To skip the background information and get to the part on the Hofuf women industrial city, start reading from the star symbol.
This past decade unemployment in Saudi has kept increasing despite the several plans and projects made by the education ministry, civil services and the ministry of labor. Numbers vary from one source to another with government research usually being the smaller of the bunch. But even the government’s numbers are considerably high. The latest official number for male unemployment is 10.5%. The annual flooding in of a million migrant workers into the country who are willing to work longer for less exacerbates this state of affairs. A recent report by the ministry of labor states that for every Saudi employed this past year in the private sector, there were thirteen expatriates hired.
Saudi women fare much worse with an official unemployment rate of 29.6%. Other official estimates are that over 78% of those graduating from college are unemployed. Four years ago the press got ahold on the number of applicants to 218 positions at the Princess Noura University and it was over 40,000! That’s about 200 applicants per vacancy. I analyzed some of the reasons why back then.
Last year when the Arab Spring sparks were flying within Saudi, the government started an unemployment program called Hafiz (meaning encouragement or boost). The minister of labor, Adel Fakieh gave a PowerPoint presentation at his office in Riyadh which David Ottaway wrote about in an enlightening report on his 2012 visit to Saudi:
Fakieh began by taking issue with the Central Department of Statistics estimate that the number of unemployed Saudis was only 448,000. He reported that more than two million Saudis had applied for the $533 monthly unemployment allowance under the government’s new social security Hafiz Program launched last year. Those who would finally meet the necessary criteria would probably total slightly more than one million, he said, disclosing that his ministry had discovered that 85 percent of those applying were women. “Hundreds of thousands” of housewives had applied, but he claimed they were not “real job seekers.” Many were well off financially, did not really want to work, or would only accept certain kinds of jobs, according to their applications. This explained why the government intended to accept only about half of the two million applicants. Those accepted would have to prove they were really looking for employment and be ready to accept training and take offered jobs. If not, they would be dropped from the program after one year.
I don’t know about Fakeih’s “many were well off financially” part, considering that the average two-income Saudi family earns only 8,000 riyals (2,133USD) and has to pay 30% to 35% of that for rent. Add that statistic to another presented by the head of the real estate commission in the Eastern Region that 70% of Saudis do not own their houses and you’ve got a pretty humble picture that does not quite mesh with Fakeih’s “many were well off” but still applied for unemployment benefits.
Hafiz remains a great program although I’ve seen many upset on social media that the benefits expire in a year’s time and that a person on these benefits has to make weekly updates to show that they are actively seeking a job.
Hafiz was not the only project introduced in last year’s decrees. Another much more groundbreaking development was that women were finally allowed to work openly in retail at malls. Before then, the only public spaces women were allowed to sell products at were on mats on the sides of the curb at souks. For a few months now it has been legal for women to work as cashiers at supermarkets and sales-persons at lingerie and make-up counters but many sheikhs still can’t get used to the sight.
Last June two Saudi lawyers and a businessman won a case at the Board of Grievances to abort the royal decree allowing women to work openly in malls and return Saudi to a time when women could only work in retail if the shop front was completely covered and only women clients allowed in. Fortunately and unusually our wacky system worked for women this time and the ministry of labor seems so far to have ignored the Board of Grievances decision. That’s why over the past couple of weeks, envoys of ultra conservative sheikhs, fifty at a time, have been going to the ministry demanding to see the minister to remind him about the Board of Grievances decision and to demand a return to extreme gender segregation policies.
★ Some of the alternatives that ultra-conservatives have proposed as a means of income for women are that all Saudi women be granted a governmental stipend to stay home, initiation of programs where women can work from home and the opening of women-only malls, factories, hospitals…etc.
At first look it seems that one of those alternatives is seeing the light of day some time in the near future. Last week it came out that the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) is planning a half million square meters industrial city near Hofuf. The industrial city is inaccurately being touted as women-only by some news media. The announcement was actually made by the general director of Modon, Salah Al-Rasheed. In an interview with Al-Eqtasadiyah newspaper, Al-Rasheed explained that the industrial city would provide Saudis with 10,000 jobs, of which half will be targeted towards women. Another way that this project will be helping women is through making women investments easier. Al-Rasheed goes on to say that it will be located close to Hofuf so that transportation will be accessible to women. Nowhere within the interview or available firsthand information does it state that the industrial city is planned to be a full-blown women only metropolitan. So I wonder why international journalists are making it out to be that?
From Modon’s website and Al-Rasheed’s interview, it’s apparent that the “women” part comes from the novelty of having women allowed on a manufacturing site and not that it will be completely operated from A to Z by women. In a country where the Highest Islamic Council has on it’s website a fatwa discouraging people from allowing women to specialize in scientific fields and where the number of women who have experience in industry is somewhere around zero, it wouldn’t be business-savvy to open a whole industrial city for women. It would be basically opening a ghost town and burning millions of dollars.
These women industrial cities (I say cities because the one in Hofuf is the first of several that are being planned for across the kingdom) are going to be industrial areas just outside major cities where Saudi women can apply for jobs in designated buildings to do what Al-Rasheed called “light and clean parts of manufacturing in an appropriate environment.”
The reaction so far within Saudi has been quiet. This is because these types of projects take several years to be built and started up. The ultra-conservatives are currently too busy chasing female cashiers and sales-women to question or even advocate for the industrial city. The only reaction so far was from Ms. Olfat Kabbani, deputy director of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Kabbanni expressed her reservations about the project. She told Okaz newspaper that the real need is to right now provide training, remove legal obstacles and encourage investors to integrate women into their workforce.
According to Modon’s website, there are already “more than 3,000 factories in the existing industrial cities with investments exceeding 250 billion riyals, and more than 300,000 employees.” I wonder how many of those 300,000 employees are Saudis? And why can’t women apply today to work in these 3,000 factories? Aren’t there any “light and clean parts of manufacturing in an appropriate environment” at any of them?
You can listen to me repeat much of what I wrote above HERE.