The empowerment of Saudi Arabian women is at the heart of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform program, with far-reaching social and economic goals including increasing women’s economic participation rate from 17 percent to 25 percent this year.
Since the launch of Vision 2030 in April 2016, Saudi Arabian women have already benefited from a range of reforms, gaining the right to drive among other advances.
Here are the top 10 most important.
1) The right to drive
Saudi Arabian women were officially allowed to drive at the stroke of midnight on June 24, 2018 as a royal decree granting them the right to drivers’ licenses came into effect.
“I felt very independent, it was empowering – I felt free.” This is how 30 year-old Riyadh resident Maha Althuwaini described her first time taking the driver’s seat in the Kingdom.
The impact of the policy can be seen in the drop in non-Saudi household drivers, previously one of the main ways women travelled, from 1.4 to 1.3 million at the end of 2018, according to the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development.
2) Access to sports
In the same year, Saudi Arabia allowed families into sports stadiums for the first time, in a landmark move that opened up the previously male-only venues to women and children.
The move is in line with Vision 2030’s development of the sports and entertainment sectors for both men and women. Female participation in sports in Saudi Arabia has risen by 149 percent since 2015, according to Sports Minister Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal.
3) First female ambassador
The Kingdom gained its first female ambassador in February 2019, when a royal decree appointed Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud as the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States with a ministerial ranking.
In July 2020, Princess Reema was elected as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after her inclusion was approved during the sporting body’s 136th session.
The Kingdom has since appointed six women as cultural attaches, expanding women’s role in the diplomatic corps.
4) Freedom to travel
Saudi Arabia published new laws on August 2, 2019, allowing women above the age of 21 to apply for passports and travel freely without a male guardian’s consent, which had been required previously.
Other changes issued in the decrees allowed women to register a marriage, divorce, or child’s birth and to issue official family documents. It also stipulates that either the father or the mother can be a child’s legal guardian.
5) Right to live alone in landmark case
In July 2020, a Saudi Arabian court ruled in favor of a woman who was on trial for living and traveling on her own to the Kingdom’s capital, Riyadh, without her father’s permission.
“A historic ruling was issued today, affirming that independence of a sane, adult woman in a separate house is not a crime worthy of punishment,” Abdulrahman al-Lahim, a lawyer in the case, said. “I am very happy with this this ruling that ends tragic stories for women.”
6) Rise in female employment
Vision 2030 aims to create 1 million jobs for women. In 2020, the Saudi female labor force participation increased from 25.9 percent in the first quarter to 31.4 percent in the second quarter.
Over the last four years, the rate of female unemployment in the Kingdom decreased by 13.9 percent.
Women cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their gender when it comes to private sector salaries, announced Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development on September 14, 2020.
“It is forbidden for an employer in the private sector to discriminate between workers on the basis of gender, age, or disability with regard to working conditions while hiring them,” according to the ministry.
7) Right to serve in the military
In February 2018, Saudi Arabia gave women the opportunity to work in security services for the interior ministry, departments of criminal investigations, security patrol and pilgrimage security.
In October 2019, the Kingdom opened the armed forces to women, saying they would be able to serve in the ranks of private first class, corporal or sergeant.
8) Riyadh named Capital for Arab Women 2020'
Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh was declared the “Capital for Arab Women” in 2020.
The award came from the Arab Women’s Committee, during its 39th session held in the capital, which met under the slogan “Women are a homeland and an ambition.”
“In line with the words of [Saudi Arabian] Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and as many minister[s] have confirmed… we believe that the issues [concerning] women [concern] everyone,” Saudi Arabian Secretary-General of the Family Affairs Council Dr. Hala al-Tuwaijri said.
9) Women join Human Rights Council
Saudi Arabia appointed 13 women to the Kingdom’s Human Rights Council (HRC) on July 2, 2020. The 13 women now make up half of the board’s members.
The decision to appoint the women to the council’s board is a continuation of the leadership’s efforts to empower women to occupy leadership positions in various fields,” HRC President Awwad Alawwad said.
10) Female CEO of SRMG
The Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) has appointed Joumana al-Rashed as the new chief executive officer (CEO), the company announced in a statement in October 2020.
Al-Rashed is the first Saudi Arabian woman to hold the position.
Invest in women
“So far Saudi Arabia has come a long way in supporting women. I think it’s important now to invest in institutions that are working on gender empowerment and institutions that promote economic, political and civil rights for women,” Dr. Najah Al-Otaibi, a Saudi policy analyst based in London, United Kingdom, told Al Arabiya English.
Al-Otaibi also suggested that the Kingdom creates a Supreme Council for Women in Saudi Arabia, to empower them and “merge their needs in the development programs already taking place under the Vision 2030 program.”
She added that the Kingdom could benefit from “increasing women’s representation in state bureaucracy, especially in its upper echelons,” as Saudi Arabia currently has no female ministers.
“This can be achieved by imposing a gender quota system,” she said.