The empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia appears to be a classic case of two steps forward, one step back. Despite the unfortunate detention of several women activists, the appointments of Hind al-Zahid and Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan to key positions in the Saudi government represent an important landmark for the country.
Zahid is the kingdom’s first under-secretary for women’s empowerment and Princess Reema, who will represent the kingdom in the United States, is Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador. Their appointments fired the ambition of many Saudi women who want to represent the country in government but they also highlight the growing disparity in gains made by women workers in the kingdom’s private and public sectors.
Under Vision 2030, the government has implemented programmes that have achieved some success in feminising the kingdom’s private sector workforce. These efforts have not been mirrored in the public sector.
Understandably, the government is trying to shrink its payrolls as it transitions from a state-led to a market-driven economy. However, the drive should be balanced by a concerted effort to increase women’s representation in the state bureaucracy, especially in its upper echelons. The Saudi government can achieve this by imposing a gender quota system.