As I arrived at the Jiddah Economic Forum a week ago, busily chatting
with several American businessmen, I mistakenly approached the door labeled
"Men Entrance." "Women, women," said the guard in
a panic, as though I were making a bold political statement. I hadn't
dealt with separate entrances in many years, and the last time, ironically,
wasn't during my decades of travel to the Middle East but in Washington,
where some well-known social clubs continued the practice until the late
'80s. Confronted with it again, I began to think that perhaps the advice
that I had heard for years was correct: Saudi business is for men only.
Yet the remarkable Saudi businesswomen attending the annual conference
on the kingdom's economic and social issues were about to prove that wrong.
The U.S. delegation of four women and 16 men had decided to sit together
in the vast part of the auditorium reserved for the 1,200 men in attendance.
As foreigners, we were not questioned. So after venturing into the far
smaller women's area to have coffee with some Saudis, I rejoined the men
beyond the partition that was to define so much of the proceedings. During
a question-and-answer period, a moderator looking for a question from
"the ladies' section" noted that he could not see that side
of the audience, which was "in darkness over there." It was
indeed dark. The stage was bathed in light, and the women were a sea of
300 black abayas. A female delegate responded, "We are not in darkness,
you just don't see us." Increasingly, these women who are still perceived
as being in the shadows are not.
As a Commerce Department official doing trade advocacy work during the
Clinton administration, and now as a private consultant and lawyer, I
had concluded that I could best help my clients by working in Egypt, Jordan,
Tunisia, Qatar, Morocco and ABS -- Anywhere But Saudi. My business grew
but Saudi Arabia represented as much as 80 percent of the market for several
of my clients, and I realized that I was limited. So after 10 years of
traveling nearly monthly in the Middle East, I decided to venture into
the no-woman's-land of Saudi Arabia to attend the forum. I hardly knew
what to expect. What I found was that the role of Saudi women is changing
far more quickly than most in the West realize.
The conference opened, as one might in Davos, Geneva or Washington, with
the chief executive officer of a powerful financial conglomerate discussing
the need for real change to reform a national economy. Later, the dean
of a British business school spoke of reforming and sustaining the Saudi
economy, and a panel of experts spoke about women as the driving force
to economic survival and long-term commercial success.
But something was very different. These speeches were given by women:
Lubna Olayan, the Saudi CEO of the multibillion-dollar Olayan Financing
Company, gave the keynote speech, the first by a woman in the conference's
five-year history. Laura Tyson, dean of the London School of Economics
and chair of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, spoke on
how Saudi Arabia might build and sustain economic wealth.
As the Arab News, published in Jiddah, put it in a banner headline the
next day, "Women Steal Limelight at JEF."
Some Saudi businessmen sat listening attentively to the women while others
sat with armed folded, whispering to their colleagues, and looking as
though they were not sure how to react to the change.
By contrast, during coffee breaks in the women's section, it was clear
that many women think change is coming far too slowly. They spoke of their
frustration at being denied the right to study in several major fields:
law, engineering, architecture and others. One woman complained that she
could not take a job or open her own company without the explicit approval
and participation of her closest male relative.
Men said, "Things will change in time." Women asked, "When?"
At dinner the first night, a former government minister said that the
women in his family are not concerned that they are prohibited from driving,
as they all have drivers and prefer the status quo. "When a group
of women in the 1990s insisted on driving, they set the cause of women
back a decade," he said. "Those women must realize that many
things may change, but the change will only come in time." A veiled
young woman quietly replied, "I was one of those women. That was
thirteen years ago. How long do you expect us to wait?"
Change was the dominant topic not only at the meetings and dinners, but
also during informal conversations in the family section of the hotel
coffee shop (which allows groups of mixed or male and female customers).
Saudis, as well as foreigners with long experience in the country, agreed
that Saudi Arabia is changing but pointed to different reasons. Some said
that economics underlies the change; the Saudi economy is in flux and
is no longer based entirely on oil. Roughly 60 percent of the population
is under 20 years old, and the official unemployment rate stands at 10
percent, which does not include women and is likely an underestimate even
of male unemployment. Others argued that the terrorist attacks in Riyadh
last year had shaken the Saudi sense of security and stability. But most
agreed that the role of women could not remain static.
After the sessions one afternoon, some of us Americans went to the souk.
Our Saudi hostess had sent us abayas in advance of the trip, and I awkwardly
put on the long black robe and veil. At first, I jokingly thought of the
abaya's advantages: No more South Beach diets, and I would no longer be
enslaved to Western designers. But after a couple of hours, I felt invisible.
I had spent a lifetime in the "quiet revolution" of the U.S.
women's movement, working so that my daughter could attend the law school
of her choice and then break the glass ceiling if she chose to. Those
were far from the issues here. Although I deeply respect the culture and
traditions of Saudi culture, I felt, in my abaya, that I was a satellite
observing someone else's world.
Amid the discussions of economic reform, some of the forum's speakers,
particularly the women, openly addressed women's changing role in Saudi
society. Olayan, the Saudi corporate leader, courageously urged her fellow
participants, men and women, to "abandon the progress-without-change
philosophy," by which she meant talk of change without any pressure
to act. She called for a business economy that is based on talent and
merit, not connections and family. "If we want Saudi Arabia to progress,
we have no choice but to embrace change," she said, stressing that
"those changes can be embraced in a way that preserves our core Islamic
In an all-female panel discussion, Thurayya Arrayed, planning adviser
to Saudi oil giant Aramco, said that to speed economic growth, "we
need proper training and employment of women."
In response to a question about women driving, Selwa Al-Hazza, head of
ophthalmology at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, said she felt
that society was not ready to see a woman behind the wheel. Arrayed disagreed
and, to a round of applause, advised, "[Even] if you don't want your
daughter to drive, don't stop others."
To my surprise, most Saudi government officials, business people and
other attendees were available and open to all participants, women and
men alike, though Westerners got special treatment. Of course it was far
easier for the few Western women on the men's side to catch speakers as
they left the podium, which happened to be on the men's side. One quandary,
though, had to do with commenting during the formal sessions. Questions
alternated between the men's section and the women's. Because I was a
woman in the men's area, moderators seemed uncertain how to accept my
questions. It was not until the final panel, with a dwindling audience,
that one brave gentleman pointed to me and said, "O.K, your question
At the airport as we were leaving, our delegation learned from a Wall
Street Journal reporter that the conference had become a source of national
controversy. The Saudi grand mufti had "condemned the obscene scenes
of female wantonness at the Jiddah Economic Forum." He declared that
"Jiddah is not just history now, but legend." In objecting to
the mixing of men and women, and to the appearance of some women "without
the wearing of the hijab ordered by God," the mufti was quoted by
the media as saying, "I warn against the dire consequences that such
practices will have." Whether this was a warning of possible retribution
or a desperate clinging to the past is unclear. Yet, I have no doubt that
Saudi women are now at the table, perhaps not as full participants, but
never again to be ignored. For three days in Jiddah, they showed that
the hand that rocks the cradle may well be the hand that rules the world.