Updated: Sep 25
Most people are aware that women’s choices and opportunities are comparatively constrained in Saudi Arabia due to a strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. However, in addition to enacting economic reforms, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is actively working to temper the religious atmosphere of the country: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.”[note]Chulov, Martin. “I will return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam, says crown prince.” The Guardian 24 Oct 2017. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/24/i-will-return-saudi-arabia-moderate-islam-crown-prince. 7 Mar 2018.[/note] Recent reforms have included incremental gains for women, including increased employment opportunities, the right to hold a driver license, and most recently, eligibility for military service.[note]BBC News. “Saudi Arabia allows women to join military.” BBC News 26 February 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43197048. 7 Mar 2018.[/note]
As promising as this progress is, real obstacles still exist for businesswomen working in the kingdom. While Prince Mohammed’s economic reform calls for a female workforce participation rate of 30% by 2030[note]Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Vision 2030: Thriving Economy Rewarding Opportunities.” http://vision2030.gov.sa/en/node/8. 7 March 2018.[/note], government regulations surrounding female employment dampen business enthusiasm for such a move. Ahmed Al Omran[note]Al Omran, Ahmed. “Saudi Arabia edges more women into work.” Financial Times 31 August 2017. http://www.ft.com/content/c55d6cf4-8cd3-11e7-9084-d0c17942ba93. 7 Mar 2018.[/note] reports that though strict gender segregation is no longer enforced, businesses employing both men and women must have separate restrooms, a security system, and a private lunch and prayer room for women. He notes that in a country where most office buildings were designed with only men in mind, many companies are not eager to pay for remodeling and retrofitting.
Joe Sharkey relates the experiences of Nancy J. Ruddy, the co-founder of a New York architectural firm working in Saudi Arabia. Ms. Ruddy was involved in designing the Elaf Galleria hotel in Jeddah. She describes her experience meeting with the development company in a modern office building:
But there was no ladies’ room, which was totally shocking to me. … During my first trip there, if I needed to use the bathroom, I would have to say that I need to go back to my hotel, and I would have to be walked back to the hotel by a man, because you’re not allowed as a woman to walk around unaccompanied on the streets. And because there are almost no women in the work force in Saudi Arabia, there are no ladies’ rooms in office buildings.
Sharkey, Joe. “Businesswomen Navigate Traditions in Saudi Arabia.” The New York Times. 2 February 2015.
Ms. Ruddy planned ahead for future trips, requesting that one of the male executive bathrooms be temporarily converted for her use while she did business in the country.
Hopefully, Saudi Arabia and its businesses will continue improving both foreign and local women’s access to facilities of all kinds. But casually assuming that a women’s restroom will be readily available could prove unwise. A sensitivity to historic norms and the slow pace of progress coupled with a bit of diplomatic research and planning could save some embarrassment for all involved.