Saudi Arabia’s hosting of G20 meeting to put focus on women’s rights

New World Bank data shows Saudi Arabia making strides for economic freedom for women, but actual job creation will be ultimate benchmark.

Updated: February 23, 2020 - 11:02am

Hosting the G20 economic summit in its capital city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to showcase for the world’s most powerful finance ministers the recent gains made for women in the kingdom’s economy.

Once maligned for policies that kept women from driving or being hired in large numbers, the Saudis have secured some strong words of praise in recent weeks from the World Bank as well as U.S. presidential daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump.

Part of the impetus for that praise evolves around Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” plan that pledges to diversify the kingdom’s economy beyond oil and gas and increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent.

Last month, the World Bank Annual Report on Women, Business and the Law (WBL) declared Saudi Arabia had generated the “biggest improvement” among 190 countries surveyed over the last three years .

The WBL report tracks efforts to combat gender discrimination in laws and regulations related to labor, economic and business development and entrepreneurship. The kingdom received a perfect 100 score in the mobility, workplace, entrepreneurship and retirement measures.

That was followed last week by Ivanka Trump’s remarks to the Global Women’s Forum in Dubai, where she praised Saudi Arabia for changing laws to improve women’s mobility and access to financial services and credit, while citing improvements for women in business in Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia as well.

“Progress ultimately builds upon progress,” she said.

Earlier, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates committed $100 million to Ivanka Trump's women's empowerment fund.

Human rights advocates have even applauded some of the Saudis’ stated reforms and goals while cautioning much more progress is still required to bring gender equality to the kingdom.

The G20 summit this weekend will give world banking and finance ministers a chance to observe that progress up close and discuss the potential ripple effects throughout the region as well as highlight areas where more reform can be achieved.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is leading the US delegation, which must always balance US pressures to improve Saudi human rights against the kingdom’s substantial assistance on counterterrorism and security matters in the region.

While the Saudis are still feeling some Western pressures and fallout from the 2018 brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, they have also won praise for the rapid pace of social and economic change, as well as support for renewed peace efforts in the Middle East.

And their inaugural efforts to begin leveling the playing field for women in the Saudi economy is certain to be a topic at the summit.

Some of the changes since 2017 include:

  • The laws now protect Saudi women from all forms of employment discrimination, including prohibiting employers from dismissing a woman who is pregnant or on maternity leave.
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace has been declared a crime.
  • The retirement age for women and men is now the same (60), which allows women to work longer and earn more.
  • Financial service reforms have erased gender-based discrimination for business loans, so it is now much easier for women to start a business.
  • Women can also get a passport and travel for business (or pleasure), and live and work where they want, without the consent of a husband or male patriarch.

The reforms targeting women, while still early, are part of larger economic diversification efforts in Saudi Arabia that landed the kingdom in the top 10 ‘global business climate improvers,’ as described in a recent World Bank Group’s Doing Business 2020 report.

But all sides agree the progress made on women is still early and much more evidence and reform is needed in the months and years ahead. The most important evidence that outsiders will monitor is the pace of job growth and job opportunities for women.  

In the end, the Saudis will be required to show that they not only created an environment conducive for female employment but actually created those jobs for women.

It’s a topic Just the News will be monitoring with its reporting in the coming months.