Saudi mulls workplace rules as more women join

Issue of 'separate or mixed' being debated


Economic necessity is pushing Saudi Arabia to accept the idea of women in the workplace, leading to a debate about how to set up socially acceptable office environments, a government official said in an interview this weekend.

Faisal bin Muammar, head of a body promoting national dialogue, said high unemployment and the reliance upon 7 million foreign workers was forcing the hand of opponents to women working in the country of 24 million people.

The debate -- as demonstrated at a major forum last month of Islamic scholars, ministers and businesswomen -- has now moved to whether women can work in the same office space as men, or if firms must provide segregated areas to allow women to work.

"Most agreed to open a wide arena for women to get jobs, since girls now graduate more than boys from universities. We cannot go on having 7 million foreigners and our graduate women in their houses," bin Muammar told Reuters.

"But how to establish it (is the issue), whether it is in separate or mixed places ... We need to make rules for it, which religious scholars, families and social leaders need."

Women at the national dialogue meeting last month -- speaking from a separate room so they could be heard but not seen -- said firms would have to provide extras such as special transport for them to get to work.

Thousands of expatriates are employed as drivers for women because of the ban on driving cars.

But the government has been trying to gradually introduce reform in the county.

"Saudi Arabia is unique in that since unification, most development and changes have been initiated by government and society is sometimes resisting changes," bin Muammar said.

"There is a big program to moderate the country," he added.