Saudi women leading tech in the kingdom

Their growing footprint in the tech world is the latest of many achievements

Elaf Alsalman walking a user through a virtual reality experience. Photo: PwC Middle East
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Over the past year, Saudi women have achieved many firsts.

Jood Al Harthi was the first woman to be appointed as political affairs officer at the Executive Office of the Secretary General of the UN in New York.

Saudi Arabia employed 34 women in senior positions at Makkah's Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah.

The first female recruits graduated from the Armed Forces Women's Cadre Training Centre last September.

Saudi Arabia hosted its first four-nation women’s international friendly football tournament.

And now Saudi women are moving into the tech sector, driving change as they work with AI and immersive technology such as metaverse and virtual reality.

“The progress in the industry has led to new and exciting opportunities for women in tech”, said Elaf Alsalman, a Lead 3D creative technologist at Emtech Lab at PwC Riyadh.

“Fields such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and cybersecurity are becoming increasingly accessible to women.”

Since his appointment in 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's sweeping reforms have allowed women to drive the kingdom's economy and play a key role in its move away from oil to embrace high-tech, creative and other specialised industries.

The Emtech lab team has a youth-driven culture, with creatives, developers and UX designers, working on core technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, AI, blockchain and robotics.

Ms Alsalman's work with young talent to support projects and proposals focuses on creating 3D modules for building prototypes that can solve industry problems and demonstrate the potential of new emerging technologies.

The Emtech Lab's research and development centre works with regional and global tech firms, start-ups and universities to create more localised experiences by creating rapid prototypes for various industries.

“Disruptive innovation is a critical goal for our lab, and for most start-ups appearing all over the kingdom”, Ms Alsalman said.

Women 'shining' in tech world

In January, the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, Ahmed Al Rajhi, said that Saudi women now comprise 37 per cent of the workforce in the kingdom.

In 2016, women accounted for only 17.7 per cent of the workforce.

In a report by Endeavor Insight, Saudi Arabia had a higher percentage of women working in tech start-up companies than Europe. In the third quarter of 2021, the participation of women in Saudi Arabia in the tech sector was recorded as 28 per cent, more than 10 per cent above the European average rate of 17.5 per cent.

The study also showed that Saudi Arabia has a higher percentage of women in tech start-ups than men.

These women are supported by a growing venture capital industry, attracted to the kingdom by a young consumer market and strong support for start-ups, said Hanaa Almoaibed, research fellow at King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies.

“And women who are willing to take the risk are shining.”

The empowerment of Saudi Arabian women is at the heart of the kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ reform programme with the stated aim of increasing women's participation in the job market from 22 per cent to 30 per cent.

“The landscape has shifted significantly, resulting in more women pursuing careers in the tech industry and an increased representation of women in leadership positions”, said Ms Alsalman.

As a result, the kingdom was able to issue 139,754 new commercial licences to women in 2021.

“Let's not forget that there are many barriers to women in tech across the globe and an enduring gender imbalance in Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths], but industry leaders are adamant that diversity will lead to better products”, Ms Almoaibed told The National.

“As this space opens up and we get to know more role models, the whole world will benefit from a more balanced approach to the role tech plays in our lives.”

After King Salman came to the throne, the government’s scholarships programme underwent further transformations to reflect the kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform agenda. Last year, Prince Mohammed launched a new strategy to restructure the kingdom’s scholarship programme for Saudi students studying abroad.

From providing Stem scholarships to launching technology-focused development programmes and government hackathons, the country has invested heavily in empowering female entrepreneurs and fostering a more diverse and inclusive tech industry.

“In tech, there is generous support for women entrepreneurs from various government entities. You'll see that many local companies, banks and MNCs [multinational corporations] are launching women in tech programmes across the kingdom”, said Ms Almoaibed.

“There is so much momentum.”

Last month, the kingdom hosted the largest tech event in the world, the Leap 2023 conference in Riyadh, where it announced that $24.7 billion would be spent on technology by 2025.

With the trajectory seen of the fast-paced sector of technology and the adoption of AI and the metaverse, this may only be the beginning for the kingdom, and for its women, and the possibilities for growth seem endless.

Updated: March 08, 2023, 2:56 AM