Saudi Arabia will soon allow women to work in previously prohibited roles, which will lead to the creation of 80,000 jobs, according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MLSD) in the Kingdom.

Faten Al-Sari, director of the ministry’s programme for female employment, has reportedly said the country is “feminising” women’s accessory shops, and allowing women to staff them.

Saudi females are also being trained to work in air traffic control. State-owned Saudi Air Navigation Services (SANS) is now offering theoretical and practical training to 80 women annually. Applicants must be educated to high-school level, have achieved good grades, and be aged between 18 and 25 year old.

These developments coincide with the news this week that King Salman has issued a decree allowing women to drive for the first time – a move that is likely to impact women’s ability to participate in the labour market. The royal order is due to take effect in June 2018.

An MLSD report earlier this year showed a 130 per cent increase in the number of Saudi women in the labour market over the last four years – 30 per cent of the private sector in Saudi Arabia is now staffed by women.

Naziha Deriche, biomedical engineer at Al Bayan Medical Company KSCC, and founder of Alajnabia – an online job board for women in Saudi Arabia – said social change in Saudi is gradual, and that the target to increase the number of working Saudi women cannot be achieved solely by making more jobs available.

“An underlying factor is society's acceptance for women to work in all fields. Saudi Arabia is built on a set of customs and traditions established over decades,” she said. “The concept of female employment involves altering generations of cultural influence. I don’t mean to emphasise the obstacles, but merely to give an understanding as to why we should handle such a cause with delicacy and patience. “I personally believe that the future will allow for women in Saudi Arabia to work in all fields,” she said. “The change I have felt and witnessed in the last five years alone gives me confidence that the change we hope to achieve is already steadily taking place.”

A new report from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), How Organisations in the Middle East Can Stretch Their Diversity Spend, showed that all GCC countries have upped female participation in the workforce. However, the study found evidence of cultural bias still in existence, with women perceived as “unsuitable” for certain jobs and regulations preventing their employment in some areas.

In the UAE, women’s participation in the labour force grew from 34 per cent in 2000 to 46 per cent in 2014. However, there has also been an increase in the number of unemployed females due to higher educational attainment.

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