Monday, 09 October 2017 12:48

Making sense of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Women driving, a street party in Riyadh’s main drag Tahlia Street, new forms of taxation and a relentless push towards modernisation and diversification of the economy are leaving external observers of Saudi Arabia as breathless as those trying to make sense of President Trump’s daily flurry of tweets.  

The reality is that the Kingdom is in a race against the clock to preserve its very existence.

The usual platitude of “tell me where the price of oil is going and I will tell you where the Saudi economy is going” gives a terrible forecast, which most people using this blithe statement have not grasped: unless the government and people of Saudi Arabia can make a success of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ plan – better known as Vision 2030 – we are facing the collapse of the Kingdom. The stark truth is that with current oil prices and oil price trends, the economy of the Kingdom is unsustainable.

For the last two decades I have been travelling to Saudi Arabia and there has been a comforting premise for the population that the country had hundreds of years’ worth of oil – and indeed it may do. The problem of course is that the world is going electric and the power it needs will come from nuclear, renewables and, in the case of North America, from domestic carbon sources.  That the world is going electric is challenge enough for the giants of the automotive industry as they face competition from Tesla, Dyson and Google.  But for the Saudis, as they are presently configured, it is a disaster.  

saudi oil wells

Give or take, the Saudi Government has needed oil to be at 80 dollars a barrel to break even – at 50 dollars a barrel and with an incredibly costly) war  against Yemen, this largely undiversified economy is under severe threat.  

To make matters worse, the country has a fast growing population with almost 45% under the age of 25. All these young people need jobs and with the economy growing at 0.1% it seems that unemployment currently pegged at anywhere between 11% and 25%, will get significantly worse.  

480px Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud2

If this picture seems bleak, there is hope. The Royal Family has made the very bold move of preparing the way for a young king. When his father passes on the reins to him, Mohamed Bin Salman will have the possibility of a long reign ahead and the chance of actually pushing forward the reforms the country needs.  Many of the issues facing the country – inclusion of women, entrepreneurship and diversification – are dealt with in the 2030 plan.  But these will bring disruptive and at times painful changes to society.

Saudi Arabia will need all its cohesiveness to weather these.  Very sensibly, by addressing the bug bears of the young – restrictive societal practices and the ban on women driving – the government is creating palpable levels of goodwill and social unity in this critical demographic group.  I assume that a calculation has been made that by winning over the young of the Kingdom there will be an overwhelming counterbalance to the conservative elements of Saudi Arabia who have, for so long, resisted change.  

My guess is that the Kingdom will make it. What is not always obvious to those in the West who, to my mind, are too quick to criticize Saudi Arabia is that the Kingdom, as a country and as a people, has a lot going for it.  Most notably, over and above oil it has considerable mineral wealth and the possibility to generate vast solar energy. 

But most misunderstood are the considerable talents of its people – women and men. Once their energy is harnessed, their skills developed and their economic framework liberalized, the prospects for the Kingdom actually look bright.  

But the government will need to keep firm on its plans.

Published in Leadership

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about how women are often held back in the workplace. Ms Sandberg’s words come from her experience in the USA, but they are just as applicable in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

As the Kingdom works to boost the number of women in the workforce, I interviewed a group of successful Saudi women for our report Roads to the top for Saudi Women. They talked about their own experiences and what had worked well.

CEW

A lack of women at the top is not a feature unique to KSA or Gulf states. The organisation Chief Executive Women published figures showing that only 30 per cent of executives at ASX200 companies are women and just seven per cent of FTSE 100 companies are led by women. Under-representation is a global problem. However, Saudi Vision 2030 gives us a measurable goal to aim towards.

What advice did the women we spoke to have for women looking to “lean in” and help their fellow ladies rise through the ranks?

1.      Support each other

Many of the women we spoke to talked about the responsibility they felt to pass on their success and encourage and support other women in the workplace – by backing other women, making sure they are properly heard and creating new opportunities for women in business and the public sector.

Organizations can create women-only spaces that allow more women to contribute. Amal Fatani, who wrote a blog for us with more detailed thoughts, headed a project to expand the women’s sections at the Ministry of Higher Education - from 20 ladies to 334. If possibilities for women do not exist, they cannot flourish so Amal’s example is important. Everyone should ask themselves “what am I doing to create more opportunities for women”.  

amplify

One woman talked about the example of the Obama administration, where women came up with a strategy to amplify their voice. When one woman made a comment or opinion, another woman would take that up and repeat the same point a few minutes later to make sure it was heard. Amplifying each other’s voices can be this simple – just reiterating what somebody else said in a meeting can have a powerful impact.

We all need to ask ourselves – “what am I doing to create new opportunities for women and how am I making sure that they are properly heard?”

2.      Look at the role models around you, and make sure you are a role model to others

Princess Banderi, was very clear about the effect that role models have had on her career aspirations, saying, “In my family, my mother is one of the strongest women I know. For her everything is possible, there is always a way to get to what you want or do what you want.”

There is no doubt that female members of the royal family have had a powerful influence as role models for women in the Kingdom. Queen Effat was mentioned numerous times, with one woman commenting, “When princesses started working, they broke a taboo. Families used to be reluctant to allow a woman to work because it looked as if they could not afford to live without her income. The princesses showed that work for women is as much about self-realisation.”

Strong role models are essential - to set an example for young men and women and to encourage daughters to think of more than just marriage. As one said, “Our vision is to have more women leaders to be role models. This will encourage more women into middle management and the top jobs.”

3.      The importance of finding and being a mentor

Many of the women we spoke to also talked about their experiences as either a mentor or a mentee, and why finding a mentor can be valuable.

One woman spoke of the guidance she received and how it helped her to reflect. She said, “I had a mentor… all along in my career in banking.  After he left banking, he told me my hard work and perseverance had got me where I was, but I needed to develop more skills, different skills to get to where I wanted to be. He said: stop shooting people between the eyes.  I am very direct, and I know what he means.”

Another talked about passing on advice and guidance to younger women, saying, “I think we lose track of how much we can do regarding mentoring. I believe that what younger women can benefit from is this kind of mentoring – speaking up and not being apologetic about what they ask for, about their rights and being more confident about their contribution.”

For women who struggle to find someone within their organisation, the Hadafi Women Entrepreneurship Program operates across the Middle East and provides mentors for female entrepreneurs. Other avenues are peer groups like the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce – which has a specific “Business Women” group to support women in their ambitions.

What next?

Women in Saudi Arabia are an essential part of the Kingdom’s future prosperity and achieving its Vision 2030 goals. This is recognized by the government and increasingly by employers as well.

Women can help shape their own future success. Supporting each other by creating new opportunities for other women and making sure female voices are heard are the foundations of shared success. Setting an example for the next generation as role models and working with mentors so that women continue to take up senior positions are key strategies.

Are there other systems that have been successful in encouraging Saudi women to “reach for the top”? Or businesses who are leading the way on female employment? Share your examples in the comments.

Published in Feminisation

Read more

To read more of Metin Mitchell’s insights on leadership, leave your email here:

Categories

Elsewhere online

Popular Posts

Recent Posts

Tweets