning sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues.

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