Time: February 18, 2018
Women in Saudi Arabia have been given the go-ahead to start businesses without the permission of a male guardian, the Saudi government announced on Sunday.
Whereas in the past women needed a guardian’s approval and had to visit a notary to document the founding of a company, from Sunday a new system will carry out all start-up procedures electronically, with no special permissions required.
The move is part of a shift inside the deeply conservative kingdom to offer more freedom to women and, more broadly, to reshape Saudi culture along more secular, modern lines.
In keeping with the spirit of modernisation, the announcement was made via Twitter. “No need for a guardian’s position. Saudi women are free to start their own businesses freely,” read a tweet posted by a spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce and investment, followed by a hashtag: #No_Need.
Saudi women make up just a fraction of the labour force in the country, but their participation in the economy is rising fast. In July 2017, the country’s Ministry of Labour and Social Development announced that women accounted for 30 per cent of the private sector workforce – a rise of 130 per cent over the previous four years.
Many Saudi women have cited transportation as a major hurdle to working outside the home. Barred from driving, they must pay a driver or rely on a man relative to ferry them to and from work. But in September, a royal decree announced that from June 2018, women could legally get behind the wheel.
The kingdom’ drive for modernisation and liberalisation is largely attributed to crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is racing the clock to deliver his Vision 2030 for a more modern kingdom with an economy no longer pinned to oil.
Women can now also attend matches at football stadiums, and a long-standing ban on musical concerts has been lifted.
On 23 September in national day celebrations, men and women were spotted dancing in Saudi streets, a move previously unthinkable in a country that prohibits gender mixing.
While there have been flickers of resistance to change, momentum appears to have shifted. On Sunday Saudi authorities announced another first: in April the kingdom will host its first-ever national card-playing competition, with a combined prize of more than 1m Saudi riyals ($270K / £190K).
Card playing has long been banned in Saudi Arabia under religious pretexts. Immediately after the announcement, some Saudis took to social media to protest the tournament and its cash prize as gambling, which is forbidden by Saudi Arabia’s Shari’a law.
Despite the wave of change, Saudi Arabia consistently ranks as one of the world’s least free and least equal countries, particularly for women. It ranked 136 out of 142 countries in the 2017 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index.