Metin Mitchell

Metin Mitchell

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 goals aim to increase the number of women in the workforce to 30 per cent. All areas of government have been tasked with delivering the strategy, and plans include many ambitious projects such as the scheme to turn a number of Saudi islands into a luxury tourist report.

The Shura Council now includes 30 women members, women’s education has been expanded  and the government is relaxing rules that had previously made it more difficult to hire women – for example, relaxing the driving ban for women. Incidentally the rule change is predicted to save billions of dollars and boost related industries such as car manufacturing.

The women I spoke to for our report, Roads to the Top for Saudi Women, are optimistic for the future and proud of the progress that has been made. But they also had a number of suggestions as to what else the government can do to improve the number of women in the Saudi workforce.

Why the targets are important

The National Transformation Program 2030 outlines future workforce skills and targets to increase the number of women in key sectors.

Each department has targets it must meet and public sector leaders are accountable if these targets are missed. The civil service for example is required to have at least a 42 per cent female workforce with at least five per cent of female senior leaders. Amal Fatani talked about how this has improved female representation, saying, “If you go to a Ministry, if you go to a Sports Commission….look for women.  Women are making a statement. In the health careers you have had women in every single position going up the ladder.”

But she also acknowledged that there is more work to do in the private sector, adding, “Now we have ventured into business because the environment wasn’t ready for women, there was limited jobs, they weren’t very comfortable with the mixed environment in the private sector.” How do we get the private sector to engage with the Vision 2030 gender vision?

Saudization

Government policies can help Saudi women into the workforce.  Saudization requires companies and organizations to employ local Saudi people. It has forced employers to rethink hiring policies and one woman I spoke to was clear about the impact, saying, “Companies could not figure out how to get enough men, so they hired women in junior and back-office positions because they had to deliver Saudization – and then realized the women are doing very well and better than Saudi men in many cases.”

Saudization has provided a “foot in the door” for a lot of women. It is an example of government proactively engaging to encourage more women into the workforce and should help to deliver on the Vision 2030 gender goals.

But what more could be done to help women enter the workforce and help them thrive? Here are two suggestions from those women we spoke to for our report.

1.      Childcare

childcareIn order to take advantages of these new opportunities, women need better childcare facilities. One woman said “we need day care facilities at centres where they [women] can entrust children for short periods, not leaving them with untrained or unqualified help.”

Other governments make it easy for women to go back to work by subsidizing childcare. In the UK, families are offered 30 hours of free childcare per week. Australia offers 15 hours per week  while Italy offers 40 hours. Countries such as Chile and Japan provide help to disadvantaged families.

These offers are part of a trend as countries increasingly recognize the economic advantage of subsidized childcare. The IPPR think tank sums up the argument in favour with a report arguing that universal childcare for preschoolers provides a large return to the state in terms of tax revenue for every woman returning to full time employment.

How could a system like this be implemented in Saudi Arabia and what would it look like?

2.      Restricting gender bias in recruitment

Preventing gender bias in recruitment practices was a suggestion offered by women we spoke to. Hala Kudwah said, “I would like to see that any position being offered is gender-agnostic, and anyone who is qualified can get it.” How could this be achieved in Saudi Arabia?

Other countries have introduced laws that specifically ban gender discrimination or have written it into their constitutions. The UK has the Equality Act, the US has the Civil Rights Act and in South Africa, the constitution commits the state to gender equality and prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

There is still a lot of debate around the world about how best to encourage more women into leadership positions, with some countries more successful than others. In the US for example, 19 per cent of board members are women while in Japan the figure is just three per cent.

Norway stands out with 35 per cent of board positions being held by a woman, thanks in part to a quota system that requires between 35 percent and 40 percent of board members to be female – with fines or company closures for those who don’t comply. This may seem a drastic step but other countries seem to be following the example – India introduced a quota in 2013 and France Spain and Italy all have similar systems.

Measures to tackle underlying bias in recruitment are possible and doing so could help improve the number of women being recruited. What would the Saudi system look like and how would it be enforced?

Being ambitious

The OECD is clear that there is a strong economic case for improving gender equality, especially in the workforce, and Saudi Arabia is ambitious about improving the numbers of working women. So, it is thrilling to see women stepping up and taking advantage of new opportunities that are helping to strengthen their country’s economy. The government’s commitment to education has produced a pool of talented women and Vision 2030 targets are proving a powerful driver for change. Saudization is making a real difference in opening up new roles – sometimes for the first time.

I am confident that Saudi Arabia can achieve even greater success. An expanded childcare programme would transform women’s ability to pursue a career and thought could be given on how to tackle gender discrimination in the workplace in a way that works for Saudi society. Doing so can only strengthen the economy and will be good for business throughout the Kingdom.

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.

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.

Over recent months I have been honoured to interview leading Saudi women for our report, Roads to the Top for Saudi Women. 

There were so many insights from these inspirational women, I am delighted that Dr Amal Fatani has allowed us to share wider views from her interview than we could include in the report.

Associate Professor at the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology at King Saud University, Dr Fatani was a pioneer in pharmacy in the Kingdom, is a leading academic in this field and has held influential roles at the Ministry of Higher Education, in the private sector as Consultant & Head of All Women Business Process & IT Services Center, as well as Board Member of Council of Saudi Human Rights Commission and lately Board Member at King AbdulAziz and his Companions Foundation  for Giftedness & Creativity. 

Metin Mitchell (MM): Your career is full of firsts. Can you tell me about some of these?

Dr Amal Fatani (AF):  I was privileged to be part of our country in the 1980s when Saudi was building itself. I started off my career in an experiment, the first pharmacy program for girls in the Kingdom. Fast forward and I was the first person in my Master’s and then went to the UK to do my PhD. At that time it was difficult for women to get scholarships so I took leave without pay for three years and literally, rather than spend money on clothes and bags, spent it on my career.

Once I started that first journey in pharmacy, it was very logical to be the first in everything – so I was one of the first people to head the department.  I was the first Vice Dean of the college and then selected to be the first Dean of nine scientific and medical colleges in KSU.

When I went to the Ministry of Higher Education, I became the first woman to set up women sections in the different sectors in the Ministry.  It started with 20 ladies and I left the ministry with 334 ladies, who were taking care of the 40% women in all the scholarship programs – the largest in history and the world.  I think we had 200,000 men and women scholarship recipients studying in more than 50 countries around the globe. My office was responsible for the women (40%), as well as the 55% females studying  in Saudi Universities.

We were responsible for supporting all the leaders in every single university female section in the Kingdom.  We brought them over to the ministries, we went and visited them, we made sure they had everything, we visited the different attachés around the globe. 

MM:  What was the driver in all this – was it family or something inside you?

AF: Both.  I had a very supportive husband, mother and father and I am a very ambitious person myself. There have been obstacles but there is always that push forward from within.

My family and my husband's family have a long history of being pioneers in healthcare, education & business.

MM:  How have you combined family life with working?

AF: I got married at 17½ and so I did everything with my kids and husband - from my Bachelor’s and Master’s to my PhD.   When I was in the UK, it was a good chance for my kids, who were aged between 3 and 15, to experience self-dependency because I would leave at 7am and come back at 7pm, though I did have some help.

My husband is very supportive.  He was with me in the UK, studying for his degree but there were times he had to come back to Saudi for work - he knew he could depend on me.  If you do not have the support within your family it is very difficult to go forward.  I have never been stopped from doing anything I wanted to do as long as I put my head to it – I was actually encouraged. 

MM:  What did the experience of the UK give you in terms of your career?

AF: The British have this concept of throwing you in the sea and if you swim, you are OK.  It taught me self-reliance.  I came from an environment that supported us 100%, especially because I was in the first batch in our studies, everyone made it as easy as they could.  In the UK nobody helps you at all and you have to come up with your ideas, you have to buy your own things.  It was a challenge to me and I learnt a lot.

Dr Amal D 2

MM:  Are there differences in the way men and women manage in the Kingdom?

AF: It is the difference in personality between men and women.  Men are very good at certain levels of decision making and taking quick actions.  Women are better at meticulous, step-wise approaches.  If you come and ask a man: you can take this job and it is CEO level or CxO level, he will immediately say yes, even if only he has 20% of the knowledge.  With a lady she will say: I am sorry, I need to learn and then I’ll do it.  They are very meticulous about what they say and do.

For example in the All Women Center in 2015 they had 400 ladies and by 2016 they were 1000 with 80% fresh graduates, which is even more difficult because they are millennials. They are excited, they think the world is their oyster so you have to manage their expectations in the right way and support them. I was supported in my career, now I need to give that back.

MM: You have seen different parts of the world.  Do you think there are particular strengths as a woman in Saudi society that help you to manage better as a woman, than counterparts in the West?

AF: Our nature of travel – we are migratory by nature, whether going to Jeddah, to Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, Egypt or further afield to Europe, America, Far East.  I think Saudis are very open-minded, they read a lot, they travel, social media, the ease of reaching information – especially this new generation now.  They are much smarter than people take them for, especially in the West when they see your abaya. If you are covering your face it is even worse.  They think that your mind is covered if your body is covered and they cannot differentiate.  So I have ladies that stand in front of the best, whether it is scientific symposia or in the business world, who will speak extremely proudly about what they are doing, with their face covered, and I am proud of that.

The second thing that gives us strength is that we have gone through a lot – difficult periods of political instability around us, oil up and down. Women in Saudi Arabia take care of the house, the kids, their parents; they have a very heavy social life that is a must, it is part of our culture.  They usually work and all of this is combined, it is the norm.  We have to get into more volunteering with the NGOs – we have more than 1000 NGOs in the country.  There is this feeling that you have to give back to society which is extremely strong.  Everybody is into some sort of support system.  All this has helped us become more holistic in our approach.

MM:  You mentioned challenges – what were your biggest obstacles and how did you overcome them?

AF: One of the first obstacles I faced was getting people to believe in pharmacy, which at that time was not understood.  Either you were a doctor or you were an allied med but nursing and pharmacy were not on the upper chain of attractiveness. We literally had to change perceptions in the country.

For example, I had a campaign that was written all over the college and we had an event called “I am proud to be a pharmacist” and they had to wear this on their chest and there were banners.  Because it has to start with you believing you are worthwhile before you convince anybody else.  Nobody could understand why I wasn’t in medicine – I had left medical college to continue pharmacy and they all thought I was a nutcase.  I have never regretted that and it is my passion.

MM:  What do you see as the role of women in Saudi achieving Vision 2030?

AF: Women will play a big role in vision 2030.  They are leaving their mark in healthcare, retail, IT, social studies & business. If you go to Ministries, if you go to sports commissions….look for women. Before, women preferred public sector, now we have ventured into business. Before the environment wasn’t ready for women, there were limited jobs and society wasn’t comfortable with the mixed environment in the private sector.    Then there was a plan to encourage women to go to the private sector and make specific centres for them where they can do as high-end work as they want in every field - but in an environment where they feel comfortable.  More importantly, where their families feel comfortable.

MM: How did anyone prise you away from academia into professional services?

AF: I have never been away from it.  My husband has been in the professional world from day one.  He was 10 years at Saudi Consultant House the precursor of SAGIA and then 10 years as the head of Saudi Council Chambers.  He then went on for 12 years in the Shura Council.  So for the whole of my career, whenever he had meetings or delegations, I would be involved with them.  We would host them in our house, we would talk together about academia and business, we have that interaction on a daily basis.  So I know a lot about business and he knows a lot about academia now.

MM:  What advice would you give to young women in the workforce to help them with their careers?

AF: Be relevant.  The world is changing.  For example, in pharmacy – by the time I had graduated, half of what I had learned had become obsolete.  By the time I had my Master’s: the same.  By the time I finished my PhD: the same.  You are into a continuous change of knowledge so be a lifelong learner.

Don’t be afraid to take chances – or of change. If you are going to be more relevant than a robot you need to make sure that you are on top of everything. Same-old-same-old doesn’t work, even your profession is completely changing and you have to be there.

Then there is life-work balance. Whatever you are as a leader at the top, don’t ever forget your family – the family unit will always remain the major portion of a holistic, stable society.  It is like a house – if the foundation is not there, you are building a house of cards. We need to spend time with our children and make them ready to fit in a global world - but not to forget their roots.

MM: To what extent do you think there is a danger of men being left behind?

AF:  I think it is the West that is facing the danger as we speak.  In general I am not worried about men because if we think about women being adventurous and throwing themselves in the sea, men have been doing that forever.  They have been very adept at manoeuvering through murky waters and looking at opportunities everywhere.  They have done it inside and outside the country and nothing stops them, so I am absolutely sure they will always get along fine.

I have been privileged to interview a number of inspirational Saudi female leaders in public, private and non-profit organisations for our new report Roads to the Top for Saudi Women (you can download free from this link). Like these women, I believe Saudi will see a transformation in the workforce over the next decade.

Saudi Vision 2030 logo 1

Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the world, wants more women into work and more into senior positions, to achieve its ambitions of Saudi Vision 2030. What does it need to do to hit its targets and are there lessons for the rest of the world in how to make progress? For all the global initiatives, four in ten businesses in G7 countries still have no women in senior management positions.

My interviews focused on how these women had succeeded and the lessons for other women, what women need to focus on to progress and the role of government, companies and executive search firms.  They also discussed the support from their families and the changing perceptions of working women in society. This report follows on from What makes an outstanding Saudi Chief Executive .

There were three key themes from the interviews. The biggest challenge is how we support women into middle management. This is what will make the biggest difference to increase the pool of talent for senior roles and make the presence of women widespread in the workplace.

Hala Kudwah, consulting leader - KSA Financial Services at PriceWaterhouse Coopers, said: “We need training and to build development paths for women to get middle management off the ground – cashier positions in supermarkets and retail stores may be a start but are not sufficient for building local ability. We need to help women get through this bottle neck called middle-management – there need to be incentives for businesses to do that. I don’t want this just through numbers or window dressing.”

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The other two themes from our interviews were the importance of role models and mentors.  And that women themselves are determined to support the government achieve its Vision 2030 targets - and help their sisters to progress.

HRH Princess Banderi bint Abdulrahman AlFaisal is Director General of the King Khalid Foundation and talked openly about taking on a management position when very young and having to learn by trial and error how to manage her team of men and to delegate. Now she says, “We need to change some of the male and female stereotypes and set roles. People should be equal, it isn’t your gender that matters, it’s what you do and how – and what you contribute to your family and society. We already see two-income households more and more in the country. Our society is changing and both men and women need to be open to change. Female economic empowerment is very important for the future of our country.”

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I have long been an advocate of women in the workplace. I have seen first hand, in more than 20 years of headhunting in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East, that time and again it is the women who are the outstanding candidates on our shortlists. I have been delighted to see them excel in their careers and become wonderful role models to the next generation of women.

The big question is what do we need to do now to increase women’s opportunities? I believe there are three critical areas.

1.      Mentors for newly appointed women

Mentors can be men or women but they need to be more senior and help their mentee to understand how the organisation works, what achievements are valued and how to stand out and be promoted. Also to give them a balanced external view of how they are performing and perceived.

This is something that HR should lead on. They need to ensure every woman in middle management has a formal mentor. Also to encourage female middle managers to look out for and mentor talent in their teams.

A number of women talked about male bosses who had mentored them and what they had learned. They didn’t always agree with their mentor’s views but this objective perspective was extremely helpful.

Women also talked about peer mentoring. As one said, “I read an article that said in the Obama administration they had very few women, so they came up with a strategy to amplify their voice. If May says we should focus on the strategy of expanding in the eastern region then Noura, another woman in the room a few minutes later would repeat what May said to make sure May was heard. It can be as simple as reiterating what somebody else said in a meeting.”

2.      Flexible working patterns

Women talked about the need to balance work and family life, recognising the particular importance of family in Saudi culture.  As one said, “The family unit will always remain the major portion of a holistic, stable society.”

Flexible working patterns will help them achieve this.  Organisations need to focus on the outputs of a job, rather than the hours worked and recognise that working partly from home can be a very successful option in many roles.  For many companies and managers, flexible working means a different way of looking at roles and how individual success is measured and managed.

3.      Hiring talent for skills not experience

One interviewee said, “Headhunters should aim to put forward at least 25% of women for middle and senior roles.” Certainly this is something we are doing whenever we have the candidates – and we actively go looking for female candidates.

However, this is only half the equation. Too often, outstanding female candidates do not precisely fit what the company had in mind for a particular role. They may not have the experience expected, yet would do a super job.

I recently talked to a businesswoman in London about this issue – she had been doing a lot to get more women into UK executive roles and had met a number of headhunters to discuss ideas. She said, “I think headhunters need to do more to persuade companies to change their job specifications. These tend to be written from a male perspective – for instance, a linear corporate career whereas a woman may have done incredibly interesting things that will bring a lot to the job, but not in a corporate way.  And headhunters said that when they put forward ‘wild cards’ – ie women who they thought were great – companies felt they were a risk.  We have to change mindsets and actions here.”

I am keen to share the themes of this report widely, which has many nuggets from these inspirational women.  They also shared their views on how society is changing and the support they have had from mothers and fathers, husbands and their country. Please do share and feedback your views – and I would be happy to speak at events on the findings and add my own thoughts.

What was clear from my interviews is that women are excited about the opportunities in Saudi now. While ten or 20 years ago these women were lonely trailblazers, they are delighted to see hundreds of women working in every kind of job today.  Saudi women are some of the most highly educated and qualified in the world and the Kingdom is one of the global leaders for women in STEM – science, technology and engineering.

What do we need to do now to help the Kingdom use this talent to achieve its Vision2030?

I am frequently asked this question, is it the end of the road for ex-patriates in the GCC?

Given what is being written about ex-patriates and the economies of the GCC at the moment it is an entirely legitimate question – these articles by Simeon Kerr of the FT and Sarah Townsend of Arabian Business give a good overview of the issues. But the answer is not straightforward.

In some cases the answer is a resounding ‘yes’, it is the end for ex-patriates. But overall the picture is more complex and more dynamic than one might think.

The three cultural ex-patriate clusters of the GCC

To give an accurate answer I think we need to break the ex-patriate community down by region of origin and by what is going on in specific GCC countries. For example the experience of ex-patriate professionals is very different in the UAE to what it is in KSA.  

Broadly speaking ex-patriate professionals fall in to three clusters of origins: Western, Regional (Lebanese, Egyptian, Palestinian, Jordanian) and Asian.

What is happening to these three clusters is very different.

Twenty years ago the majority of senior talent that I used to recruit for the GCC was Western. It made sense then. And I think many ex-patriates did a great job in helping the local economies develop. Dubai is a great example of this. And yet today as a recruiter of senior level talent I rarely have a Westerner on one of my short lists.

Why is this? 

Where are the jobs of the future for GCC ex-patriates?

There is now an abundance of regionally produced talent that can do the jobs better than Westerners - for reasons of language and cultural affinity.  I think this is healthy. It shows in particular the success of multinationals in shaping a whole generation of regional talent. In particular I would point to the very positive contribution to the development of human capital in the region made by companies such as HSBC, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestle, Mars and Pepsico – to name but a few.

Having said this there are still key industries such as commercial banking where there is likely to be reliance on Westerners in key functions for the foreseeable future.  There are also emerging activities such as Digital Marketing and Digital Technology where the talent will for a short period of time (5 years?) still need to be imported, particularly from the West.

My guess is that regional talent from outside of the GCC – most notably those from Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Diaspora and Egypt will continue to play a critical role in the economies of the GCC. 

However opportunities will be less. Partly because of economic tightening, societal changes and the simple fact that they are outpricing themselves. 

What I have seen over the past 18 months is a significant number of Lebanese CEOs, CHROS and CFOs lose their jobs because of the tightening economy and not able to find new jobs because their salary expectations are too high and the job opportunities are too scarce. In Saudi Arabia whole layers of jobs that were traditionally held by non GCC regional talent are now being replaced by Saudi Nationals. Which, objectively, is the right thing for Saudi Arabia. 

But I have also noticed that in some cases – particularly, as it happens, with CFOs – that regional non GCC talent is starting to price itself out of the market.  For example it is often much better – in terms of cost and performance- for a GCC employer to recruit a CFO directly from Italy than it is to recruit a Lebanese, Palestinian, Egyptian or Jordanian because of outsized compensation and benefits expectations.  

The Asian professional class is one to which we all owe a debt. In the last twenty years I have seen time and time again the quiet dedication of those from the Indian subcontinent. I know how many organizations function because of the administrative backbone that professionals from India and Pakistan provide. All the signs are that they will continue to prosper and undoubtedly will find greater opportunities at the expense of more expensive ex-patriates. That said the challenge will be for greater numbers of them to break in to leadership roles where they are responsible for different nationalities. It is happening but I think there is still considerable room for growth. For this to happen they will need to develop universal communication skills and universal emotional intelligence and greater cross-cultural assertiveness.

This Forbes list of 50 Indians in leadership positions in multi-nationals and Arab companies shows it can be done.

The expat dream is over for those who are ‘superior’

So have we reached the end of the road for ex-patriates? The age of expats is over for those who come believing in their own innate superiority and the dream of the ‘expat’ lifestyle.  It is over as a significant factor in Saudi Arabia. It will however continue in the UAE for those who genuinely have something to contribute. Going forwards the recruitment of ex-patriates will be more selective and value focused.

One age closes. Another dawns – how do you see that new dawn?

 

Please share your views in the comment box below and follow me on Twitter

 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017 14:14

Saudi Women Can

Last weekend a unique conference in Riyadh highlighted the changing role of women in Saudi Arabia and aimed to inspire younger women to push for new opportunities in the Kingdom.

The conference, called “Saudi Women Can” was organised by the Alwaleed Philanthropies charity which works to empower women. It aimed to draw attention to Saudi women’s achievements and inspire the next generation to take on a new range of leading roles in the Kingdom.                                                                               

Secretary General of Alwaleed Philanthropies, Princess Lamia bint Majed Al Saud, said about the event: “I want to give the younger generation role models to show them that, no matter what obstacles, there are opportunities and give them stories to inspire them.”

This subject is very close to my heart. I passionately believe women can play a critical role in helping Saudi Arabia transform itself over the next decade – whenever we are recruiting, we always hope for women on our shortlists as they tend to be outstanding candidates.

This is a vision shared by many leading Saudi companies that are actively working to recruit female talent and support the objectives of Vision 2030 to increase the proportion of Saudi women in business from 22% to 30%.

Over the next month, I am looking to interview outstanding Saudi women leaders to learn about how they have achieved their success and the skills needed in Saudi Arabia to achieve Vision 2030. 

This follows on from our recent report What makes an outstanding Saudi Chief Executive, based on interviews with Saudi chief executives and chairmen.  This next report will be called Roads to the Top for Saudi Women. 

I hope we can help this campaign by providing our own insights and role models to inspire the next generation.

What are the opportunities for women in Vision 2030?

Vision 2030 v1

So what is already changing in the Kingdom and what is behind this conference?

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 says that, for Saudi to become an economically dynamic and politically stable nation, it must end the kingdom’s dependence on energy exports, empower women to take on new leadership roles in business and encourage businesses and citizens alike to adapt to a world of accelerating technological change.

It is a big ambition and there are significant challenges ahead. However, I believe women are a critical part in achieving these ambitions.

Women already outnumber men among university graduates in Saudi Arabia and that means there is a huge pool of untapped talent for businesses to explore. Secondly, the Nitaqat target to improve Saudization of companies is much more achievable if businesses turn to female talent.

This conference helped to shine a spotlight on the great potential Saudi women can offer the Kingdom by showcasing the achievements of some incredible women.

The first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest, Raha Moharrak, , said girls in Saudi Arabia must be taught that they are not less than boys and said fathers and brothers must be encouraged to support this change. She explained: "My journey started as a mini-rebellion - I wanted to shock my parents.”

Other speakers included Hadeel Ayoub, who invented a smart glove that converts sign language to text, and Lama Al Sulaiman, who quit after being voted onto a municipal council as her male peers insisted she sat in a different room.

The message was simple: “Women in leadership positions today is a must, and there should be women everywhere.”

Women taking the lead

Recently, at an event to mark International Women’s Day, Salma Al Rashid, chief program officer at the Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, also said there had been significant change in the past 18 months in line with economic shifts.

She said the government's Vision 2030 was enabling women to play a greater role in the economy and added: “Things are changing so fast, little things here and there. But, there is still a lot of work to do on cultural attitudes and at the policy level.”

I am witnessing this change and, I’m also seeing an appetite for change in our business leaders who are eager to develop female talent. This was a hot topic for those who participated in What makes an Outstanding Saudi Chief Executive and all agreed that women would be critical to ensuring the nation achieved Vision 2030.

Yes, many are questioning whether the Kingdom can achieve these ambitions in a short time frame and also give women the freedom they need to fill the skills gap, but the Government has a clear vision, the correct targets and, most importantly, the timing is right.

The pressure to recruit Saudi nationals is acute but there is also a real will to do it among Saudi business leaders who want to make sure Saudis are running their own businesses. As a result of this, the number of fields open to women will inevitably expand.

Critically, making 30% of the workforce female is also achievable and this is because women want it. Women have the talent and appetite, they are more cost effective for companies as competition for male Saudi leaders remains fierce and, in many cases, they are better suited to the available roles.

Female talent will fuel the transformation

Saudi Arabia is still ranked at the bottom of the Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education. However, that will change.

Conference speaker Eqbal Darandari, an associate professor at King Saud University, was elected to the Shura Council in 2016 and said it was important women learned responsibility and leadership so they could push for change.

She explained: “We have a lot of opportunities, but you have to break through and push the obstacles and not just complain. We are achieving things - not as fast as we would like - but what is needed is social change and that is slow.”

Change is happening and that is because no-one in Saudi Arabia can afford to ignore the pool of female Saudi talent.

I would welcome hearing your views on the outstanding Saudi women who we should be talking to for our next report. Please share your thoughts by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or leave a comment below.

 I had the pleasure of appearing on the Business Breakfast Show on Dubai Eye discussing the key findings in our report, What Makes An Outstanding Saudi Chief Executive. Presenter Brandy Scott invited me to discuss  what skills will be needed to achieve Saudi Vision 2030 and what impact that would have on skills around the Gulf.

Here I share the highlights of what we discussed and my thoughts on the impactfor the future.

What is the skills gap in achieving Saudi Vision 2030?

Mr research shows that the skills gap is all about management. There are plenty of men and women in Saudi Arabia with big dreams and aspirations for the country, but many lack the skills and experiences needed to manage businesses when times are tough, as they are now.

What does this mean for the Saudi labour force?

Key roles are now being earmarked for Saudi nationals – part of Saudisation – and that is absolutely the right thing to do. Saudis are needed for roles in finance, business development, marketing, CEOs – the full spectrum of senior and business-critical roles. This is because expats need to be replaced with Saudi nationals.

Saudi Arabia is evolving and is making the necessary changes for the long term.  But it is having knock-on effects. Talented Saudi people are demanding a premium – as much as 30-50% mark-up on existing salaries – with the result that salaries are going up in a time of austerity. However, this is also a big opportunity to bring more talented women into organisations as businesses look for the best Saudi talent to fill the skills gap.

 samba1

Rania Nashar has been named chief executive of Samba Financial Group, the first female CEO of a listed Saudi commercial bank. Is this a result of Nitaqat and what does it mean for women?

This is not about Nitaqat, it is about talent and the cost of talent. Saudi men are often overpricing themselves while women are showing they can do a great job and are very cost-effective. Look at Bupa Saudi Arabia. Their big stars are all women and they are recruiting more women because they know it is better for their business. All Saudi companies can learn from this model and many are following suit, regardless of Nitaqat.

Is the target of making 30% of the workforce women achievable, especially when you consider the limited number of fields women can work in?

The number of fields open to women will inevitably expand and the target of making 30% of the workforce female is certainly achievable. This is because women want it. They work hard, they are ambitious and they are doing a great job.

What needs to happen to fill the skills gap and achieve Saudi Vision 2030?

There will have to be a lot of mistakes. People will fail and some will crash and burn but, most importantly, lessons will be learned. There is not going to be an easy way to achieve this. However, it will be achieved because there is a whole generation of people coming in who have the energy, appetite and determination to do it.

In a time of austerity, how does that translate to talented people who are getting pay rises?

It doesn’t add up does it? We are fast approaching the point where Saudi Arabia will get a wake-up call and the nation will realise these inflated salaries for talent are not sustainable. Businesses will soon start to look elsewhere and particularly to women who will be able to do the job better and more cost effectively.

How will this impact on talent in the rest of the Gulf?

We will soon start to see a surplus of expat talent elsewhere in the Gulf as they seek work after being replaced in Saudi Arabia. I expect to see a lot of that talent looking to the UAE and this surplus will start to drive down expat salaries.

There has been a lot of talk about transformation over the years. Is Saudi Vision 2030 actually achievable?

This time it is different. The pressure to recruit Saudi nationals is acute. In 25 years of experience, I have never seen pressure as acute as it is today. There is also a real will to do it among Saudi business leaders. This is all about making sure Saudis are running their own businesses. This determined leadership and appetite among businesses will ensure the Vision is delivered.

What will happen to the labour market in the short-term?

It will be frothy and there will be lots of ups and downs in the short-term, but that is to be expected. The real opportunity is for women. This is not about some feminist agenda, it’s just about solid business sense. Women can transform businesses and the nation. We don’t need new laws, we just need women to be recognised for their capabilities as professionals.

For insights on the job market in Saudi Arabia, listen to Brandy Scott interview Metin Mitchell with questions including

  • Where do the decision makers in KSA see the skills gap in the transformation plan (Saudi Vision 2030) being laid out for the future?
  • What kind of job descriptions will be needed for the future?
  • Is it achievable that women will make up 30% of the Saudi workforce over the next few years?
  • What needs to happen to fill the skills gap?
  • If Saudis are going to receive 30-50% pay rises to fill the skills gap, how will this work?
  • What will be the knock-on effect for the rest of the Gulf?

Dubai Eye interview podcast image

If you have any problems clicking on the link to listen to this interview please click here

 

Tuesday, 07 February 2017 11:02

Open letter to my Saudi Friends

For the best part of a quarter of a century I have been travelling to Saudi Arabia on a frequent and regular basis. I have seen the country change and evolve and, like any major economy, go through its ups and downs.

During this time I have been privileged to have made some very good and dear friends. I have also come to respect and cherish many of the businesses and business people that I deal with.

At their best I think Saudi companies have something special and unique going for them. In particular what I have come to admire is the long term thinking of these enterprises, their boldness, their decency towards their employees and business partners and the humility of their owners. Those of us who know the Kingdom will each have their own personal examples but I am sure that all will agree that what I describe is particularly true of the businesses of Olayan , Muhaidib and Al-Jammaz. There are doubtless countless other examples.

Today Saudi Arabia is facing considerable economic and demographic challenge – which are linked to lower oil prices, growing population, the need to diversify the economy and create jobs for Saudi Nationals.

The good news is that there is a plan in place (Vision 2030) and considerable energy and resources are being devoted to implementing this plan.

However what concerns me at this juncture is the spike in widespread use of foreign management consultants. There is always a place, there is always value in working with good quality management consulting firms – the best are capable of making a tremendous contribution to an organization.  But…I have noticed recently legions of young management consultants working in some of the newer entities being set up. I have seen their work at close hand - and whilst not wishing to demean their earnestness and long working hours – I believe that what these management consultants  are contributing is, in many cases, of questionable value, expensive and, at worse,  disingenuous. The loser in this are the enterprises that have appointed them.  And worse I know that my Saudi colleagues who work in these organizations would have come up with far better solution for their organizations – and are acutely aware of the poor quality of work that is being delivered to them. But the ‘prestige’ of these foreign firms trump their own judgement and experience.

I therefore urge caution in the blanket use of management consultancy firms to implement Vision 2030– selective use is no doubt required but, in my opinion, not the widespread use that  I am seeing right now. Saudi Arabia has plenty of its own talent and I believe that more can be done to leverage this valuable resource.

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