Page last updated at 15:00 GMT, Monday, 27 February 2006

Saudi women break into business

By Neil Heathcote
BBC World Business Report, in Jeddah

Saudi office
Barriers to Saudi women entering the workplace are being slowly lifted

Saudi Arabia may be enjoying the benefits of a oil boom, but that is no longer enough to ensure everyone in the country has a job.

So young Saudis are being encouraged to set up their own businesses - and not just young Saudi men.

"My dream is to have my own factory," says a woman in an advertisement inviting applications for business loans.

"Nothing is impossible," say another.

The women are shown surrounded by their families, and giving out orders on the workshop floor. Uplifting music plays in the background. The mood is confident, inspirational.

"More than 50% of our programmes are for women," says Ibrahim Badawood of ALJ Group in Jeddah which is behind the project.

The idea caught on rapidly and now more than 3,500 women have signed up for loans.

"I think they do it because the opportunities aren't as great for them as they are for men," he says. "So they start up their own firms."

Design freedom

One of those women clothes designer Nawal Adam.

Work at Nawal Adam fashion house
Nawal Adam wants to launch a career in the international fashion business
She started off working from home, but found her customers wanted a proper shop to visit. So she went to ALJ, got a loan, and set the Empress Fashion House for Ladies.

It's not in the most glamorous part of Jeddah. It's a little cramped and she shares it with her sister's hairdressing and beauty salon. But it gives her the freedom to produce her own designs.

I used to work in a tailor's shop," says Nawal, "but when you work for someone else they often want you to do quick designs that don't take much time and effort - they're not interested in anything more complicated.

Nawal's dream now is to set up a website and take her dresses to international fashion shows.

Five years ago none of this would have been possible. Even if she had wanted to set up on her own, the loans weren't available.

Most Saudi women either worked for the government in areas like healthcare or education - or simply stayed at home.

Economic pressure

As well as money, help is now on hand for young entrepreneurs.

Mahmoud Abdul Aty used to run his own company, now he's putting that experience to practical use. He travels the country helping to sort out young entrepreneurs' teething problems.

Hanan Ali al-Attas
When I got my licence they told me that I was the first woman to do it
Hanan Ali al-Attas
He works for the Centennial Fund. It's still in its pilot phase, but has already provided backing for 20 projects, a third of them run by women.

"You know, in the past women didn't find enough jobs. So they've found their way out through entrepreneurship and owning their own businesses. Women are half of the community - they have to find jobs," he says.

The government has been discreetly encouraging the private sector to lend a hand. New laws allow women to work throughout the economy, or at least in those areas the government deems suitable.

"I don't think that's being done because we think we need to be like everybody else. It has nothing to do with that," says Lama al-Sulaiman, one of the first women to be elected to the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce.

"It's a necessity for economic growth. If we need economic growth, we need to integrate women into society. And I think women today are very ready."

Making friends

It'll not happen overnight. But the limits of what is acceptable are changing.

After finishing her Masters in Cairo, Hanan Ali al-Attas returned to Jeddah to look for a job. She couldn't find one so she set up a training company.

Now her friends have seen what's she's done - and are following suit.

"When I got my licence to set up this centre, offering training to men, they told me that I was the first woman to do it," she says.

"But things are much easier now - I've lots of friends who've taken courses, got loans and started their businesses."

Cultural change comes slowly in Saudi Arabia and these women are still the exception, rather than the rule.

But at least those who want to try their hand at business are now getting help - and are beginning to break down the barriers that have kept women out of the workplace for so long.

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30 Nov 05 |  Middle East
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10 Aug 05 |  Middle East

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