Saudi Arabia has announced that it plans to construct a women-only industrial city in the country’s Eastern province city of Hofuf. According to Saudi business paper Al Eqtisadiah, the city has been proposed by a group of Saudi businesswomen, represented by Hussa al-Aun, who told the paper, ‘The new industrial city should have a specialized training centre to help women develop their talents.’
The city is a proposed solution to an impasse in Saudi national life: women want more independence, and the economy needs their labour, but Saudi society is strictly segregated. The country is governed according to Sharia law, and one result is that women’s lives are highly controlled, to a greater degree than almost anywhere else in the world. Saudi women are, notoriously, forbidden to drive, but are also not legally permitted to travel alone with a man who is not their husband, or to pray at mosques without special female prayer sections. Women will vote in Saudi local elections for the first time in 2015, and the 2012 London Olympics were the first to feature female Saudi athletes.
Women are segregated at work, too: of the 15% of Saudi women who work, most work in female-only companies. Saudi Arabia regularly comes in for a drubbing from human rights groups for its repressive attitude toward women. However, the reason for the creation of the female employment enclave is likely to have relatively little to do with foreign pressure.
Hussa al-Aun continued her statement by saying that the special training centre should ‘train [women] to work in factories. This is essential to cut our graduate unemployment rate.’ The city in Hofuf is expected to create 5, 000 textiles, pharmaceuticals and food processing jobs – in other words, it will focus on secondary production and high added value manual work. In the process the development is expected to add 500 million riyals – about $133.3m – to the Saudi economy.
The building of the female-only city has come after government pressure to increase the female workforce, and the Deputy Director General of the Saudi Industrial Property Authority, Saleh al-Rasheed, told UPI that he was ‘sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suit their interests, nature and ability.’ Saudi Arabia’s female workforce employment rate languishes around the 15% mark, and a recent Gallup poll found that an increasing number of businesses were insisting that women be unmarried to qualify for employment.
In June, the country unsuccessfully attempted to persuade fellow OPEC members to allow a higher production ceiling. With a growth in oil revenue out of its government’s control, maybe Saudi Arabia is hoping to diversify its economy into industries suited to women’s abilities and natures, such as pharma and clothing production. It certainly looks that way; even before a brick of the new city has been laid, four more similar cities have been proposed.
In addition to providing an economic boost to Saudi Arabia – if each of the five such projects meet the target income proposed for the Hofuf development, the initiative will be worth $666m to the Saudi economy – the plan might provide a safety valve for a major social pressure in Saudi society. YouGov and Bayt.com carried out a poll in July 2012 which found that 65% of Saudi women who worked wanted to increase their financial independence through their careers. In a society that restricts women’s opportunities so drastically, employment of any sort is likely to ease the frustration of Saudi women – at least in the short term.
However, increasing education – leading to that pool of unemployed graduates that worries Ms. Al-Aun – together with internet access have contributed to Saudi women’s willingness to assert themselves that the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights calls ‘a game-changer.’ Without liberalization of Saudi society in other ways, the halfway house of women-only employment zones may turn out to be too small to accommodate the aspirations of the best-educated generation of Saudi women ever.