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Arabian Rights: Breaking the Saudi glass ceiling

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United Kingdom

Fieldfisher partner Vivien Davies argues that pro-female cultural shifts underway in Saudi Arabia, thanks to the comparatively liberal policies of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, need to be...

A funny thing happened on the way to my potential” – this quote, often attributed to Scheherazade, the fictional female storyteller of the Arabian Nights folktales, in many ways sums up the cultural barriers facing aspiring career women in Saudi Arabia.

At present, few girls born into wealth, privilege and influence with the intelligence and acumen to be good business leaders will ever make it into Saudi's top jobs.

For Saudi Arabia, revoking the legal system of male guardianship is key to breaking the country's perceived glass ceiling.

This strictly adhered to system requires Saudi women to have a male guardian – be it a father, husband, brother or son – who makes crucial decisions for her. Male approval is required for travel or study outside the country, to get a passport, to get married or to leave prison.

As a partner in the dispute resolution practice at Fieldfisher, I have a particular focus on Middle Eastern and North African clients and have observed on numerous occasions this cultural practice and the barriers its presents first hand.

A fluent Arabic speaker, I am also a Board Director and Member of the Executive Committee of the Arab Bankers Association.

Banking is one of Saudi Arabia's most prestigious professions but remains a tough industry for women to enter, no matter how well-qualified or experienced they are.

One of the key issues facing women in banking is the need for (male) sponsors. This is a legal fault line which underpins other difficulties Saudi's banking industry has with promoting a pipeline of female talent, ensuring equal opportunities and eradicating conscious and unconscious bias against women in finance.

The gender imbalance at the top of Saudi banks stems largely from cultural assumptions that pivotal roles still need to be filled by men of a certain age and outlook.

Saudi banks and other industries where women are currently underrepresented at senior levels also need to establish and foster a meritocratic environment.

In the last five years, I have seen more women achieve senior roles in private banking. However, they often lack encouragement, rarely receive praise and tend to be reviewed on their actual performance, rather than their potential – all of which are diametrically opposite to the performance management approach taken to male colleagues.

This is despite moves by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and de facto ruler, 33 year-old Mohammed bin Salman, to ostensibly promote female equality in everything from dress code to office culture.

But until the Crown Prince addresses the guardianship issue, any reforms are only tinkering at the edges of Saudi Arabia's deeply conservative society.

Scrapping the guardianship system would truly give women the liberalisation and autonomy they need to control their own assets.

Steps have been taken to ensure that women will no longer need the permission of a guardian to take a public sector job, but putting an end to guardianship in full is expected to take many more years.

In the meantime, the groundwork is being laid for women to enter male-dominated professions by young, entrepreneurial and ambitious Saudis who are making the most of social media to gain local and international support for their objectives.

For example, I know of one Saudi princess who is trying to set up a $1bn hedge fund with contributions from ultra-high net worth women. Its sole purpose is to promote business initiatives led by women.

She is leveraging her network to simultaneously promote female-run businesses and obtain wider social recognition of the important role that women want to play in Saudi Arabia's development from an oil-dependent desert kingdom to a thriving Middle Eastern commercial hub.

So while the challenges of ‘having it all’ are even more difficult for women in the Middle East, more and more female entrepreneurs are coming to the fore with ideas and looking collectively to support female entrepreneurship and take more control over their own individual wealth.

This is something I am increasingly seeing with my Muslim Gulf clients.

In a global context, the region is making progress with regards to gender equality and this is likely to lead to greater opportunities for legal advisers as they gain access to a growing new segment of Saudi professionals.

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