Saudi Arabian women to drive economic growth from aviation to banking

More reforms in labour, education, on-job training needed to accelerate wide-ranging impact

Saudi women are seen at the first automotive showroom solely dedicated for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia January 11, 2018. REUTERS/Reem Baeshen     NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

When Wafaa Mukhtar saw the job advert for a Saudi female driver, she first thought it was a joke.

Realising it was a serious offer, Ms Mukhtar, 25, a Jeddah resident and banker, signed up immediately. By day, the micro-finance officer lends money to female entrepreneurs. By night, she’s training with Dubai-based ride-hailing company Careem to become a “Captinah”.

“In this day and age, the woman has to take on many roles because of the economy, life is changing, so why not take responsibility for household expenses?” she says. “Driving ladies around will make me happy; you meet new people, make new connections," ssays Ms Mukhtar, who lives with her parents but pays for her own upkeep.

A Saudi woman poses for a photo after having a driving lesson in Jeddah on March 7, 2018.
Saudi Arabia's historic decision in September 2017 to allow women to drive from June has been cheered inside the kingdom and abroad -- and comes after decades of resistance from female activists, many of whom were jailed for flouting the ban. / AFP PHOTO / Amer HILABI
A Saudi woman having a driving lesson in Jeddah. Amer Hilabi/AFP

The kingdom’s decision to overturn a ban on female motorists in June follows a target to increase women’s participation in the labour force from 22 per cent to 30 per cent over the next 12 years, a part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 plan to wean the economy off its oil dependence. Giving women driving licenses and better access into the workforce will improve mobility and unlock an underutilised resource: more women will work, thereby spurring productivity, incomes and economic growth. Engaging women will help tackle the problem of youth unemployment rate of 31 per cent, of which young women, are a staggering 58 per cent.

It will boost industries from car sales to entertainment, aviation to banking and retail, and reassure investors that Saudi’s push to diversify its economy and beef up the private sector. But analysts expect the initial boost to growth to be modest as more jobs need to be created and more nationals trained in skills required by employers.

“The policy is a positive development, increasingly women have been looking to join the workforce to support the household income, especially with the slowdown in economic activity,” says Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank.

Here’s a look at some of the sectors set to gain from increasing the number of women joining the workforce.


The kingdom is training women to work as air traffic controllers (ATC) for the first time. State-owned Saudi Air Navigation Services (Sans) selected 24 women this year for a one-year training programme to certify them for (ATC) jobs in Jeddah and Riyadh.

Sans, which currently has 600 controllers, will recruit 200 more in the next two years and female trainees who pass the course are guaranteed jobs, says Ryyan Tarabzoni, the Sans chief executive. “If you want to take the challenge, then take it to the next level: there’s nothing hindering us from that except training,” Mr Tarabzoni says. “Air traffic controllers require multi-tasking, communications and a good understanding of maths and science, which isn’t hard to find in women.”

Some 7,000 women applied for the first course, which began in March with 12 students. The next batch will start in the second half of the year. The programme provides courses in maths, science, English, air control and tower control combined with hands-on simulation training. Selection criteria include minimum of high school degree with good grades, knowledge of science and maths, proficiency in English and multi-tasking skills.

The next step to empower Saudi women in aviation should be training and hiring them for more technical jobs as engineers and pilots, Mr Tarabzoni says.

The General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), Saudi’s aviation regulator, is “keen” on hiring qualified local women and intends to “raise their participation levels” in many fields, says Fahad Alharbi, president of the Saudi Academy of Civil aviation. It is running an on-the-job training programme for women with the goal of appointing them in managerial roles at GACA.


Read more:

Women drivers to impact ride-hailing apps in Saudi Arabia

Empowering Saudi women can bring huge economic benefit

A new social, economic and political climate emerges in Saudi Arabia



Careem, whose riders in the kingdom are 70 per cent female, has selected 3,000 women to train as drivers or Captinahs.

The availability of female drivers will unlock a new clientele of women who previously did not use the app to avoid being in a car with a man because of social norms, says Abdulla Elyas, Careem co-founder and chief people officer.

“We’re opening a new customer segment which we couldn’t get before,” Mr Elyas says.

“What car-hailing offers is you are your own boss, you decide for yourself as a woman and a mother what’s the best time to stop the app or go for a booking and still contribute to your household and society,” he says. “This is super important to empower women.”

With an estimated 3 million Saudi women behind the wheel by 2020, car sales are expected to rise an average 9 per cent a year until 2025, car leasing to grow 4 per cent annually and the motor insurance market value to jump 9 per cent to reach 30 billion riyals (Dh29.38bn), according to a PwC report released in March.

Car sales are expected to accelerate 12 per cent to 825,000 vehicles this year alone, says Jeff Schuster, analyst at LMC Automative. Toyota and Hyundai, which dominate the kingdom's car market with more than 60 per cent share, will continue to benefit as women start to buy vehicles for themselves. Other brands such as Nissan, Renault, Ford and Chevrolet are set to gain as sales of smaller saloons are expected to rise 60 per cent this year and account for 40 per cent of the market by 2022, up from 35 per cent today.

Motor insurance companies have emerged as key beneficiaries with "strong capacity to grow", says Shadi Salman, vice president of research at Shuaa Capital.
"Given current valuations, we are most bullish on Tawuniya and Walaa, whilst Al Rajhi, Salama, AXA and Malath have had strong [share] rallies," Mr Salman says.

In addition, just a 10 per cent increase in driving activity as women hit the road will add 60,000 barrels a day to domestic petrol demand, energy consultancy Facts Global Energy says. This could be a boon for European refiners because Saudi is a net petrol importer and the world’s ninth largest consumer of the fuel.

Real Estate:

Nada Bundakji, a Saudi businesswoman, is gearing up for the September opening of a new company in Jeddah catering to an increasing appetite for property from female buyers. “We’re seeing a big trend in Saudi women looking to invest in local high-end real estate because there’s more financial literacy,” says Ms Bundakji, general manager of Saudi Gulf House Real Estate in Jeddah.

More than half of the top-tier property clientele are already Saudi women investors, businesswomen, or housewives with inherited funds, she says, adding that she expects that to increase.
"With factors such as education and women driving, I see a lot of single women and single moms eventually owning their own high-end luxury apartments and being more independent," Ms Bundakji says.

The company is considering offering luxury cars with developers to incentivise women to buy high-end property, she says.


Saudi Arabia is investing $64 billion to build an entertainment industry over the next decade in a bid to redirect leisure spending by residents, many of whom travel abroad extensively, back into the kingdom. Last year the General Entertainment Authority helped create 17,500 jobs and attracted 8 million people to events; by 2030 it aims to create more than 220,000 jobs.

(FILES) This file photo taken on October 20, 2017 shows Saudi women attending the "Short Film Competition 2" festival at King Fahad Culture Center in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia on Monday announced a lifting of the kingdom's decades-long ban on cinemas, a landmark decision part of a series of social reforms ushered in by the powerful crown prince.
Saudi women attending the "Short Film Competition 2" festival at King Fahad Culture Center in Riyadh.Saudi Arabia this year lifted the kingdom's decades-long ban on cinemas. Fayez Nureldine

Workforce Saudia (WFS), a recruitment agency planning to increase the number of Saudi female hires, sees great potential for women to work in the entertainment industry, especially after the kingdom recently lifted a 30-year ban on cinemas. “You’ll see client-facing Saudi women taking orders for tickets and popcorn,” says Neal Carley, managing director of Saudi Gulf Intertrade that operates under the same umbrella as WFS.

WFS currently has 1,500 women employed and has plans to expand that by 25 per cent in 2019.

“We communicate with our clients and drive the number of Saudi women in the workplace and train them, there’s a lot of them available and eager to work,” Mr Carley says.


Saudi women have made progress in the retail sector particularly, where they already hold more than 200,000 jobs, according to the Ministry of Labour.

“We’re hiring female sales executives for retail,” Mr Carley says. “Having women in client-facing roles is important for female buyers.”

Saudi Arabia's annual retail sales is forecast to grow to $141.5bn by 2021, up from $110bn in 2016, according to an Alpen Capital report.
"The retail sector is one sector where women can do extremely well," says Nasser Saidi, consultant and former chief economist of Dubai's DIFC. "One of the key areas of job creation is where you see Saudisation and that's in retail." In addition, he says, the digital revolution will help women enter the workforce. The digital economy, including e-commerce, is one area that favours women with freedom to work from home and flexible hours, Mr Saidi points out.

Women will also excel in hospitality and tourism, two sectors that the Crown Prince is pushing to expand under the National Transformation Plan, analysts say.

“Tourism and entertainment will be big and these are sectors that favour women,” Mr Saidi says. “If that opens up we’re talking about a wide range of occupations for women.”


In the male-dominated banking and finance sector, the kingdom has already appointed women to top positions, increasing their participation in the private sector. In January, Emirates NBD Capital, the investment unit of Dubai’s biggest bank, hired Mona Al Tawil as chief executive for its Saudi unit. Last year, Sarah al Suhaimi, chief executive of NCB Capital, became the first female chair of the region’s biggest stock exchange Tadawul. Citigroup, meanwhile, hired Carmen Haddad to lead its banking operations in the Saudi Arabia and Riyadh-based Samba Financial Group named Rania Nashar as chief executive.

Economic empowerment: The facts

* About 16 per cent of Arab women are unemployed compared to the global average of 6 per cent

* Saudi Arabia ranks 142 out of 144  for women’s economic participation and opportunity

* 2017 third-quarter unemployment level for Saudi nationals stands at 12.8 per cent
* 2017 third-quarter unemployment among Saudi women dipped to 32.7 per cent from 33.1 per cent in second quarter
* 2017 third-quarter unemployment rate among Saudi men unchanged at 7.4 per cent from Q2

* Saudi Arabia targets increasing number of women in top positions to 5 per cent from 1.27 per cent  by 2020

* Kingdom targets increasing number of women in civil service to 42% from 39.8% by 2020

Sources: Saudi Arabia's National Transformation Plan, World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap 2017 report, U.N.'s International Labour Organization 2018 report, Riyadh-based General Authority for Statistics