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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December, 2004, 18:11 GMT
First woman on Saudi bank board

Heba Saleh
BBC News, Cairo

A Riyadh street
Women are forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia
A woman has been elected to the board of directors of a major Saudi bank, making her the first female in the kingdom to occupy such a position.

Saudia Arabia has strict laws which prohibit unrelated men and women from mixing and which restrict the participation of women in public life.

Businesswoman Lubna al Olayan heads one of Saudi Arabia's most powerful financial companies.

Now she has been voted by shareholders onto the board of Saudi Hollandi Bank.

Mrs Olayan's prominence in business owes much to the support of her progressive and immensely rich family.

But even if her circumstances are exceptional she is blazing a trail which many Saudi women would like to follow.


Women form more than half all university students in the Kingdom, but less than 5% of the workforce.

Strict laws about the segregation of the sexes make it expensive for employers to hire women for whom they have to provide separate premises.

The country's powerful religious conservators remain extremely wary of any attempt to chip away at the restriction on women.

Mrs Olayan herself was severely criticised when she gave a public speech in which she made a passionate plea for equality in employment.

Earlier this year Crown Prince Abdullah gave instructions to government agencies to facilitate the hiring of women but progress remains slow.

The recent announcement that women would not even be allowed to vote in next year's local elections put an end to plans by some professional women to stand as candidates.

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