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Saudi Businesswomen leave SR50bn of assets unused

We all know KSA is rich with oil wealth, so quoting big money (about USD13 billion) is fairly ordinary. But if women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive, open a bank account without a male relative’s direct assistance, or interact with unrelated men, how can they be businesswomen in any economically meaningful way?

In fact KSA women do own and run about 20,000 SMEs nationally. These enormous funds sit idly in banks because female entrepreneurs are averse to investment when facilities in so many sectors are at worst completely closed to them, and at best grossly inadequate.

Female financial growth basically is blocked by a resilient belief at the most conservative level of the Arabian psyche that social, hence moral norms, and Islamic proper practice are one and the same thing and thereby immutable.

The Chairman Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the most powerful in the entire Middle East, recently faced accusations of compromising moral values by promoting the interaction of men and women in work places. In his defence he argued “It is the regulations laid down by Almighty Allah, not the customs and traditions of any society, that we follow.”

Saudi social customs can come out of religious rules, but the link is not always direct. For example, traditional social norms in Arabia prohibit free mixing of the sexes – in much the same way as traditional Australian social norms used prohibit women driving heavy vehicles, leading corporate teams, or reading the television news – yet gender segregation in the workplace was able to be overturned by law in Saudi Arabia in 2010.

This faith=social practice nexus increasingly is debated in KSA. While the folk may take time to accept change, and its economic ramifications, international business ought take due notice of what matters most, and why, in this economically and politically powerful nation.

Engaging with Arab worldviews is not the same as concurring with them. But appreciating the integrity of those worldviews breaks the barrier to positive engagement.

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