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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - January 30, 2014

by Simeon Kerr in Riyadh

Debt collectors may be synonymous with burly men in leather jackets, but the rapid entry of Saudi women into the workplace is challenge such stereotypes in the conservative kingdom.

Hanan al-Otaibi, 26, runs a team of 12 female debt collectors who are subcontracted to chase bad loans for Al Rajhi Bank, the largest Islamic lender in Saudi Arabia.

Her team achieves a 70 per cent higher debt repayment rate than their male counterparts and hopes to expand into its own office space with 50 staff by the end of the year.

“Women calm the rage in men,” she tells the Financial Times over the phone from her office in the segregated business centre. “It is easier for women to persuade men, we can tap into emotions and are less likely to threaten the police.”

The growing business overseen by Ms Otaibi is a striking example of the quickening pace of female employment in the Gulf state.

Over the past six years female participation in the workforce has almost doubled from 9 per cent to 16 per cent, cutting into female unemployment of roughly 30 per cent.

The government is keen to attract more women into the workplace as part of its fresh attempt to lure Saudis from government jobs to the private sector.

While the majority of Saudi women are joining the teaching profession, many others are ignoring threats from ultraconservative opposition and replacing men in retail outlets as supermarket cashiers.

“This is a significant change – you can’t run a household with only one member working any more,” says John Sfakianakis, chief investment officer at Riyadh-based family group Masic. “The lifestyle doesn’t allow it, given the increasing cost of living.”

Lamya Alkadi, manager and partner at the Dour business centre that hosts Ms Otaibi’s team of debt collectors, has rented out all but two of its 37 workstations as traditional opposition to females in the workplace ebbs.

The centre’s rose-petal cushions and immaculate kitchen betray the space as a strict male-free zone for start-ups, including therapists, event organisers and interior designers.

“Work feels empowering,” says Eman al-Nafjan, a Saudi blogger involved in recent driving protests that saw women illegally driving in the kingdom. “But we are going from zero.”

Despite the gradual loosening of social mores surrounding work, entry into the workplace remains fraught with difficulties. Women still cannot drive themselves in a country where public transport remains under-developed.

Mufleh al-Qahtani of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family-funded National Society for Human Rights says the ban on female driving is a cultural issue that will only change with generational change. Most people in the kingdom, men and women included, remain opposed to such a reform, he says.

“As more women come back from abroad, they will see it as normal, and things will change,” says Mr Qahtani.

Ms Nafjan, however, disagrees with the argument that society is balanced against women’s rights, including driving. When she took part in driving protests, most members of the public were supportive. She estimates that the ultraconservative wing of Saudi society determined to keep women at home now amounts to roughly 20 per cent of the population.

The government, she says, is going slow on female rights as part of a broader campaign to keep a lid on popular demands for a greater role in political, social and economic decision-making.

“They want to keep all demands low, from freedom of speech to a constitutional monarchy,” she says. “The focus on women’s driving keeps the ceiling low.”

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