• Jenny Hunt

Experiences In Saudi As A Business Woman

10th November 2019

I prepared for my first ever trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with excitement and conservatism as I really wasn't sure what to expect and what my experiences as a business woman on my own in the country would be like. I went to Riyadh with an open mind, expecting the unexpected and I wasn't disappointed.


Saudi is making exciting changes

Saudi is going through some huge changes. It's masterminding not mega but giga projects to diversify away from its reliance upon oil. Just last month, Saudi opened its doors to tourism - previously only pilgrims embarking on Hajj and Umrah journeys had any experience of Saudi's tourism. The Kingdom has relaxed its rules on entertainment - cinemas are now popping up, concerts are being held and both women and men can enjoy sports at stadiums together. Women have been given the green light to drive and can also travel without permission now. These are just a few of the changes. The Saudi Vision 2030 is the goal and huge investment is supporting it.


To wear or not to wear the abaya?

Just before my trip to Riyadh it was announced that the Kingdom was open to tourism and visitors could apply for tourist visas. In addition, the abaya rule which was previously a must was dropped for foreign women providing they are dressed in 'modest clothing'.


As I was visiting for business I decided that it would be more appropriate to wear the abaya and have the sheyla covering my head. I didn't want to stand out like a sore thumb and I didn't want to risk offending anyone. No interpretation was given to explain 'modest clothing' so I chose to wear long trousers and a high buttoned shirt under my abayas.


On my flight, there were a couple of western ladies not wearing the abaya, but they did put a scarf over their heads upon arrival at the airport. A couple of Arab ladies were wearing abayas open and flowing and they too add sheylas when going into the airport, so I put on my sheyla before disembarking. All of the women I saw in the airport had their heads covered, so I was glad I chose to put the sheyla on.


When I ordered my Uber to take me to the hotel there was an option to add a message for the driver. Usually I would put something like "You can identify me easily as I am wearing..." I started to write my usual and added that I was wearing a black abaya. Something made me look up and I realised what a silly comment that would appear to the driver as the majority of the Arab ladies at the airport were wearing black abayas and sheylas.


At my hotel on the first morning for breakfast, I covered up and I was the only one. No other ladies had covered their heads. Some were wearing abayas. A few western ladies weren't. Some of the abayas were open. I really wasn't sure what to do as I had read conflicting media reports - one showing a lady striding defiantly down the road without an abaya and other describing one lady's experience of not being allowed into a shopping mall because she didn't have an abaya and being threated with them calling the police. So I decided that I would wear my abaya but just take the sheyla with me.


My experiences in the workplace were that the wearing of abayas was very relaxed - always some women with them and others without. Some women covering their heads and others not. Some women totally covered and others wearing their abayas open and flowing.


The Saudi welcome

The Saudis I met were all very welcoming and friendly. I kept hearing "Welcome to the Kingdom" said with so much pride. They seemed genuinely pleased for me to be visiting and wanted to help me in any way, answering my questions or offering to drive me to my next destination.


Open working environments

I was expecting to go into working environments and find the workforce segregated with women and men working in separate offices. I had a lot of business meetings lined up with men and I wondered how these would take place. The first organisation I went into was bright, modern and vibrant. It was full of people of different nationalities and men and women working, meeting and chatting together. It was not at all what I expected. There was also a real buzz and energy in the air. It was just like any other working environment I have ever been in to.


Getting around Riyadh

I generally used Uber to get around Riyadh. I had some fantastic conversations with my various drivers all of whom spoke great English apart from one, but that gave me the chance to practise my Arabic. They shared their experiences of living and working in the Kingdom. One story was particularly poignant - the Pakistani driver told me that he had been operating his own business several years before. The business was doing very well and making good money. Unfortunately, his Saudi partner took over completely and left him with nothing. He hadn't done his due diligence and he hadn't taken any measures to protect himself. This reinforced to me the importance of the type of service which Gateway provides: identifying risks and how to mitigate them and providing service solutions to ensure our foreign clients have full control of their businesses and retain their profits.


Given that Saudi women can now drive, I was really hoping to strike it lucky and meet a lady Uber driver so I could really get an insight into how she felt about all of the changes and the level of impact the changes have made on her lifestyle so far. Unfortunately, on this visit i didn't get to meet such a lady.


Everyone comments about Riyadh traffic. They aren't joking. Riyadh traffic is busy. Combine this with roads being closed and lanes disrupted for the construction of the Riyadh metro. Always allow longer than you anticipate for your journeys around the capital. I found that when I would check Google Maps for timings as I would book my Uber journeys, the journeys always took longer. However, as I moved around the city, it was inspiring to see infrastructure being developed and what looked like numerous buildings under construction and new hotels going up in anticipation of the future tourism.


A few differences between the UAE and Saudi

Similarly to being in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, the signage on the highways is in dual text (Arabic and English). However, I generally found a lot more general signs to be solely in Arabic and road signs for smaller roads to be only in Arabic too. Numbers are Arabic numbers and this is especially noticeable on the speed limit signs.


I also noticed that dates tended to follow the Hijri rather than the Gregorian calendar.


Muslims pray five times per day. As a business owner in the UAE it is mandatory to allow Muslim staff time off each day at prayer times. In Saudi I was informed that at prayer times everything shuts down for half an hour. For example if you are in a shop, the shutters will drop and you will be stuck in the shop - great if its a supermarket as you can do your weekly shopping and be ready to pay when the shutters go up again. However, this might not be so convenient in other situations so I was told to consider prayer timings when going anywhere to avoid getting stuck somewhere for 30 minutes. Fortunately, I didn't experience this.


When opening a business in Saudi, after appointing the General Manager it is necessary to employ a Saudi national. The national Saudization programme is strongly enforced. So I enquired about the type of roles and salaries that Saudis might be paid. I was informed that Saudis will take on all types of roles, they don't necessarily have to be managerial or highly paid roles. From my experience of working in the Emirates, Emirati nationals prefer administrative or managerial roles. Similarly, there is an Emiratisation programme in the UAE, but it is implemented in a totally different manner.


Conclusions

I was only in Riyadh for a few days. But my experiences were really positive. It was friendly and welcoming. I felt safe. Whilst I didn't need to wear the abaya, I felt more comfortable wearing it and actually enjoyed it - probably the novelty factor. It felt like there was a lot of optimism in the air and the progress being made was for the better. There are definitely opportunities here in abundance for those who are willing to make the effort to seek them out. However, I would suggest that anyone looking to do business in Saudi to allow time, have patience and be persistent in your pursuit to be successful.


Written by Jenny Hunt, Founding Partner & CEO

Gateway Group of Companies, Abu Dhabi & Dubai UAE

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